About an hour or so before Shabbat arrives, there’s a set of loud, repetitive knocks on my door. On the other side stands a mostly toothless woman, often carrying the overwhelming scent of the unbathed. I smile, stretch out my arms and give her a hug, just as I would any visiting friend.

My disabled neighbor and I have shared our Shabbat ritualI don’t quite remember how we established our tradition for eight years now. She comes to light the candles and have a snack of potato kugel with tuna salad or chicken. But mostly, she comes for the company. For reassurance. For friendship.

“Hi, Bubby,” says Esther, who is now 75. She stands outside our galley kitchen as I finish my Shabbat preparations and points to her hipbone. “I feel something hard here. Am I in trouble? I didn’t get my electric bill. Are they going to shut off my electricity?” And her most common question: “When I rub my eyes, they make a funny sound. Am I going blind?”

Each week, Esther voices the aforementioned concerns and many others that deeply tug on her. My answers are also almost always the same. “Don’t worry. You’re just fine.” That’s really all she wants to hear. “Thank you,” she says, as she waddles off toward the living-room couch.

I first met Esther about 10 years ago, when my husband and I moved to a co-op building. After cornering me several times in the lobby with her litany of worries—nearly blocking my path to the mailbox—I, like many of my neighbors, learned to veer around the corner, undetected. But one Friday evening, when I opened the door, there stood my upstairs neighbor, her hair disheveled, her face almost screaming with loneliness.

“Can I sit wit’ you, just for a little while?” Esther asked in a pleading tone. “I have nobody.”

That night I invited her inside to light the candles. I don’t quite remember how we established our tradition of weekly Friday-evening visits, but establish them we did. In fact, for several years, Esther joined us at our table each Friday we were home. That is, until my husband suggested (not unkindly) that perhaps the best time for a visit was when he was still in shul.

While I soon became her “best” (only) friend, I volunteered for that role out of a sense of duty. As an observant Jew, I try to “love my neighbor as myself” and to “gladden the heart of the unfortunate.” Frankly, I couldn’t think of anyone this applied to more clearly and directly than Esther.

The fact was, Esther, who suffered from mental problems, was desperately lonely. Her mother, with whom she shared a studio apartment, passed away nearly 20 years ago. Afterwards, there was little that frightened Esther more than the thought of “being put in a home.” Her sister had her remain in the apartment, and monitored Esther’s care. After her own home was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, her sister relocated out of state, closer to her children. Esther, who now has a social worker monitoring her care, has been attending an adult day program four days a week. But that still leaves her ample time to wander the halls, knocking on doors, looking for company. In addition to my Jewish obligation, with so many doors remaining closed to her, I simply didn’t have the heart to close mine.

Yet when I hear that knock on the door, I often have to force a grimace into a smile, especially those weeks when I’m feeling worn out or behind schedule. Over the years, I’ve grown relatively adept at playing the role of friend, listening to Esther’s concerns and reassuring her, and then diverting the conversation away from her worries and towards talk of neighborhood events. She also enjoys hearing news about my family: my son’s new job, my mom’s and husband’s health, and my brother’s girlfriend. She listens intently, giving me the sense that my family has become her family, too. Still, there are always many trying elements to the visits, which, in truth, never made my list of favorite ways to bring in Shabbat.

Then something shifted. Not feeling well, I opted to cancel our weekly Shabbat get-together. To my surprise, I felt a deep sense of loneliness while lightingI’ve grown adept at playing the role of friend the candles. Even more, for the first time (ever!) I forgot the words of the prayer without Esther to join me in lighting the candles. Having the time to relax quietly on the couch afterwards held little charm. In fact, I felt a void that didn’t seem to come simply from a change in routine.

It was then I realized that perhaps I was no longer “playing friend.” We had become friends in the process. The true friendship I grew to feel for Esther was a natural outcome of having behaved in a loving and welcoming way, regardless of any other feelings. Esther must have sensed my emotional shift because she became more relaxed in my presence, making it easier to sense her neshamah–the soul that had been occluded by her mental problems.

Each week now, just before Esther leaves, she says: “Bye, Bubby. Love you.”

And the words, “I love you, too,” arise seamlessly from my mouth in return.