by Gabriella Davidson, alumna of Masa Israel’s Bar Ilan Israel Experience
It was a Friday night and I was sitting in a home in Jerusalem surrounded by over two hundred different kinds of people. There were seminary girls, Asian men, hippies, black hatters, Christians, Israelis, non-practicing Jews, poor and wealthy, yet I have never before felt more united with a group of strangers.
At the time, I was studying abroad at Bar Ilan University. During the week, I engaged in studies right outside Tel Aviv and over the weekend, I liked to spend Shabbat traveling to different communities throughout country. Other international students shared the names of excellent host families, and people consistently mentioned Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis, who opened up their home to complete strangers for Shabbat meals at no cost. Apparently, there was nothing like the “Machlis Experience.” So one Friday night, I finally decided to experience it for myself and my friend and I made our way to 137/26 Maalot Dafna, Jerusalem.
It was the Friday night before Pesach, one of the busiest Shabbats of the year in Israel when we arrived at a modest apartment jam packed with guests. Not only were the guests seated against the sefarim (Jewish books)-lined walls, but they were even spilling out onto the doorstep. We were debating whether or not to leave, when suddenly a woman greeted us excitedly. “Shabbat shalom!” she said, kindly leading us through an obstacle course to their tiny kitchen where chairs and a table were set for us.
It took me a few moments to process the beautiful sight taking place before our eyes. As the diverse group of guests patiently engaged in conversations, while waiting for the meal to start, the Machlis children joyously set dishes on each table. Not only did they serve a delicious three-course meal, but they also made sure to welcome and talk to each of their guests, showing a genuine interest in their lives.
At one point during dinner, while the hot soup was being served, all of the lights went out. Sitting in a pitch-black room with complete strangers, I expected people to experience a state of panic. Instead, numerous non-Jews exclaimed that they were gentiles and would be happy to turn the lights back on. Mrs. Machlis smiled at her girls and told her guests that they were G-d sent.
Seated in the kitchen was like having a backstage pass to the “Machlis Experience” and my friend and I decided to take advantage of our VIP seating. We learned that Rabbi and Mrs. Machlis began hosting people for Shabbat when they first got married and gradually it turned into what it has become today. For 30 years, they have hosted these meals every Shabbat, with the exception of two Shabbats out of the year. I was astonished, considering the fact that they have been blessed with 14 children.
“Did you take a couple of months off after each child was born?” I asked.
Mrs. Machlis looked at me in surprise. “Why would we need to take a break? I would be with my baby for the first two Shabbats in my room…and then I’d come back out!” I felt so inspired by her continued devotion to these acts of altruism.
Not only was Mrs. Machlis an excellent cook, but she was an inspiring speaker as well. In the middle of the meal, she announced that because her husband was out of town, she would share words of Torah with everyone. She delivered a beautiful speech filled with words to which all of her guests could relate.
At the end of the night, my friend and I thanked the Machlis family and started walking back to my friend’s dorm, completely speechless for the first ten minutes. As cheesy as it may sound, I truly believe that G-d sent the Machlis family into this world to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world and touching the lives of complete strangers. EVERYONE is welcomed into their home, regardless of their race, religion, or social status. In our society, it is typical that when you invite a family over for a Shabbat meal, they will likely reciprocate. However, the Machlis family is the exception: they endlessly give and expect nothing in return.
All my life I have learned about the great mitzvot of hachnassat orachim (hospitality) and tikkun olam, as seen through Avraham. I was lucky enough to witness them firsthand in the Machlis’s home.