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Home for Shabbat

May 9, 2009 | by Deena Yellin

Stranded in Milwaukee with nowhere to go. A true story.

As I settled into my seat on Flight 1272 bound for Chicago, I glanced at the passengers filing down the aisle. My Jew-radar immediately went off; in addition to the business travelers toting their laptops and briefcases and the pleasure travelers wearing shorts and Walkmans, I spied several kippot, a striemel (fur hat worn by some chassidim), and ankle-length skirts.

Despite our shared heritage, I didn't bother acknowledging them. They were strangers. And I live in New York, where strangers seldom exchange greetings, even if they recite the same prayers.

The plane rolled toward the runway and I waited for takeoff. No such luck. The pilot announced that the flight was being delayed three hours due to stormy weather conditions in Chicago.

I glanced at my watch nervously. Usually, I avoid flying Friday afternoons for fear I won't arrive in time, but on summer weekends when Shabbat doesn't begin until around 8 p.m., I figure I'm safe.

I figured wrong. With the clock ticking, and the plane not moving, I calculated that I could just make it if I didn't claim my luggage and jumped into a taxi. I turned around to check on my co-religionists. Two kippot were examining their watches. The chassid was on the airphone.

A half-hour before arrival, the pilot announced that O'Hare Airport was shut down and we were landing in Milwaukee until we could continue on. My stomach sunk. Candle-lighting was an hour away. I'd never make it on time. Like most observant Jews in the working world, I'd experienced my share of close calls. But I never knowingly violated the Shabbat. Now, I was stuck.

By now, the kippot and long skirts were huddled in the back of the plane. They had been joined by others. Shabbat was bringing strangers together.

It was time to introduce myself. "We're going to get off in Milwaukee," a young man told me. The chassid had called a Chabad rabbi in Milwaukee, who offered to host any stranded passengers for Shabbat. "Come with us," he urged. I nodded with relief but returned to my seat, crestfallen, since I had planned this weekend with my family for months.

Let me get this straight. You're getting off the plane to stay overnight with complete strangers?!

My non-Jewish seatmate, noticing my despair, inquired what was wrong. When I told him the story, his jaw dropped. "Let me get this straight," he said. "You're getting off the plane in a town where you've never been with, people you don't know, to stay overnight with complete strangers?!" For the first time that day, it occurred to me just how lucky I was.

When the plane landed, the pilot announced that we were disembarking for religious reasons. Passengers stared at us, dumbfounded.

My seatmate bid me farewell as if he didn't think I'd survive. But I quickly realized I was among friends. As I attempted to carry my bags off the plane, a woman insisted on helping me. When we crowded into cabs to take us to the rabbi's house, the chassid insisted on paying for me. And when the cabs pulled up at the rabbi's home, his family ran outside to greet us as if we were long-lost relatives.

As the sun began to set on Milwaukee they ushered us into their home, where a long table was set for Shabbat with white tablecloth, china and gleaming kiddush cups. When I lit the Shabbat candles, a wave of peace washed over me.

With all that had transpired, I was warmed by the notion that the world stops with the first flicker of the Shabbat lights. Over a traditional Shabbat feast, the rabbi enchanted us with tales of the Baal Shem Tov and informed us that our reroute to Milwaukee was not the world of weather but of Divine providence. We lingered over our meal, enjoying our spiritual sanctuary in time after the stressful day. Delightful zemirot (Shabbat songs) filled the room. We shared disappointments about our unexpected stopover. Most of the group was traveling to Chicago for their friend's wedding and were missing the preliminary celebrations. The chassid and his wife were missing a Bar Mitzvah.

We pondered the meaning of the departure from our journey and marveled at the coincidences. I had attended camp with my "roommate," a couple had conducted business with my father, a man had studied with my cousin, the chassid used to work in my hometown of Aurora, Illinois, and I had once spent Purim with my hosts' son.

We nicknamed ourselves the Milwaukee 15 and wondered if future generations would retell our story.

Exhausted as we were, everyone was hesitant to leave the table to go to sleep. The next morning a lively prayer service was followed by a leisurely meal where we exchanged stories about our lives, careers and dreams. We nicknamed ourselves the "Milwaukee 15" and wondered if future generations would retell the story of the flight that barely made it in time for candle-lighting.

Saturday night, we made a regretful journey back to the everyday world. But before we began the final leg of our journey, I called my husband to tell him all that had transpired. "Who did you spend Shabbat with?" he asked worriedly. I pondered how to explain who these former strangers were who had given me object lessons in Shabbat hospitality and in the power of Shabbat to bring Jews together.

And then, as swiftly as a 747 can leave the tarmac on a clear day, I realized the truth: miles away from my parents, husband and home, I had accomplished what I had first set out to do when I booked my ticket: I had spent Shabbat with family.

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