By R. B.
It was about an hour and a half before shabbos when we realized: we were not going to make it to LA before sundown. We had just hit Santa Barbara and according to our GPS, we would drive in to my sister’s house at 7:31 exactly. Shabbos came in at 7:33. The traffic in Santa Barbara is notorious for its snail like crawl at rush hour time, and this was exactly the scenario we found ourselves in.
We had left Monterey, on the start of a week long road trip, driving the magnificent highway 1, leaving ourselves ample time to reach our destination. We were aware and prepared for the eventuality that, being Friday, we were taking a risk and might not end up where we wanted. Indeed, traffic and uncalculated stops saw time slowly creep along, to our chagrin. It looked we needed to make new plans.
An hour before Shabbos, having passed Santa Barbara, cancelled our hosts in LA and explained the situation, we started looking up the numbers of Shluchim in the area, with the intention to stay at a motel nearby and join them for Shabbos. We were surprised, and not a little bit anxious, when one by one, every shliach we tried calling did not answer the phone.
The minutes went by and it was now forty five minutes before Shabbos. A friend from LA informed us that she knew for certain that the Rabbi of Oxnard was home and was having a large Friday night dinner that evening.
We pulled up outside the Chabad House ten minutes later. One of us began calling hotels in the area and I ran up to the door to see if anyone was there. The lights were on, but no one was inside. In the meantime, the closest hotels were all booked up. We finally found one about a half hour before Shabbos that was a 3.2 mile drive from the Chabad house. We decided this was a doable walk if it had to come to that.
At 7:25, we pulled up at the motel. It was cheap looking with shady characters loitering in the parking lot. Disregarding this, we jumped out of the car and began taking out our stuff. We checked in in seconds. Across the street was a supermarket. Whilst my friends took our things inside and worked things out with the manager, I ran across the street and frantically searched the twelve aisles for candles and matches.
We brought in Shabbos ten minutes later. In the light of the Shabbos candles, we surveyed our surroundings. Paint was peeling off the walls. The bathroom was stained yellow. The mirror was pockmarked and the duvet, on closer inspection, sported burnt holes. Cigarette butts? Who knew…
We were exhausted. We had been driving since 9:20 in the morning and the slightly stressful past hour left us feeling drained. But we wanted to get to Chabad right away. We knew services were being held that night and the thought of meeting a Jewish crowd uplifted us. How long could the walk be, we figured.
We left at eight o’clock. Looking around us, it didn’t seem like the best area to be in, to put it mildly.
With a vague idea of where the Chabad house was, we began walking. After an hour, we walked into a corner store and asked for some help with finding the street we needed. Some helpful customers advised us where to go, telling us it was a good half hour walk from where we were. Seeing as we had already walked an hour, we figured we should keep going.
We reached Channel Island Boulevard, the street that houses the Chabad House. It was a long street. A very long street. And we didn’t know if we needed to go right or left.
“A chossid always goes right,” we decided. So saying, we turned right and kept going. The streets were empty and it was approaching ten thirty. Unsure if we should continue, we stopped finally at a shopping plaza, where we turned into a starbucks and asked for some assistance. No one in the store had heard of the Rabbi we needed. No one had heard of Chabad. But everyone knew the area we were coming from and they did not hold back their views on the sketchiness of the neighbourhood.
“I wouldn’t suggest you girls walk back their tonight,” The saleslady at Starbucks told us very seriously. “It’s a bad part of town.”
“Drug dealers, gangs, ghetto communities,” Said another customer. “You don’t want to be three young girls in those streets at midnight.”
A little alarmed, we filed the information and kept on walking, now even more determined to find the Chabad house. We could tell that where we were was definitely more upper class.
We needed to know if we were going in the right direction, and after establishing that we were, due to the location of Santa Barbara in relation to where we were going, we knew we wanted to keep going.
“Another two more blocks, and we’ll give up,” My friend said.
Okay. Two more blocks.
On the next corner, suddenly my friend squealed.
“CHABAD! I see Chabad!”
I have never felt the feeling I felt at that moment. Chabad! A chabad house! After walking for two and a half hours, we had found it! Yes, it was probably empty by now, but seeing it…! Elation ran through me. Even though we knew, inside, that it would be empty, just seeing the sign was enough of a push for us to feel that the walk was worth it. We danced like little kids as we waited for the light to change and then we practically ran up the steps. The lights were all on, deceivingly, but no one was inside. We rifled desperately through the brochures, searching for the address of the Rabbi’s house, or for some information about services the next day.
“Kiddush lunch at 12,” we read out loud, from the sign on the door. That was good to know.
“Lets sit out here all night until morning,” I suggested, only half joking.
That was our next step. Figuring out where to spend the night. It was clear, from what we had heard from numerous people on our walk, that it was risky to walk back to our hotel. Besides, it was almost eleven at night.
“Maybe we could hint to someone to google the Rabbi’s home address.” We wandered out loud. So we trekked back down the road to Starbucks. A nice looking man on a laptop was our pick to do the job. Haltingly, we explained our situation. With broad hints, using the Rabbi’s name, we said how we could not find his address, but perhaps it was on the internet? Who knew?
