By Sara Yoheved Rigler
One Shabbat a young American student from the Hebrew University was among the 100 guests who crowded into the modest Jerusalem apartment of Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis. This student, wearing a nose ring and an eyebrow ring, was determined to undermine every word of Torah Rabbi Machlis tried to share with his guests. Every time Rabbi Machlis spoke, the student would yell out, “That’s stupid!” or “That’s archaic!” or he would laugh out loud.
The seemingly infinite patience of Rabbi Machlis almost gave out. He sat down and said to his wife, “That’s it. He’s just too disruptive.”
Henny encouraged her husband. “Ignore what he says. Don’t speak to him; speak to his neshama [soul].”
“Why do you have that dumb thing in your nose?” The student retorted, “Why do you have that dumb thing on your head?”
Mordechai somehow continued. At the end of the meal, the obnoxious student left. As he walked out the door, seven-year-old Moshe, one of the Machlises’ thirteen children, asked him, “Why do you have that dumb thing in your nose?”
The student retorted, “Why do you have that dumb thing on your head?”
Moshe answered: “Because I always have to know that there’s something above me and higher than me and better than me. Now why do you have that dumb thing in your nose?”
The student returned to his dorm room and wrote in his diary: “Just imagine-that little kid knows why he’s wearing a kipa, but I have no idea why I’m wearing a nose ring.”
Three days later he returned to the Machlises’ apartment, and announced, “I want to learn more about what it means to be a Jew. And I want to learn how to put on tefillin.”
THE LIGHT AND THE WARMTH
For more than two decades Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis have opened their home to an amazing assortment of Shabbat guests. Every week 60-100 guests show up for Friday night dinner, and an equal number for Shabbat lunch. Who comes? Travelers, yeshiva students, university students, the homeless, the mentally ill, Hadassah ladies, tourists, lost souls, U.J.A. mission visitors, new immigrants, drunkards, widows, orphans, Sar El volunteers for Israel, Birthright participants, and truth seekers.
While most of their guests are from English-speaking countries, the Machlis family has hosted people from every continent, and from countries as far away as Japan, China, and the Philippines.
Some people come hungry for food — the ample helpings of home-cooked gefilte fish, chicken soup, chicken with barbeque sauce, at least three kinds of kugel, an array of salads, vegetarian alternatives, and four kinds of cake. Of course, destitute souls could pick up food at a public soup kitchen, but what is Shabbat without Shabbat songs and words of Torah, which Rabbi Machlis provides as profusely as his wife’s cooking?
Some people come hungry for love and warmth. Two orphaned young women in their early twenties have an apartment and good jobs, but on Shabbat they miss the family atmosphere they once knew. A refined 67-year-old widow ate alone every Shabbat for five years after her husband died; her independent persona dissuaded her friends from inviting her. Now all three enjoy the palpable warmth of the Machlis table.
Some people come for the spiritual inspiration and unconditional acceptance Rabbi Machlis radiates. Religious and secular guests sit side-by-side, most wearing kipot, some opting not to. Most people say the appropriate blessings, often for the first time; some opt not to. Everyone is encouraged to say a few words, of introduction or wisdom or personal reflection. Everyone is lovingly received.
A smattering of gentiles, curious to experience a Jewish Sabbath, manage to find their way to the Machlis house on Shabbat.
“This is the first time I’m in a real Jewish home. I had no idea how beautiful Judaism is.”
Once a group of ten Mormons came for Shabbat. When it was their turn to speak, each one rose and politely thanked the Machlises for their hospitality. When the last Mormon — a young woman — rose to speak, she burst into tears. She finally managed to compose herself, and declared: “I’m Jewish. Both my parents are Jewish. This is the first time I’m in a real Jewish home. I had no idea how beautiful Judaism is.”
Once an American man in his early twenties partook of all the Shabbat meals at the Machlis home. At the end of Shabbat, he approached Rabbi Machlis and admitted that he was confused. Although his mother was born Jewish, she had raised him completely secular. In fact, he had become a born-again Christian, and had come to Israel with an Evangelical group in order to missionize the Jews. But what he had seen over Shabbat revealed that, contrary to what he had thought, Judaism was a vibrant, profound religion, full of love and compassion.
