| Calligraphy |

Numbers Game

I want to tell him it’s impossible, our largest event drew what, 30, 40, do we even know 100 students, but something stops me

I want to sue the person who came up with this crazy idea.

Oh. Oh, right.

It was me.

What on earth had I been thinking? To offer to host a mega barbeque three days — three days — after moving in?

“How’s it going?” Akiva comes in through the back door. “Wanna pass me the trays of chicken?”

How is he so calm?

I stand in the middle of the kitchen and run frantically through the list: Make salad dressing, set out paper goods, make sure the kids are still occupied with coloring books and not destroying anything, put on sheitel….

I step outside. Hopefully the weather will hold. Our backup plan is to eat in the dining room, but I have no interest in a gaggle of college students traipsing through the kitchen and partying in the only clean area in the whole house.

“How many are we expecting?” I ask Akiva.

“I think we’ll get a nice bunch, the students I spoke to today were pretty excited,” he says, grabbing a napkin. “Really smart idea, to invite them all over here. I spoke to a lot of students, got their numbers so I could reach out again, but you know how it goes, a lot of them shy away from rabbis, so advertising a welcome barbeque was a good call. They’ll come for the steak.”

“You don’t look like a rabbi,” I remark, nodding at his polo shirt and chinos.

He touches his yarmulke. “Dead giveaway. Plus I eat kosher, like, all the time. One of the girls I spoke to today couldn’t believe that. Even out of the house, she double-checked.”

We laugh, but it’s not really funny.

And even though we’ve prepped for this for two years at an intensive kiruv-training kollel, weekly classes for women included, it’s no match for seeing the sad results of assimilation up-close.

Akiva flips the chicken while I get busy setting the folding tables.

“You think I should set up inside as well? The sky looks iffy.”

Akiva looks up, considering. “Probably. Thanks, Tamar, it looks great.”

It does look pretty good. I’d spent a while debating tablescapes and color schemes, but decided to go traditional with red-checkered tablecloths and woodsy paper goods. These are college students from who knows where; they aren’t expecting elegant tablescapes. The food — grilled chicken, chicken wings, hot poppers, fries and onion rings and grilled corn and lettuce salad, and, of course, the steak — is the important part.

There is a lot of food. I hope the students show. And I hope they’re hungry.

I snap a bunch of pictures and post a couple of them to our group chat — Bagels n Coffee, it’s called, since coffee dates and bagel brunches are supposedly the bread-and-butter of student recruitment.

Change our name to Steak n Fries? I write, with a winking emoji.

I wait a moment for replies, but no one seems to be around. There are six of us on the chat, all newly active on college campuses, so I guess everyone’s as busy — and overwhelmed — as I am.

Akiva’s stressing now about the food. “I forgot, we need a vegan option, remember what they told us, expect ten percent vegans when you host….”

“At a barbecue? Seriously, I doubt any vegans will show up. We’re practically a poultry assassination party,” I point out.

“True,” he concedes.

“Besides,” I remind him. “The party is called for seven, and it’s 6:58 right now. So unless you know of a recipe that takes under 120 seconds….”

“Forget it! Forget it. They can have the salad,” he says, throwing up his hands in mock surrender.

“And the fries. Don’t forget those.” I strike a pose and affect a terrible French accent. “Let zem eat fries!”

We’re still laughing when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of our very first guests, just as the first droplets of rain fall.


I don’t see my phone until six hours later, the barbeque over and the house in an even worse state than it was before. It hadn’t taken long for the droplets to turn into an end-of-summer downpour, and we’d spent the first few minutes of the party hastily rearranging everything indoors — thank goodness the food was all cooked.

Now, the baby’s sleeping and no one else is, which means she’ll wake up as soon as I’ve finally, finally cleaned up and settled the others.

Ruti’s whining, Tova’s covered in ketchup, and I just hope that Chaim’s with Akiva because he’s certainly not with me.

I lift a stack of foil pans off a chair, look around the kitchen swimming in post-party debris, and put the pans back down again. Forget sitting down, I’ll check my phone leaning against the wall.

