Over the years, hundreds of young people stayed in our home for Shabbatot or holidays, but one young woman remained vivid in my memory. Unceremoniously, we called her “The Girl in the Bomb Shelter.” A cousin to a visiting yeshiva boy, Taryn appeared in the middle of the night. Apparently, halfway through a teen-tour, she’d had a falling out and was told that if she could find a safe place until her parent-approved flight departed, she could go.
A cab dropped her off at midnight and I had no space for this bedraggled, dread-locked girl. With my own children, a nephew and two lone-soldiers sleeping, I tossed a futon into the overstuffed safe-room. She seemed content to sleep among cartons of Passover dishes, duffel bags filled with clothing for charity, gas-masks and shelves that groaned beneath obsolete textbooks and broken fans.
Nightly, she pulled shut the weighty door of the airless shelter and emerged only after we’d been up for hours. Showing no signs of leaving, the Girl-in-the-Bomb-Shelter even added a few personal items to the family shopping list. Saying little, she conveyed views of Judaism and Jewish identity that were at odds with our Orthodox lifestyle. We invited her to come to synagogue and loaned her a skirt. She was respectful and seemed to enjoy the services. Eventually, she left for America.
She returned seven years later to teach English in a poor southern community. I’d seen on Facebook that she was active in streams of Judaism that make me uncomfortable and I did not reach out to her. Still, she called several times and we finally met for dinner.
I almost choked on a falefal ball when she said that I was the reason she’d returned to Israel. “You told me that it was alright if I accidentally turned off the light on Shabbos or put a dish in the wrong sink. Until then, I’d felt like an outsider when I wanted ‘in.’” The Jewish groups that welcomed her with open arms did not provide her with the spirituality she yearned for; they seemed to celebrate every exception and none of the rules she ached to know. Still, I felt ashamed by an awareness that my Orthodox synagogue offered no warm-and-fuzzy greetings to outsiders. Refreshingly free of egoism and a truth-seeker to her core, she remembered that she trusted me and was determined to stay in touch.
If not for her tenacious spirit, Taryn’s quest for authenticity might have waned and died. We decided to learn together in the remaining weeks of her stay. Consequently, I relearned much of what I’d loved on my own journey toward Torah observance.
What events potentially result in self-exploration and a deeper excursion toward discovering our eternal birthright? Can a comment uttered in passing alter a life? Perhaps no more is needed than a word, a meal, an open house or a forgiving heart.
Then, again, maybe it just takes a bed in the bomb shelter. . .
New York-born Andrea Simantov is a mother of six who moved to Jerusalem in 1995. She frequently lectures on the complexity and magic of life in Jerusalem and can be contacted at email@example.com.