After a long conversation, he and Rabbi Machlis agreed that the young man would return with his whole Evangelical group the next day for lunch, and Rabbi Machlis would engage in a debate with the head of the group, who had a master’s degree in theology. If Rabbi Machlis’s arguments prevailed, the young man decided, he would enroll in a yeshiva to study Judaism; if his group leader won the debate, he would continue with his missionary activities.
Apparently Rabbi Machlis won, for the erstwhile missionary enrolled in yeshiva. The story did not end there, however. Several weeks later the fellow’s mother flew to Israel. She stormed into the Machlis home and accused them of kidnapping her son into a cult. He had written that he would not eat in her home unless she made her kitchen kosher!
Mordechai calmed her down and brokered a deal between her and the heads of her son’s yeshiva. Her son would return to America and study at a yeshiva close to home, on condition that she make her kitchen kosher.
Several years later, while attending a Torah class in New York, Henny ran into the young man, now sporting a beard. He told her that he was married, with two children, and that his mother also had become an observant Jew.
Sometimes Henny herself is surprised by the impact her home makes. One Rosh Hashanah, they had only 30 guests, including a young couple who had come to Israel for their honeymoon. The bride was an American reform Jew and the groom was a German gentile. The couple said very little, and seemed “pretty icy.” Two years later, the Machlises received a letter beginning, “You probably don’t remember us…” (Since there had been so few guests that Rosh Hashanah, Henny remembered them well.) The woman went on to write: “When we left your place, we said, ‘This is the kind of home we want to have — the light and the warmth and the children.’ I had never realized that there was anything more to being Jewish than what I grew up with. We started studying Torah. Then we started keeping Shabbat, then kashrut, then I started to go to the mikveh. We just want you to know that next week my husband will be undergoing an Orthodox conversion.”
ACTUALIZING THEIR IDEALS
Both Mordechai and Henny are Brooklyn born and bred. Both of their fathers were Orthodox rabbis. Mordechai, born in 1952, has rabbinic ordination, an M.A. in Jewish history, and is close to finishing his Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Mordechai is a much-loved rebbe and teacher in a men’s yeshiva, and also teaches Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan.
Henny, born in 1958, has a B.S. in education plus a Hebrew teaching degree from Yeshiva University and studied dietetics at Brooklyn College. She used to teach Jewish subjects in adult education. Since the birth of her sixth child, she is a full-time mother and homemaker.
The couple met in 1979 in New York. Shortly after they started seeing each other, it became clear that, as Henny says, “We both wanted to share the love and the joy and the beauty of Judaism, and to share Shabbat with everyone.”
The young couple wasted no time in actualizing their ideals. For the first three months after their wedding, they rented a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, so that they would have a room to accommodate homeless people. The very first Shabbat in their apartment, Mordechai brought home to his 21-year-old bride a mentally ill couple to sleep over and eat with them for Shabbat. This couple became regular guests for the whole period the newlyweds were in Brooklyn. Three months later, Mordechai and Henny actualized another cherished ideal. They moved to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Within a year, the Shabbat scene began. Mordechai prayed the Shabbat morning service at the Kotel. Walking through the Arab shuk on his way home, the 27-year-old Mordechai encountered a middle-aged Jewish woman, an American tourist. He invited her to come home with him for Shabbat lunch. “I’d love to,” she replied, “but I’m here with a few friends.”
When Mordechai crossed his threshold a short while later, he had 40 Hadassah ladies in tow.
“Bring them along,” Mordechai offered warmly. “There’s enough food for everyone.”
When Mordechai crossed his threshold a short while later, he had 40 Hadassah ladies in tow. Henny amiably cut up the gefilte fish into paper-thin portions. Impressed by the 22-year-old Henny’s warmth and hospitality, the middle-aged women kept saying to her, “You remind me of my grandmother.”
Another Shabbat both Mordechai and Henny were walking home from the Kotel. In the shuk, they met a doctor from Holland who was in Israel for a laser convention. They invited him home for Shabbat lunch. After Mordechai made Kiddush, he passed small cups of grape juice around to his guests. The Dutch doctor’s hands were shaking so much that he could not grasp his cup. Finally, in an impassioned voice, he declared: “This is my first Jewish experience. Both my parents are Jewish, and Holocaust survivors. They would not let any Judaism into our home at all. Even when my son was born, they insisted that we not circumcise him. When I get back to Holland, I’m going to start studying about my Jewish roots.”