The chat has blown up in my absence.

I scroll up, suddenly eager. What did they think of our grand event? The setup, the décor, the food?

Did they all realize I’d moved only three days ago?

Nice! Sarala had written.

Wow was Michal’s contribution.

After that, Chevy had posted a bunch of pictures. I hit download, and regret it a moment later.

Her pictures are gorgeous. Sparkly, silvery pink everything. Nail lamps and gel polishes and soft cream towels. Side tables with delicate finger food: miniatures and fruit cups and pink and purple meringues.

Girls’ night out, she’d written. Spa and refreshments and getting-to-know-you.

Another picture shows the room — wait, a room or a marquee? — full of college students, some having their nails done, others eating and laughing, and a group in the middle striking silly poses for the camera.

Major turnout!! BH!!

I hit the back arrow, and the sparkly pictures subside into small icons in the chat. A flurry of replies follow Chevy’s posts, omigosh, this is insaaaaane, Chevy you are UNREAL….

Chevy’s reacted with heart-emojis to all of it.

Awww thanks! Boys night tomorrow, and I’m literally collapsing. Wish me luck!

A series of cute little good luck messages followed, right on cue.

Chevy, give us tips, you literally just moved, HOW are you doing this?

Sarala’s posted a voicenote; I press play without thinking.

“Okay, I don’t have time to type, but this is seriously something else, Chev. I just wanna give a little chizuk to all of us who aren’t hosting mega awesome events like Chevy and Tamar, seriously, even if all you’re doing is manning the chaos on your own while your husband goes tabling on campus, it’s MORE THAN ENOUGH and YOU ARE AWESOME!”

It’s nice of her to mention me. I guess.

But after that, the conversation is diverted, turning into a top-this series of horror stories.

Nava arrived in her new home to find it overrun with mice.

Shuli’s electricity blows every time she tries turning on the oven.

Michal posted a desperate plea for sanity — her childcare plan fell through, and there’s no spot anywhere for her one-year-old twins.

I try to feel grateful that all I have to deal with is a wreck of a kitchen, an upside-down living room, and a bunch of overtired, overstimulated kids.

But instead I just feel… deflated. Empty.

Akiva staggers into the kitchen, two overstuffed garbage bags in his hands. Chaim follows, swinging an empty glass beer bottle.

“Careful, Chaim! Hey, Tamar. Great event, no?”

It hurts to smile. I guess I’m tired.

“Yeah. How many students showed in the end?”

Akiva wrinkles his brow. “Around 18, 20? The main thing is, six of them signed up for the learning program. And another few more are considering it, I have their numbers, I’ll reach out next week.”

Twenty students.

I scroll back up to Chevy’s pictures. At least 25 faces, and that’s girls only.

Next to her grand, glittering spa event, 20 students feels paltry, laughable.

“Thanks for doing this, Tam. I feel like it really started the year with a bang, gave us a head start in getting to know the students.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I say.

“Maybe we should invite a few of them for Shabbos. Keep the momentum going. What do you say?” he asks as he heaves the bags out the back door.

I don’t answer.


Half a dozen black boxes flicker to life on the screen. It’s time for our monthly Zoom meetup with Rebbetzin Breisch, who ran the kollel’s women’s training program.

Chevy’s microphone is off, but her camera’s on, and her head is half-turned away from us. Nava is sitting in a perfectly neat room — well, corner, at least — with a painting of a sunset behind her, headset firmly over her ears. Shuli’s fussing with something — is she making cookies? Sarala’s internet is choppy, she keeps disappearing. And Michal doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.

The box labelled Kollel Oheiv Shalom — Women’s Group springs to life, and a turbaned woman beams at us.

“Welcome, ladies! It’s so, so good to see you all here,” Rebbetzin Breisch says warmly. “The last time we met, you were here with us in person… and now, it’s so special, seeing you all on camera from your new homes, across the United States—”

“Don’t forget us in England!” Shuli calls. She’s slid the pan in the oven and is now sitting, fully focused on the screen.

