My evangelical Sukkot saviors
(RNS) — Every year as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot comes around, I remember Anthony.
The backstory’s backstory isn’t important, only the fact that the late afternoon before the onset of Sukkot in 2006, I found myself stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike with my 16-year-old son. As observant Jews, we would not be permitted by Jewish religious law to drive once the sun set. We had about an hour. That year, Sukkot fell on the Jewish Sabbath to boot.
I generally stay off highways — I try mightily to avoid cars altogether — in the hours before sundown of any Shabbat or Jewish holiday. But the family that had brought Dovie from Baltimore, where he was studying in a yeshiva, couldn’t make it to our house and called me to ask if I could pick him up at a motel in New Jersey. My paternal instinct — and my car — went into overdrive. I drove as, uh, efficiently as I could, trying to beat the sun.
And then, the traffic jam.
When I reached the motel, Dovie jumped in the car. We managed to make it to Staten Island, the borough of New York City where we live. But the sun’s sinking into the horizon couldn’t be denied. We veered onto a residential street, ditched our possessions in the car (the Sabbath laws prohibit carrying anything in a public area), got out and started walking.
We were some 10 miles from home but elated. We had made it onto the island before the Sabbath began. I wasn’t (and am not) in great physical shape but, thank God, can handle a few hours’ walk. And it was a glorious day, with a cool, clear night on the way.
So, after praying our heartfelt afternoon Mincha prayers, we proceeded to the median of the highway and started our trek.
After about 20 minutes’ walk — punctuated by the honks of drivers either amused or perturbed by the sight of a bearded man and a teenage boy walking where no one usually does — a car veered from the road and stopped on the median grass about 200 feet in front of us. A man emerged and walked toward us.
I’m not given to paranoia, but I have experienced hatred from strangers throughout my life. As a high schooler, my yeshiva classmates were playing baseball in an empty lot when some local kids challenged us to a game. All went well until the visiting team came to bat. They shunned the ball and used the bats on us.
Over the years, like many Jews who wear clothing items identifying them as such, I’ve experienced many less violent but no less absurd assaults, verbal but hateful all the same. I’ve had pennies cast and obscenities yelled at me from passing cars more times than I can remember. Not long ago, I was greeted by a group of youths on a bus with hearty “Heil Hitler”s and wild laughter. More recently a good number of my coreligionists in Brooklyn and elsewhere have repeatedly been the targets of violence.
Pardon me, then, if I was wary about the man approaching my son and me.
Even his smile could be interpreted in diametric ways. He was neatly dressed, though, and when he reached us, he introduced himself as Anthony and asked if we needed help.
I breathed a silent sigh of relief, explained our predicament and thanked him for his concern.
“Can I drive you home?” he asked.
I replied that on the Sabbath I couldn’t so much as open the door of his car.
“If I open it for you, can you be driven?”
“Are you Jewish?” I asked. It would be wrong for me to even cause another Jew to violate the Jewish Sabbath.
“No,” he said with a smile. “I’m a born-again Christian.”
His offer couldn’t be blithely refused. While Sabbath law didn’t permit me to ask someone to do something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, I hadn’t asked; he had offered. I analyzed other pertinent factors, including the fact that it was still twilight and that there was an element of danger — a mitigating factor — in walking on the pavement-less streets I knew lay ahead. “That is very kind of you,” I responded sincerely. “Where are you headed?”
He identified a location around halfway to our home. I gratefully accepted his offer. When we reached Anthony’s car, a young woman, whom he introduced as his fiancée, sat in the front passenger seat. If she had any concern about picking up two strangers, she didn’t show it.
Anthony and his future wife couldn’t have been nicer. I wondered if this Christian couple might take this opportunity to preach the Gospel, but our conversation was only about their upcoming wedding and world affairs. They made Dovie and me feel as if we were doing them a favor by allowing them to be our chauffeurs.
When we reached their destination, I thanked the couple for saving us miles of walking, but Anthony insisted on taking us all the way home. Anthony opened the door for us again, and we thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. When my wife and children, who had last heard from me when I was on the turnpike and had no idea where Dovie and I would be spending Shabbat (and the next day, the second day of Sukkot), saw us walk in the front door, they were shocked but overjoyed.
My story — a couple going the extra mile, and then some, to help two religious Jews — should be unremarkable. Unfortunately, as life has taught me, it’s not.
But such things do happen. I have been treated kindly by non-Jews and endeavored to treat all people with kindness. During the crazed period after Sept. 11, 2001, I made a point of going to my car mechanic, an Egyptian immigrant, to assure him of my friendship and, if necessary, protection.
No, I can’t echo Anne Frank’s famous diary words, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” (which, Dara Horn wryly noted, was written “three weeks before she met people who weren’t”).
But there are good people out there, of varied faiths and nationalities. And there is more to Anthony’s kindness than good manners. Reaching out to people from vastly different backgrounds reminds us of what should stand at the root of every faith. He accepted my son and me, odd though our religious restrictions must have seemed to him, and saw us not as marks but as fellow human beings in need of something he could provide. Religions may have different beliefs and particular practices, but that should not prevent any of us from being ready to recognize the value of others and to be ready to act on that fundamental fact.
And that’s something I will remember again this Sukkot, even 16 years later.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media, is a columnist for Ami Magazine and serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)