When Chana Lipsker moved from London to Reading, Pa., as the wife of a Chabad rabbi, she knew she would be opening her home to community members every Friday night for Shabbat dinner.
What she didn’t know was that every week she would also host between 10 and 15 recovering drug addicts — and often their families — while providing a nonjudgmental ear along with her homemade challa.
“People say I’m making Thanksgiving once a week,” said Chana, who is also the mother of nine children, ages 1 to 18.
What began 10 years ago as an informal visit to a Jewish patient at the nearby Caron Treatment Center, who randomly had called Rabbi Yosef Lipsker looking for help, has turned into a decade of connections to hundreds of Jewish people in recovery.
In 1999, Rabbi Lipsker got a call from a 60-year-old man at Caron, “who needed to cry on someone’s shoulder. He needed to talk to someone,” Lipsker said. “He had called all the synagogues in the area, and I was the only one that answered the phone.”
Lipsker went to visit him, and the man related his life story, including incidences of verbal and sexual abuse as a child.
“It had an effect on me,” Lipsker said. “And once we made the connection, I saw there were other Jewish people there. I was walking down the hall, and another guy called out to me, ‘Hey, rabbi! Can you talk to me, too?’”
Although Lipsker had no specific plan to get involved with the Jewish patients at Caron, he just found himself doing it.
“I kept visiting,” he said. “It started slow, and then it just exploded.”
When an Orthodox rabbi from the Midwest ended up in recovery at Caron, Lipsker invited him to his home for havdala. He had to obtain special permission for the visit, but once he did, two other patients asked if they could come as well.
“Then I thought I could invite them once a month for Shabbos dinner,” Lipsker said.
The monthly dinner schedule was short-lived, though, as the patients craved the spirituality and human connection provided by Lipsker and his family more often.
“Now we have them every Shabbos,” Lipsker said.
Chana prepares all the meals herself, without help, including many loaves of homemade challa.
“If you add up between 15 and 20 people a week, that’s about 1,000 dinners a year my wife prepares,” Lipsker said.
Everyone at the table has a chance to introduce his or himself and share their story, a common feature of gatherings in the recovery community. Even the Lipsker children are asked to say a few words.
“There is nothing in the 12-step program that conflicts with Judaism,” Lipsker said. “It’s very apropos with Jewish thought.
It’s a labor of love for my entire family,” he continued. “We feel honored to be part of this mitzva, because we see the difference we’re making in these people’s lives. We give them comfort, hope and direction they didn’t have before.”
The Lipskers have learned to look at someone in recovery beyond his addictions, and to see the person inside.
“I look at the people at my house just like myself,” Lipsker said. “I could be in their shoes. Something just went wrong.”
The Lipskers’ weekly Friday night guests have also taught their children to see beyond the exterior of a soul.
“We don’t judge people,” said 16-year-old Zeldi Lipsker. “We realize everyone’s a person, no matter what they do. At the dinner table, we get to know them as people. They’re just regular people. And they get to come to a regular house, with regular people.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)