“England, too, of course,” Rebbetzin B. says smoothly. “It’s beautiful, thinking of how we worked toward this, learned together, role-played and trained, and now you’re out there doing it: planting seeds, impacting lives.”

I think about what I’ve done so far in the kiruv realm: cooked and hosted one event, chitchatted with a couple of students Akiva brought home the other evening. He’s the one on the ground, really. I’ve barely done anything.

Impacting lives. Whatever.

Rebbetzin B. continues, she’s saying something about the importance of staying connected, of continuing to learn and grow ourselves.

Chevy raises her hand like she’s in a classroom, unmutes her microphone. “We actually do that already. We have a WhatsApp chat where we post what we’re doing, give each other ideas and chizuk.”

Rebbetzin Breisch smiles even wider. I want to roll my eyes. Chizuk, ha. More like an inferiority complex. Chevy’s hosted major Shabbos meals like, at least twice, besides for the girls- and boys-welcome nights. (Obviously, the boys had a completely different theme, décor, menu. No spas or sparkly unicorns in sight.)

I’m not the only one struggling to keep up with Chevy, but Shuli and her husband have shared a bunch of awesome stories already, Nava and her husband got a special mention on the worldwide Mekoros email group for signing up the most students in one week, and even Michal is somehow managing to juggle her twins, home, and hosting meals while her husband runs around campus, recruiting students.

“…before that, I thought we’d start with sharing some positive experiences we’ve had so far,” Rebbetzin Breisch says. “Tamar, how about you start?”


“Uh, um, can someone else go first?” I stutter.

“I’ll go,” Sarala offers. “I’m not sure if this is the kind of story you mean, but a couple weeks ago we hosted a group of students. And this girl, I offered her Shabbos candles to light and walked her through the whole thing… and she literally started to cry. She said she remembered her grandmother lighting candles.

“Anyway, after Shabbos I ordered these crystal tea-light holders, and I bought tea-lights and matches, and I gave her this whole package together with a calendar of hadlakas neiros times. She’s lighting them every week now.”

There’s a collective round of applause.

“Isn’t that just so special?” Rebbetzin Breisch enthuses.

Chevy goes next, and I tune out, desperately digging through my memory to figure out what, exactly, I’m going to share.

Akiva’s been busy, sure, meeting students for coffee, trying to make connections, get them to sign up to learn more. But it’s so… unglamorous. Nothing special. And honestly, not much to do with me.

When it’s my turn to speak, I mumble something about the welcome barbecue, how six students signed up for the learning program. Rebbetzin Breisch lights up at that, she seems to think it’s really amazing, and everyone’s nodding along, but all I can think of is the lackluster response our event received on the chat, and the fact that Nava had close to a hundred sign-ups, according to that honorable mention email.


We have five students for the Friday night meal, which is the perfect number to put me in a bad mood, because it’s not small enough to get personal, but it’s nowhere near large enough to have something to talk about on the chat, or anywhere really.

It’s enough to mean that I’m cooking more than double what I usually cook for Shabbos, but not big enough to order catered food or do a very basic menu because, you know, there are 70 people here, what were you expecting.

And to top it all off, when we’re finally done and I just want to read a magazine on the couch, one of the girls is still hanging around, not saying much, just kind of following me from dining room to kitchen and back again.

Okay, so maybe I am going to get that cozy-and-personal time in the end. I guess it’s a good thing.

I drop onto the couch and the girl — I think her name is Kaitlyn — cups her chin in her hands and gazes at the candles.

Something stirs inside me.

Forget the guests and the mess and the chat; this is what it’s all about. This is why Akiva and I left our Ramat Eshkol rental and our friends and neighbors and moved, not back near our families, but out in the boondocks of frum civilization — to touch lives, to awaken souls.

I can already picture the girl in front of me, bleached blonde hair tucked out of sight under a headscarf, her sleeveless top and jeans replaced with a tzanua outfit… and as she lights the candles, children tugging at her skirt, she thinks of us, this meal, the home where it all began.

But I can’t push, I know I can’t. I need to let her come to it on her own.

Step one, get acquainted.

“So, remind me what you’re studying again?” I ask.

