Today I lost a friend, someone who was initially my adversary.
Chava Leah Bas Feivel returned her soul to her maker. I miss her already.
Our unlikely friendship began five years ago. We were preparing to move into a new home. Right away there was tension and I had not yet even met my new neighbor. She kept calling the police and the building inspector to say our grass wasn’t cut short enough or often enough. Or maybe a soda can was left by the painters in the driveway. Everyday was a new summons and a new nightmare. Was this how everyone was welcomed to the neighborhood?
"We are not happy with the orthodox taking over the block. We are reform Jews. Don’t even think of trying to influence us!”
Come moving day, my new next door neighbor, a woman in her mid-70s introduced herself. “Hi I’m your neighbor, we are not happy with the orthodox taking over the block. We are reform Jews. Don’t even think of trying to influence us!”
She left me with my jaw still on the floor. “Hi… I guess.”
That was just the beginning. The police were called regularly if a ball rolled into her yard. So the kids had to play on the street. Well wouldn’t you know it, there is a long lost, rarely enforced ordinance that ball playing on the street is not allowed in my New Jersey town. Guess who made sure it was enforced now?
We lived in constant fear of this woman, never knowing what tomorrow would bring.
My husband, who is a lot nicer and more level headed than me, came up with a strategy for defense: let's overwhelm her with kindness!
You're kidding, I thought.
"Send her Shabbos flowers," my husband suggested, "but have them delivered because if she catches you on her property…"
Any how we sent her Purim shalach manos, invited her to our daughter's wedding and our son's bar mitzvah celebration. She had never attended orthodox celebrations before and she had so many questions, needed so many answers. She was so taken by the meaning of it all, how everything had significance. She was moved by how Judaism was a way of life for us, in our celebrations, our mourning, even our rituals upon waking up.
Shortly after, she fell ill. She left a message on our answering machine, "I'm sick in the hospital, don’t really know who else to call, thought you may want to come visit."
Really? You want me… to visit you?
And so I did. I went to visit her a few times until she returned home.
While in the hospital, the Jewish chaplain left several books on my neighbor's bedside on various topics on Judaism. Some were complex and she asked me to explain these concepts to her.
Once she returned home I would try to go over each day to bring some meals and provide some good cheer, but she wanted me to explain to her the concepts in these books.
It came to the point that if I was not able to make it one day, there was a message on my answering machine, “Where are you? I need my fix of Torah.”
“Where are you? I need my fix of Torah.”
We learned the weekly Torah portion and the wonderful lessons gleaned, we discussed the purpose of life, the soul after death, the reasons for certain mitzvot, studied the meanings of various prayers, about the holidays, and any questions that came to her mind.
As she recovered we had her and her husband over for Shabbos meals. "Your children sit with you at the table for three hours every week?" she asked in astonishment. "They sing and laugh together every week? Your six-year-old knows the parsha each week?"
I explained that the secret is the Shabbos itself.
My neighbor became a regular at our home every Friday night, on time to light the Shabbos candles with me and to study the weekly Torah portion.
I would take her to various Torah classes in the neighborhood that I thought would be of interest to her.
She would often come to sit in my kitchen on a Thursday to smell and taste the food being prepared for Shabbos as we discussed all kinds of philosophical concepts.
My new friend left no stone unturned, never had a question she didn’t ask.
The police were never again called and my children became her “adopted grandchildren.”
“So, what is your daughter wearing for Shabbos this week?, Isn’t your son graduating high school this month? Isn’t the older one ready for a shidduch soon?”
This is the story of my friend who spoke with God each day. My friend who sought out to help others. To cheer up everyone she met, to enlighten them by urging them to consider the higher purpose for which they were created.
My friend who got sick and told me she sees the hand of God is with her every moment.
My friend who got sick and could not hold on any longer.
We said the Shema together when she could barely speak anymore.
My friend, I will miss your messages on my machine and joining us on Friday nights.
You studied so hard to make up for all the years you did not know. And now you know. Now it's all clear to you.
I will cherish all the times you challenged me to become a better version of myself. To study harder, to prepare more, to do more research to quench your thirst for yiddishkeit.
When we started you didn’t understand that the end of this life is the beginning of something on an even higher realm. Now you know.
My dear reader, perhaps you have a neighbor, a co-worker or relative who seems antagonistic toward Judaism and observant Jews. They may actually be calling out to you. They may see the beauty in the life you lead and yearn for it too.
See past their anger and sarcasm. Reach out to them.
May this be a merit for the neshama of Chava Leah Bas Feivel