What would you do if this happened to you? It's a few days before Yom Kippur, and you've gone out of town to visit non-religious friends. While there, you get sick. You're in no condition to travel home, and you don't want to spend Yom Kippur with your friends because they do not observe it. What do you do?
How about this one? You've driven a long distance for a job interview, and you're on your way home. On Thursday night, your car breaks down. You will be stuck in a town for Shabbos where nobody knows you. What do you do?
Both of these incidents happened to friends of mine. And in both cases, the solutions were the same. They relied on the kindness of strangers.
In the first instance, my friend assumed that she would have to stay at her irreligious friends' house for Yom Kippur and fast and pray alone. Because she had not planned to be there, she had not brought along her English prayer book, and began to search for one in the nearby vicinity. Her host had a religious sister living in another city, and my friend suggested they call her for help. As it turned out, a good friend of hers grew up near to where my friend was staying, and with a few short phone calls, my friend had more than a prayer book; she was expected in an hour for the meal preceding the fast, would have a room to spend the night, and a seat reserved for her in the local synagogue.
My friend's Yom Kippur hosts treated her wonderfully. In addition to hosting her at the eleventh hour, they brought an English prayer book to synagogue especially for her, and knowing she was unwell, her hostess kept an eye on her and suggested she lie down whenever the fast looked like it was affecting her too strongly. The chain of acquaintance that brought her all this - she was staying at her friend's sister's friend's parents' home - may seem convoluted, but it is through chains like these that Jews help other Jews in need.
The second instance happened to two brothers I know. They had prepared for such an emergency; among the things they packed was a book called The Jewish Traveler, which lists synagogues, kosher restaurants, and mikvahs across the United States. Thus, when their car broke down in Chattanooga, TN, all they had to do was to look up the nearest synagogue and call it.
The rabbi of the town was as responsive to their needs as one Jew should be to another. The brothers stayed in his home that Thursday night and Shabbos, and the rabbi arranged for them to have one of the Shabbos meals at the home of another family. The brothers were able to return the mitzvah with another mitzvah; they were part of the Thursday night minyan, and the younger brother conducted the Torah reading for the Shabbos morning services.
What would have happened if they had been too shy to ask for help? They would have had to spend Shabbos in a motel room, quite likely without enough to eat, and certainly without the delicacies that Jews traditionally serve to honor Shabbos. Although they had not intended to spend Shabbos so far from home, the kindness of fellow Jews made it the best Shabbos possible under the circumstances.
This level of openness occurs at all times in Jewish life, not just in emergency situations. I personally know dozens of families who host guests every Shabbos. For many of them, having five or more guests for a meal is standard practice, and I have heard of people who have up to forty guests every week. Pirkei Avos or "The Sayings of the Fathers" tells us, "Let your house be open wide (Avos 1:5)." Jews across the world excel at this.
We Jews inherit our penchant for hospitality from our forefather Abraham, who spread monotheism chiefly by having people as guests in his home. After he provided for their every need, he would teach them to thank the One Creator, the True Provider and Sustainer of life (Bereishis Rabba 49:7).
As the children of Abraham, we are supposed to emulate our forefather's righteous behavior. Since Abraham taught Judaism by bringing people into his home, most Orthodox Jews strive to do the same. This is why beginners are often the most cherished guests of all. It is by hosting them that we can come closest to Abraham's achievements.
For people who want to get a true taste of Orthodox Judaism, getting to know people in the natural settings of their homes is essential. Shabbos meals are ideal opportunities for that, and I can assure you, you will be more than welcome.
Most Orthodox synagogues have committees for "Shabbos hospitality," so a phone call requesting it will almost always bring positive results. You can use the links I have listed below to locate a synagogue near your home. If it is not within walking distance, call the synagogue in advance and ask for overnight accommodations. If you have special dietary needs (e.g. vegetarian, diabetic, etc.), make them known, and if this is a relatively new experience for you, be certain to mention that you are a beginner. You may also want to read my husband's article, "Your First Visit to a Synagogue."
If you are not Jewish, but are thinking of converting, you must also make that known. Since Judaism does not actively seek converts, finding a place will be harder for you. I recommend the Chozrim list, an online support group for converts and converts-in-process. The people there have had similar experiences and will undoubtedly have advice for you.
If for any reason, your search does not work, email me. I will do my utmost to find you a host. And if Rockland County, New York is a possibility for you, come spend Shabbos with my family!
If you are a Shabbos observer, and would like to volunteer to be a host, or know people who might, please email me with addresses and phone numbers. I am compiling a database for this project, and I need as many connections as I can get. As the Midrash teaches us, "the guest does more for the host than the host does for the guest (Midrash Rus Rabba 5:9)." As much as beginners can gain from the experience you give them, you will gain more for having given it.
Shabbat Hospitality Worldwide
Worldwide Orthodox Synagogue Network
The Chabad-Lubavitch Worldwide Directory