“Marketing and psychology,” she replies, distracted. I wonder what she’s thinking. If she’s remembering a grandmother who lit candles Friday night, if she’s wishing for this warmth and holiness in her own future home.

“That sounds interesting,” I offer.

She tears her eyes from the candles. “What? Oh, yeah, the degree. Gosh, I was spacing. Sorry. Anyway, it is interesting, like the science behind marketing, understanding the principles behind persuasion….”


We could do with some of this training, how to engage students through solid marketing strategy. Get them to want to sign up, attend, join.

An idea sparks in my mind. If I can get Kaitlyn on board, an advisor of sorts, we’d get better marketing for our events, and she’ll get to be a real part of our kiruv efforts. And if she’s part of it, surely she’ll grow along the way….

“Akiva,” I tell him later — much later, it’s past midnight when Kaitlyn leaves, after a discourse on marketing strategy that leaves my head buzzing. “I have an idea.”


“Tam, you ready?” Akiva bounds inside, a case of beer under one arm. He’s launching a learning club tonight, and I’m making tacos.

I look around at the kitchen: the meat, sizzling, starting to burn at the edges, Mexican rice simmering beside it, salad half-tossed. My heart flutters. Is every event going to do this to my nerves?

“Yup,” I say.

As I lay out the platters a few minutes later, I think about how the pictures we post show the perfect end results but so, so little of what really goes on.

Taco night to introduce new learning club for the guys, I post. Okay, tacos are not that special, but it’s a random Wednesday night and I feel good, see, I have it all together, too.

Wow! How many ppl?

Idk, cooked for thirtyish, let’s see, I write back.

Nava: Good luck @Tamar! We have a bunch of students over for supper, too, let’s compare notes after!

It’s a few minutes past the hour, whew, made it. Wait, water, I need to put out something to drink. I fill a couple of pretty jugs and place stacks of plastic cups beside them. Akiva will take care of the beer.

“Wow, looks amazing.” Akiva appears at the door.

“Thanks.” I bite my lip; it’s almost ten past seven. “Do they… do you know how many students are coming?”

Learning Club is Akiva’s idea; he invited a bunch of the students he’d gotten to know to a Wednesday night discussion on topics related to the parshah. This week is Chayei Sarah, he’s talking about dating and marriage through the Torah perspective. Intriguing enough, we figured, should spark some interest, some debate.

“I was on campus today, invited a bunch of guys, messaged them all to remind them.” Akiva sounds chilled; he doesn’t seem to worry about things like numbers. At least not like I do. “Mark said he’s coming, probably with friends, and another guy, Ethan, who’s part of the main learning program. I invited about thirty guys and told them to bring friends, so there should be a nice crowd.”

I look at the clock again. Now it’s 7:15.

The doorbell rings.

“Here they are,” Akiva says.

Two students straggle in.

“Hey, Rabbi.”

“Oh, we’re not late?”

Another ring on the doorbell, another two.

“Ethan! You made it. And Mark, great to see you.”

I have to hand it to Akiva. He sounds warm and exuberant and natural, as though four at a table set for 30 is absolutely perfect.

“Yeah, thanks, Rabbi. I was going to bring friends, but none of them could make it. You know, lots going on.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Akiva says. “Take a seat, enjoy, my wife’s tacos are out of this world.”

Mark starts filling a plate appreciatively, but Ethan passes on the meat. “I’m vegetarian, I’ll stick with the — this Mexican rice or something?”

Oh please, just eat the food.

Akiva starts to speak, but even from the kitchen, where I’ve escaped to the dishes, I can hear it’s not going well. It’s too quiet. No one seems to have anything to say, no questions to ask.

Half an hour later, there’s shuffling of chairs. “Sorry we can’t stay longer, Rabbi.” Mark — the spokesperson, apparently — sounds genuinely apologetic. “Going out for drinks….”

I wait until the door closes. “Akiva?” I call.

“Just a second,” I hear him say. “Tamar? Ethan’s here, we’re learning a little together. That okay?”

One guy.

I set this all up for one student.

