My husband, Baruch, and I decided that now was the time. We would become full-time pioneers of travel! We would go wherever the wind took us, exploring and anticipating the next great adventure.

So, we proceeded to liquidate our possessions, including a house in suburbia, for a classic, 27-foot Airstream travel trailer. We had entered our retirement years and were excited to take full advantage of this new season of freedom. Leaving Seattle behind, weWe would become full-time pioneers of travel traveled to the Southern California coast. After tedious research, we finally found a quaint mobile home park in Long Beach which had been operating since the 1930s. We felt very fortunate that they had room for us since most of California hasn’t embraced the likes of RV’ers. We expected to stay just long enough to visit family, then move on with our traveling adventures.

What we did not realize, however, was the need to assist in the caregiving needs of my mother, who then was in her late 80s and showing significant signs of dementia. And so, we willingly made the decision to stay for an extended time, while continuing to live in our home on wheels with the idea that we could still do some weekend traveling. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the beautiful coast of my upbringing and spent quality time with my family.

After a few months, a longing to discover a community crept in. Our journey into Judaism had been a slow and often challenging one. Neither of us grew up in religious homes, so our knowledge of traditions was clumsy at best. Attempts to be part of a synagogue in Washington had been unsuccessful, leaving us frustrated and discouraged. Our inability to read Hebrew, despite taking beginning Hebrew classes, kept us constantly challenged as we stumbled through the pages of the siddur. During services, we didn’t know when to stand up or sit down. We chose to sit in the back row, which gave us a little warning so we could follow along, but oh my, how awkward we must have looked! Everyone could tell we didn’t possess the smooth moves of a learned Jew.

Our main source of learning had been through teachings we found on the Internet mixed with a few books here and there. We faithfully enjoyed studying the Torah portions each week, but our desire to find a Jewish community where we shared beliefs continued to be a missing piece of the puzzle. Despite our lack of confidence, we were determined to proceed. We knew that if we were to continue our journey in Judaism, we must tackle the scary hurdle of finding a community where we could learn and feel accepted.

Despite my dear mother’s declining health, she had been attending a weekly class at the Jewish Community Center. So I did a little detective work and discovered that Rabbi Abba Perelmuter taught this class and also led a local Chabad synagogue called “Shul by the Shore.” Well, I thought, that sounds like a friendly place! I approached my mother that week and asked if she would like to attend an evening Shabbat service by the rabbi she knew from her weekly classes. She immediately lit up with a big smile of approval, commenting on what a nice rabbi he was. So, we decided to give this friendly sounding shul and the nice rabbi a try. Perhaps, I thought, with my mother in tow, she might provide a soft cushion for us to be welcomed.

The following Friday, we arrived early to Mom’s little downtown apartment, and I helped her get all dolled up in her favorite pink blouse and a string of pearls. She insisted on wearing some lipstick, which she would never leave home without. The shul was nestled between the Pacific Coast Highway and a lovely marina, within a vintage 1960s’ hotel. The hotel was enormous, with palm-tree-lined courtyards woven throughout. Although looking a bit worse for wear, the entire complex could have been out of an old movie, which I later discovered was actually true, as many movies had been filmed there for its surreal vintage architecture and ambiance.

We walked through the enormous glass-lined lobby, following the signs to the upstairs meeting room. We had been careful not to arrive too early and definitely not late, so as not to draw attention to ourselves. Our less than positive past experiences still lingered in my mind as I felt a sudden surge of nerves rise within me approaching the shul entrance. With Mom on my arm, I took a deep breath and proceeded.I felt a sudden surge of nerves Instantly, she recognized the rabbi and with her arms suddenly extended wide, she lunged towards him, moving in for a full-blown bear hug! (So much for not drawing attention.) I panicked and tried to apprehend her with my best blocking technique, looking more like I was having some kind of nervous convulsion, but it was too late. Even I knew that this wasn’t the way the Orthodox of opposite genders greeted one another; however, Mom had reverted to the emotions of a young girl and was just overcome with excitement. Oh well, I thought ... it’s all over now! But surprisingly, like a Matador with expert precision, Rabbi Perelmuter eloquently side-stepped her maneuver while taking a few quick shuffles back, evading the hug. Then, without missing a beat, he called out her name, “Geraldine!” and welcomed her with a big smile. I managed to quickly steer her to a seat in the women’s section, wishing I could just crawl beneath it and become invisible.

Someone handed us a siddur as the rabbi greeted the crowd with an enthusiastic welcome. It wasn’t long before his jovial manner had everyone laughing, and I felt a sense of relaxation and comfort for the first time since arriving. Mom was transfixed and a smile never left her face, as the rabbi proceeded, “ ... And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let us all turn to page 44.”

To my surprise, I discovered that the words were transliterated from Hebrew to English and even had instructions in small print. Not only that, but this nice rabbi told us what page to turn, too. Was I dreaming? The melodies to the prayers were glorious to my ears as the rabbi kept beat by pounding the bimah enthusiastically with his fist. Soon, one, then two, then all the men joined the rabbi, locking arms as they danced around the bimah together! The joy was tangible. The service continued with the rabbi interjecting words of reflection and topping it all off with a sermon wrapped in a powerhouse of genuine wisdom.

We were then invited to an adjacent room where we heard Kiddush over the wine and enjoyed an assortment of gefilte fish and finger foods. Everyone lingered to chat and was very friendly, when I suddenly realized that my nerves had altogether vanished. The rabbi’s wife, Chanie, was quick to make us feel welcome, and after just a few minutes of conversation, I felt as if I had made a good friend. Upon coming home that evening, we felt a renewed hope, and as I settled Mom into bed for the night, she kept saying, “Oh, what a nice rabbi!”

It was unanimous that we had found our new shul home, and we quickly began to anticipate each Shabbat. Within a few weeks, we felt it was time to confide in the rabbi, so after service one Friday evening, my husband, Baruch, shared our lack of religious upbringing, emphasizing our desire to become part of the Jewish community. Seeing that the rabbi didn’t appear shocked and was still standing, Baruch asked humbly, “Would it be permissible for us to continue attending Shul by the Shore?”

The rabbi looked intently into Baruch’s face and opening his arms (there it was, that hug finally came), said lovingly, “You are welcome here.”

Those four words changed our lives.“You are welcome here”

Looking back, it is clear that without the compassion and encouragement of Rabbi Abba and Chanie in our lives, we may have never had the confidence to proceed further into Judaism. All of the good people in our community that we became family with, including the amazing Perelmuter family, were the missing pieces to our puzzle. All the while, we learned and grew in a loving and accepting environment more than any book or online lecture could have ever achieved.

Our ultimate dreams were fulfilled when we made aliyah a few years later. We are thankful for the many opportunities we now have in Israel, but there is never a Friday evening when I do not miss Shul by the Shore and recall the words of Rabbi Perelmuter announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, let us all turn to page 44!”