Within two or three years of their marriage, the Machlises were hosting 20-30 guests at each Shabbat meal. From there, “it just grew. We bought another table, and filled it. We just kept adding tables.”
Ninety people fit tightly into the Machlises’ book-lined living room. The two sofas and the imitation Oriental rug, the only furnishings in the room during the week, are moved out for Shabbat. The overflow of guests sits in the fiberglass-roofed courtyard. When the guests exceed even the courtyard — as they often do, depending on the season — they sit in the small kitchen or at the tables set up outside the front door of the garden apartment. Henny’s dream is to have the money to expand the living room, so everyone can sit together comfortably.
SHOES IN THE WINDSHIELD
The Machlises’ hospitality is not reserved for Shabbat. Rare are the days when needy persons are not sleeping in the Machlises’ extra beds, or on their two couches, or on the rug in the living room. Every night one, two, or three men, too drunk or crazy to want to sleep inside the house, sleep in the Machlises’ van. When Mordechai leaves for work in the morning, he can tell how many “van guests” he has by how many pairs of shoes he sees in the front windshield.
Once a drunk Russian immigrant in his early fifties came for Shabbat dinner. When everyone else had left, the Machlises discovered this man asleep on the floor. He woke up, vomited, and was invited to sleep on the couch. He stayed for a few months, during which time he gave up alcohol cold turkey. When he started to suffer withdrawal symptoms, Henny, alarmed, called up specialists to make sure it was safe for him. Eventually, they found him a job and an apartment.
Mordechai and Henny’s ingenuous, non-judgmental acceptance makes them a magnet for troubled people. One day an American man, disheveled and emotionally distraught, came to their house. He told them he had no money, no place to live, and no food. So, as usual, they invited him to stay with them. Then he told them a story that was hard to believe. He claimed that he was a prominent attorney, a graduate of a prestigious law school, and that he was being pursued in the United States by certain people who had grievances against him related to his law practice. He said that he had fled to Israel a few days before with nothing but the shirt on his back, but that he owned a large house in New Jersey filled with his valuable possessions.
Since the man was an emotional wreck, anyone else would have dismissed his claims as wild ravings. Henny and Mordechai gave him the benefit of the doubt. They asked friends in America to check out his story.
It turned out that it was all true — including the house in New Jersey. These friends, granted power of attorney, managed over a period of months to sell the house, pack up all of its contents, and send them to him in Israel. Today the attorney is successfully practicing law in Israel. He is happily married and owns a large apartment in Jerusalem.
Often during the week destitute people pop into the Machlis home and ask if they can help themselves to staples from the kitchen shelves. The answer is always, “yes.” A fortune of tuna fish and canned vegetables disappears this way.
In addition to the Machlises’ 13 children, Mordechai and Henny have scores of spiritual progeny — couples who have found each other at the Machlis home or people who have been inspired to become observant by the Machlises’ example. When these people have no money to pay the rent or buy food, whom do they turn to? Their spiritual parents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Machlis, of course!
The massive Shabbat meals cost the Machlises at least $2,000 a week. Where does the money come from?
The Machlises live frugally, and over the years have borrowed enough money to finance their Shabbat project. Now, however, they are facing a financial crunch which puts the future of their Shabbat hospitality in jeopardy. Their apartment already mortgaged to the hilt and the coffers of a charitable fund set up to help pay for the food now empty, the Machlises are hoping desperately for donors to come forward and join them in their undertaking.
The specter of abandoning a project which feeds so many hungry people at a time when more Israelis than ever are in need fills Henny with apprehension. Where will the orphans, the widows, the mentally ill, and the homeless who have become regulars at the Machlis table go? Readers who want to take part in this huge mitzvah can make a contribution (which is tax deductible in the United States) to: American Friends of Hesed L’Orchim, 552 E. 5th St., Brooklyn, NY 11218.
May the light of the Machlis Shabbat table never be extinguished.