And this one guy is probably going to hang around for hours now, so we don’t even get to lick our wounds in privacy.

I think of the pictures I posted to the chat, taco night, 30 people… I’m mortified just envisioning what their reactions would be if they knew. Never mind that, they’ll never know. Not if I can help it.

Silently, I start to clear the platters: taco meat, salad bowls, an untouched serving dish of cold Mexican rice.

My phone beeps. Three messages in a row from Nava on the Bagels chat.

How’d it go, @Tamar?

Just sneaking out of the dining room, it’s loooouuudd in there. Someone brought up vegetarianism and animal rights and boy is it getting heated!

Don’t worry, schnitzel platters almost empty.

Shuli reacts with a cry-from-laughter emoji.

I exit WhatsApp feeling sick.

How is everyone else drawing huge crowds, sparking conversation and debate — and my husband is sitting at a table groaning with food with a grand total of one student?

Akiva and Ethan wrap up a while later. I busy myself at the sink when my husband comes in; I can’t bear to see the failure on his face.

“Nice kid,” Akiva says, breaking the silence. He heaps saucy rice into a bowl and makes a brachah.

“It’s cold,” I protest.

“Who cares, it’s amazing as it is,” Akiva says, laughing. “Besides, I’m hungry.”

“Let me microwave it for you at least,” I say.

“Thanks, Tamar. Really great food.”

I give a half-hearted smile. “Yeah. Shame it all went to waste.”

“Not a waste,” Akiva corrected. “Four guys learning for half an hour, that’s not nothing. And then Ethan — he’s so sincere, he kept thanking me, he just wants to learn more and more. We’re going to continue next week.”

One guy. One guy, after defrosting and sauteing all that meat, dicing all those onions, an entire bag of rice—

“We shouldn’t have done it on a Wednesday. Apparently it’s a major clubbing night,” Akiva continues, ruefully. “I think I’ll change it to Tuesday and have a chavrusa with Ethan Wednesday evening instead.”

I can’t believe he’s talking about this like it’s normal. Like it’s just the way it goes, you cook for 30 people and four show up. And three of those four leave early.

This definitely never happened at one of Chevy’s events.

Akiva piles more rice onto his plate. “Listen, about your idea, that girl helping us with marketing….”

I’m not interested in marketing, in events, in Kaitlyn or Ethan or any of them.

“Do whatever you think,” I tell him, wearily. “I’m just… too tired to think about it.”


But of course, we signed up for this, so I’m hosting again for Shabbos a couple of weeks later. Kaitlyn arrives on Friday afternoon, staying until Motzaei Shabbos, the only one who took us up on that offer. We have a big meal planned — eight, maybe ten students — and I think Akiva’s a little disappointed that Ethan’s not coming. He’s been hoping to introduce Ethan and Kaitlyn. Our two most promising students. Wouldn’t that be cute?

I picture posting it on the chat — none of the others have a hybrid shidduch/kiruv success story to their credit yet. Or better yet, someday in one of those True Stories in the magazines: I met my husband, Eitan — then Ethan — when we were in college together, both discovering Yiddishkeit at the home of our wonderful mentors, Akiva and Tamar Friedler —  or would they call us Rabbi and Rebbetzin?

“Tamar? Someone’s crying,” Kaitlyn says, stepping into the kitchen and smoothing her mini skirt. Progress, progress. Right?

My daydreams dissolve. I abandon the sushi salad I’m preparing and head for the stairs just as a loud shriek, followed by a wail, emanates from the girls’ room.

“What happened?”

Chaim stands in the doorway, looking mutinous. Ruti is crumpled on the floor, wailing. Tova huddles in the corner, protecting her dollies from disaster.

“Chaim’s hurting us!” Ruti sobs, sitting up.

“They’re making noise and I can’t read,” Chaim retorts quickly. “And I told them to be quiet and they just made more noise—”

“Tamar?” It’s Kaitlyn, oh no, what now? Why’d she follow me up the stairs? “The baby’s crying. Should I bring her to you?”

