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The Shabbat Meal that Rocked My World

December 31, 2020 | by Jody Berkel

Sometimes small acts have huge outcomes. I know. My life's trajectory was changed by one.

I was lying in bed in December, 2010 when I felt my heart beating in a way that I had never felt before. As quickly as it started, it stopped. But then a few minutes later it happened again: my heart was beating as if I had just run a 100-meter dash or finished a high-energy aerobics class. But I wasn’t running or exercising; I was lying in my bed! Yet I felt my heart was literally beating out of my chest.

And then, just like before, after a few minutes my heart went back to beating regularly. This continued into the evening. Realizing that something was wrong, I drove to the closest hospital to check it out. They immediately hooked me up to an electrocardiogram (ECG), which checks how your heart is functioning by measuring its electrical activity. After being hooked up for 10 minutes, the technician came in and said, "Everything looks normal, go home."

Because the irregular beating wasn't consistent, the first ECG didn't catch it and they sent me home. The next morning, I could barely walk up the stairs. My husband immediately drove me to the hospital and this time the ECG did catch the irregular heartbeat. Turns out I was experiencing something called atrial fibrillation (AFib), and the first question the doctor asked me was, "This is very uncommon for someone your age. Are you currently taking drugs like cocaine?"

He can’t be serious, I thought to myself. "No, I'm not taking any drugs," I replied.

"Are you sure? Because it’s quite rare to see someone your age with these symptoms, other than someone who has a drug addiction."

After finally accepting that I was an anomaly, and the fact that there was inconsistency with the AFib, the doctor gave me a requisition for an appointment with a cardiologist and a recommendation to come back if I feel unwell again.

Not long after, a third trip to the Emergency was in order where they immediately connected me to the ECG which once again didn't catch the AFib. I was sent into the emergency waiting room where I waited for over 2.5 hours. Finally fed up, I approached the nurse and said, “Something is very wrong with my heart and I need to be hooked up to a machine right away!” A room somehow magically opened up and the nurse hooked me up to the machine. The moment she took her hands off the electrodes, the alarm for CODE BLUE began to sound throughout the emergency room! Doctors flew into my room to see the heartrate monitor read over 160.

I spent the next week in the hospital and ran through a gamut of tests, including being awake while a camera was lowered down my throat to see my heart. The most frightening day occurred when a nurse rushed me to have a CT scan because the doctors were worried I had a blood clot. Even though speaking to God at that time in my life wasn't something I was comfortable with, my first words out of my mouth were, “Please God, I have two children who need me! Pease, please let me be okay!”

Thank God no blood clot, and after a myriad of tests, doctors had no explanation as to why I was experiencing AFib. I was sent home on a Friday evening with medication and continued cardiac care. When my husband and I walked into our home we saw an unfamiliar sight. Foil containers covered the counter. I peeked into one and saw roast chicken. I slowly lifted the lid of another – green beans in soya sauce. A third – roasted potatoes. Beside them sat four beautiful challahs, grape juice, and brownies for dessert.

"Where did this come from?“ I asked my mom who was home watching the kids.

"One of the teachers from Presley’s school dropped it off for you,” she replied.

“Presley’s teacher?”

“No, another teacher from the school.”

It was as if the words of the Torah lifted off the pages and were brought to life, my life. Something so heavenly was brought down to earth and made deeply personal.

The tears immediately began to flow. A stranger did this for me? I thought to myself. I was completely dumbfounded. I had never experienced anything like this in my life. I couldn’t stop crying. Who does this? What type of people drop off a meal to someone they barely know? Turns out it was Rebbetzin Esther Gitlin, of Chabad of Markham in Toronto, who made this Shabbat dinner for our family.

At that time I had already been attending many Torah classes and learning a lot about Judaism, but I wasn't yet ready to actually start practicing and increase my observance. At that moment, seeing this breathtaking act of kindness, it was as if the words of the Torah lifted off the pages and were brought to life, my life. Something so heavenly was brought down to earth and made deeply personal. God wasn’t "out there"; He was right here with us, revealed in the world by the actions of caring individuals. Standing there in my kitchen, I knew this is who I wanted to be when I grow up.

Rebbetzin Gitlin's kindness enhanced my interest to grow Jewishly, to learn more, and most importantly start doing. I always had a desire to make the world a better place, only now I made the connection that this was a deeply Jewish act, the God-given mission of the Jewish people. "Olam chessed yibaneh – the world is built on loving kindness" became my personal mantra. I began taking every opportunity I could to get my family involved in volunteering in my community, to give back.

We wrapped gifts for children fighting illness; we baked challah for the elderly; we raised money for Israel, baked sandwiches for the homeless, made muffins and cards for fire-fighters and made meals for people in need. One of the most memorable experiences was going as a community of Chabad of Markham to visit a number of homeless shelters in Toronto. We delivered hats, gloves, scarves and hot chocolate. As I handed winter hats to a family who were living at the shelter, I realized that it’s not our job to understand why bad things happen to good people, it’s our job to help when bad things happen to good people.

Over the years, a dream was building inside me, a dream of bringing women together to create a sisterhood of kindness.  Just prior to Covid, I brought my dream of bringing women together to give back to fruition. Through NCSY, I created a program called Live2Give Moms where we partner with different organizations each month and volunteer our time, our money and our heart. This has been such a labour of love for me and has brought my personal passion to my professional life.

Over the years, many people have asked me the reason for our family’s embrace of Torah Judaism. I often share with them it was through our gratitude to God for all the blessings in our life that was the catalyst for this change in our lives. We fell in love with the beauty and depth of our heritage. But truth be told, the reason is far more simple than this. The reason is kindness.

You see, when Rebbetzin Esther Gitlin made that Shabbat meal for our family, she set in motion a trajectory for me that looking back I could have never anticipated. It's been over 10 years since that Shabbat meal, and all my volunteer work that I have merited to do stems from the one act of kindness. There is a concept in Judaism called mitzvah goreret mitvah, one mitzvah leads to another. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the ripples go on and on. This mitzvah changed my life, and in turn, has given me the opportunity to touch the lives of so many others. My gratitude for this knows no end.

People think it takes a lot to change the world. It doesn’t. We don't need to redeem the whole world all at once. As I repeatedly learned from Rabbi Sacks zt”l, “We heal the fractures of the world, one day at a time, one person at a time, one act at a time. A single life, said the sages, is like a universe. Save a life and you save a world. Change a life and you begin to change the world.”

We are here to make a difference, to take our experiences and use them in service of others. Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation. Just as Rebbetzin Gitlin responded when she had heard that a mom of one of the students was hospitalized and took action, so too, I keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities to reach out to those in need and use my God-given abilities to make the world a better place.

Our actions affect those around us in immeasurable ways. I do not know why God sent me this trial with my heart, but I do know that there is meaning to be found in every experience in life. Perhaps the lesson is that the greatest distance is the distance between the head and the heart, and when we put what we learn into action, our ability to touch the lives of those around us takes form. As Rebbetzin Dena Weinberg says, "Torah is not education; it's transformation."

Sometimes embracing a challenge can launch us to greater heights far beyond what we thought was possible. Our actions make a difference, sometimes all the difference in the world.

Dedicated to the incredible Rebbetzins, Rabbis and teachers at Chabad of Markham, who have shaped my life in ways I would have never imagined. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 


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