While I half-turn towards her, Chaim aims a kick at Ruti. “Chaim — no! Ruti, come to me. Tova—” my three-year-old Princess Justice darts over to hit her (much older, much stronger, much bigger) brother.

Bad move, kid,” I mutter, as I manhandle Chaim out the room. “Chaim, come downstairs, sit with Mommy on the couch, we’ll keep it quiet so you can read. Come on. Want an extra Shabbos treat?” This last, in utter desperation. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be bribing him like this, but desperate times, desperate measures, and I just need to get back to meal prep.

I hand him a bag of Bissli, give Gaily a bottle, and send Kaitlyn up to the girls with lollipops. How long do I have until Akiva gets home? Until the rest of the students arrive?

Kaitlyn returns and sits on a barstool, watching me work. I should probably be smiling serenely, but it’s all l can do not to grit my teeth.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Kaitlyn says. She’s playing with her blond braid. “So many responsibilities. So many rules and restrictions. Do this, don’t do that, this prayer, that holiday. It’s like, so intense, every single day.”

I stop slicing. Is this the conversation? Is this where it happens — she asks questions, I provide brilliant, insightful answers, and her life is changed forever?

“I mean, you know I love hanging out here, Tamar,” Kaitlyn says, contemplatively. “It’s, like, a normal home. Good food. You know.”

I do know, I know about Kaitlyn’s difficult childhood, the father who abandoned the family, the overworked single mother who was emotionally fragile.

“But, like, your life is so hard,” she continues. “I could never do it, be religious like you guys. I mean, my mom could barely make Thanksgiving dinner once a year and you do way more than that every week. And you have so many kids. I — it’s just like, draining, you know?”

So many? I have four kids. Should I tell her my best friend from high school has six? Or that I grew up one of nine?

“It can be tiring,” I say carefully. “But it’s also… rewarding. There’s so much joy in what we do. Making Shabbos. Raising a family.”

I think of the kids fighting upstairs. I think she’s thinking of that too, because she lifts an eyebrow.

“It’s not… glamorous, maybe,” I say. “But I believe, I know, that life is about more than glamor, than having fun or just taking care of myself. What we do — taking care of our families, making Shabbos, hosting, doing kindness with others — it’s the right thing. And that’s a greater joy than what might be exciting or fun in the moment.”

I like that answer; it sounds right for a kiruv professional.

But something’s going wrong; she’s meant to be blown away by my quiet confidence, my answers, my sincerity. Instead Kaitlyn shakes her head.

“I’m all for doing the right thing, morally speaking. But this… All of this” — she waves her hand, encompassing the chaos, the sinks full of dishes before the meal’s even started, and Chaim, digging through my candy stash for another lollipop while the baby starts to wail again — “this is just too much for me.”

“There are hard moments, for sure,” I say. “But it’s worth it. It really is.” I try to sound empathic, but somehow it comes off sounding… hollow, like I’ve memorized the lines. Does she think I sound uncertain, like I’m trying too hard?

She shrugs. “Whatever, we can agree to disagree. I’m hungry. You think the men will be home soon?”

And just like that, the daydreams are over.


As winter wanes, Akiva gets busier.

“Kivs? You working?”

My husband looks up from the computer. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. I’m working on that stuff, you know, your idea….”

“My idea?” I’m lost.

“The marketing campaign. I had a meeting the other day, Kaitlyn and some of her friends who are studying marketing psychology. They gave me a crash course.” He laughs. “Anyway, I actually got them on board, we’re working on something for Pesach–”

I groan out loud. Akiva looks surprised, then chagrined. “Whoops. I guess I shouldn’t mention the P-word.”

“Before Tu B’Shevat? Nope. You shouldn’t.”

“So back to marketing,” Akiva says. “It’s a process. I’m trying to get students involved, following us on social media, you know, general interest, and then we’re going to create a persuasive campaign to get them to come for the Seder. We can make it a really captivating event too, the story of the Hagaddah, the Four Cups, the songs, the Makkos…. I’m trying to involve the students who are already learning, make it theirs, you know?”

I really can’t think about Pesach now.

“How about you do the Seder, and I stick to cleaning the house?” I suggest, only half seriously.

“Hey, that works,” he says, and a moment later, he’s immersed in his screen again.


At some point, even I can’t deny that Pesach is coming.

I take a break from deep-cleaning the pantry to heat up some leftovers for supper. I’ve abandoned my phone for the past couple hours. I open it, just to skim, post a reaction or two so my friends know I’m alive, but regret it instantly when I hear a ping.

Tamaaaar! Where’ve you been?

Hey hey the busiest Rebbetzin in the States has joined the conversation!

I can’t do this.

Playing the part on the group chat, putting on the show again and again, love-the-job, all-amazing, see-my-incredible-tablescape, the pictures, the reactions, saying the right thing at the right time, it’s a game and I… I can’t anymore.

I exit the chat, and see that Sarala has sent a private message. Tamar? U there? Need 2 talk.

What’s up with Sarala? Happy-go-lucky, cheering-everyone-on Sarala, with her candle-lighting student….

I stand there, looking at her message, until the microwave beeps and I snap back to reality.


It’s around a million hours later when I finally get to speak to Sarala. I’m not even looking at the time anymore, just my shmatteh and Windex and the to-do list on the fridge.

“I’m done,” Sarala tells me.

“Done what? Pesach cleaning? I’m jealous.”

“Ha, ha. No, not done Pesach cleaning, I wish. I’m done, as in finished, I wanna quit.”

“Quit?” My mind catches up. “Wait, the job? You’re quitting the college campus?”

Sarala makes a strangled sound. “Why do you sound so shocked? Or do you also find it a walk in the—”

Not,” I interrupt. “Not a walk in the park, no way. But you… I thought—” Images dance across my memory. “Didn’t you have that story, the girl who started lighting Shabbos candles?”

Sarala gives a bitter laugh. “Yeah, one story. We’ve had hundreds of guests. Most of them never came back.”

“That’s normal,” I say cautiously. “Isn’t it? I mean, I don’t think we’ve even had a hundred different guests altogether, but it’s not — it’s not a numbers game.” Hypocrite. Like you don’t count, calculate, compare. Ugh, how did our idealistic kiruv dreams become this?

“I know, I know, we say that, but c’mon at the end of the day, the numbers are what people care about,” Sarala retorts. “How many students did you recruit to the learning program. The Israel trip. How many students became frum.

“The programs, the people who pay us, they care about numbers. And mine… they just don’t add up. The amount of work we do, and the tiny results we get….”

I close my eyes, try to marshal my thoughts. There’s so much wrong with what she’s saying. But there’s also so much that feels true.

“It’s something tangible,” I say, eventually. “Numbers. Facts. Stats. So we use them to assess, quantify, where we’re going. But really… really,” I swallow, look at my phone, think of the messages and pictures and the bad feelings I’ve struggled with all year. “Really, it’s not a numbers game. It’s not about numbers at all.”

“My husband says that all the time,” Sarala says with a sigh. “Who knows the power of one soul, one mitzvah. We’re just planting seeds. But is it so bad to say that I just want to see the results already? To know all my hard work is accomplishing something?”

She’s right and she’s wrong and also, so am I.

Because results — numbers, comparisons, the fanciest pictures or the largest events — should never have been the goal.

They can’t be.

I think of my conversation with Kaitlyn, the conversation-gone-awry, my dejection when I realized she wasn’t on the fast-track to frumkeit, that I didn’t have all the magical answers. How I’d told her it isn’t about glamor or what feels good, our task is to simply do the right thing, and how true, inner joy comes from doing just that….

“Sarala,” I say. “Don’t leave the job. Leave the chat.”


I don’t get to speak to Sarala again before Yom Tov. As Rosh Chodesh passes, two weeks to go, then one, the cleaning, the kashering, the kids, everything is happening simultaneously. Menu planned, ready to start the cooking marathon, I watch as Akiva lugs in cases of wine and boxes of matzah and more chicken, more meat, more and more and more potatoes —

“Are you sure this isn’t too much?” I ask him, doubtfully. “How many are we having for the Seder, already?”

His eyes sparkle. “A hundred,” he says.

I stop short. “A hundred.”

Yes,” he says firmly.

I want to tell him it’s impossible, our largest event drew what, 30, 40, do we even know 100 students, but something stops me.

Maybe it’s my conversation with Sarala, just do, the results are not in our hands, maybe it’s the excitement in his eyes. I won’t be the one to extinguish it with doubts and questions and what-ifs.

So I don’t.

I don’t even ask where we’re going to put all these people.

I just cook. And cook. And cook and package and label and freeze and clean and defrost and cook and cook again—

And suddenly it’s Erev Pesach afternoon, the faint smell of smoke wafting in from the backyard, where Akiva and the kids burned the chometz, and Akiva’s outside and there’s noise and voices and what on earth?

I wipe my hands on a towel — why am I still cooking? — and hurry outside.

Chaim and the girls are standing, enthralled, and Akiva is directing a bunch of men who are putting up a huge tent in our backyard.

“Akiva,” I stutter, and he turns to me, smiling bright as the early spring sunlight.

“Surprise,” he says. “I wanted to surprise you. We have too many sign-ups to fit in our house, even with the extra tables and chairs and moving the sofa. I rented this tent, and we’re going to make the Seder out here.”

“Too many…?”

He nods. “Look at the sign-up page.”

We have a shared spreadsheet; the sign-up form for events goes straight there. I hadn’t even checked the Seder numbers. Numbers, they don’t feel good to me these days.

Jacky Lewis

Marilyn Piller

Matt Jackson

Samantha Gibson

Mitchell Cahn

And on.

And on.

And on.

Over a hundred names.

I look back up at Akiva. “But… but how?”

He grins at me. “It was your idea. The marketing campaign. We got the students involved, gave out freebies, sent a personal invite to everyone on the email list. Kaitlyn and her friends helped. There are lots of Jewish students we hadn’t reached before, and they, well, I guess they liked this way of doing things.”

“Wow,” I say. “Just… wow.”

A few of the students arrive to set the tables — another one of Akiva’s brainstorms. I don’t even know what’s happening out there until the kids dance inside, trailing leftover paper goods.

“Mommy, come!” Chaim tugs at me. Ruti and Tova dance around him. “Look at the tables, they’re all ready!”

I step into the backyard — or rather, into the huge tent, now transformed. Tables set in a U-shape, tablecloths and paper goods and napkins folded in fancy shapes.

It looks magnificent. I can’t believe this is ours.

“Hey, Tamar. You like?” Kaitlyn comes over, beaming. She’s wearing a new dress, this one almost to her knees.

“I like?” Realization dawns. “Oh, the tables? Omigosh, it looks gorgeous. I love the color theme.”

“So we were actually going to go with blues, because spirituality, you know? The brand archetype. But then we thought, really, it’s all about connection. A sense of belonging. So that’s where the purple came in. And then it sort of morphed into rose shades, with—”

I’m not following at all, but the words — spirituality, connection — they make me realize that maybe people are drawn to our events for different reasons, and that’s okay. Kaitlyn comes for the connection, for the stability, and maybe someday, something will resonate, and her life will change. Or maybe it won’t. But for now, she’s here, and one Seder, one mitzvah, one night with an impact that will echo forever — who can say how much that’s worth?

Peace settles over me like the softest cloak against the late afternoon breeze.

I lift my phone and zoom out, so the whole, beautiful scene rests in the palm of my hand. I click, once, twice. Finally, finally, I have something to be proud of. To share.

It’s not about the glamor, I hear an echo of myself telling Kaitlyn. But still, but still….

One hundred sign-ups. A huge Seder. Many students who never attended a Seder before.

The chat is busy, even at this late hour; I’m surprised to see Sarala, perky as ever, posting her Yom Tov menu. Why? Didn’t we say…?

My finger hesitates over the Send button.

The stunning tables, the huge turnout we’re expecting… not a numbers game… the power of one person, one mitzvah… one choice.

I take a deep breath. And I power off my phone.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)

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