He got the hint. But google did not turn up anything either. (Later, we found out we had spelled his name wrong.)
Regretfully, we sat down to decide whether to walk home, or to hang around in the area all night until morning, when it was safe.
“We could always stay in CVS,” said one of us, noticing the 24 hour pharmacy across the plaza.
We toyed with the idea of asking a police to escort us back, but after waiting on the roadside for about fifteen minutes and not seeing any, we discarded that.
We began walking home. Then we stopped. It was the nine days. We had been warned by at least four different people that it was not a safe place to be walking in at night. It was after eleven at night and that only heightened our fears.
We couldn’t walk back. It didn’t feel safe, responsible or smart at all.
Instead, we walked into CVS and asked where the Hampton Inn was. It took ten minutes until finally someone figured out which hotel we meant. We knew it was right near the Chabad house as this was the first hotel which had come up on our GPS when we were searching for a place to stay. We also knew it was booked up, but we were hoping against hope to be allowed to sit in the lobby until morning.
With noone in the streets and only vague directions, it took us twenty minutes to find the hotel. We walked in at midnight and approached the clerk.
“We have an interesting request,” I said slowly. I explained how we had been on the way to LA, got stuck in Oxnard and couldn’t find our friend the Rabbi. I then told him how until we walked to this neighbourhood, we didn’t realize what a low class area we had booked into. We were now too scared to go back to our original motel.
Without batting an eyelid, the first wonderful thing of the day happened. The clerk agreed with a pleasant smile that we could sit on the lobby couches until it got light outside. Hardly believing our luck, we thanked him profusely and sank into the couches.
We drifted in and out of sleep over the next five hours. At one point, the clerk invited us to eat apples and bananas which we accepted gratefully.
At six in the morning, we knew we had to get back to our hotel to inform them that we could not check out and figure out what to do with our stuff over Shabbos. It was a frustrating situation. We were right near the Chabad house, but our stuff was back in the motel. With no choice, we walked back to our hotel. An hour and a half walk. Again.
To cut to the reason I am writing this story, let me summarize a little: we walked back to the motel like zombies, slept in our burnt beds for two hours and then began negotiating with the manager whether we could keep our things in the room until Motzei Shabbos. At first, she refused, saying she would have to charge us. But when I explained about Shabbos and our Rabbi, something shifted in her features.
“I’m Jewish too. I’m a bad Jew, but I am Jewish. And my brother knows the Rabbi you’re talking about.”
We were gobsmacked. I felt that I was seeing some of the Hashgocha, some kind of reason why we had to go through this. It was definitely a Kiddush Hashem in the making.
We were told we could leave our luggage in the room, free of charge,. We were even offered a ride to the Chabad house, which we politely declined.
The final trip began. We made our way back to the Chabad house, to end up there in time for the Kiddush. The thought that we might be surrounded by seforim and people and food that were familiar to us spurred us on despite our ordeal and our exhaustion.
Coming to the Chabad House at 1 in the afternoon, words cannot describe our joy at seeing it bustling with life. As soon as we walked in, we were ushered to the table and invited to partake in the beautiful Kiddush. When the community members heard that we had just walked an hour and a half, they hurried to ply us with goodies, drinks and words of comfort. It was unreal how warm and welcoming they were. Word got passed down the table to where the Rabbi was sitting and we were formally introduced and asked how we got here. How we got here? Well, that was a long story….
The true intent and purpose of this article, and the detailed background of our arrival to the Chabad House and our ordeal along the way, was for the reader to appreciate what we had been through, to help understand just a little, how we then felt in the this part of the saga. Because, really, the point of all this is to show thanks and to express how grateful we are to the Rabbi of Oxnard, whose kindness and hospitality was like mannah from heaven!
The Rabbi, whose name I have not explicitly mentioned, was understanding, welcoming and warmly received us. He listened to our story with a sympathetic smile, shaking his head when he heard the extent of our travels. He reassured us that had we called just ten minutes earlier on that fateful Friday, he or his wife would have picked up the phone and would have accepted us into their homes with open arms. He was filled with regret and actually felt bad that he had not been able to help us until now, even though nothing at all had been his fault!
We were then invited to his home, to spend the afternoon with his wife, their children and his mother and grandmother. On the walk home, the Rabbi went out of his way to show us the scenic route, along the beach, so we could finally see some of the beauty of Oxnard after experiencing the other side of town. He managed to spend quality time with his children on the way whilst still pointing out different things to us.
When we came to his house, the Rabbi’s wife reacted calmly to our unprepared entrance and immediately invited us in, asking us how she could help us. The story was briefly told over, once again, eliciting the same shocked response we were now used to. As soon as she had realized that we had walked around eleven miles in the past sixteen hours, she showed us to a room and without even asking us if we would perhaps like to lie down, instructed us where to sleep and what to sleep on. She went a step further and before we went to rest, took us up to the kitchen. Cookies and fruit were brought out. Water was offered.
“Make yourselves at home,” We were told. Her generosity was all the more overwhelming in the face of the dire straits we had been in.
“I’m going to wake you up in time for dinner- we eat Shalosh Seudos in the afternoon and I’m sure you’ll be hungry again.”
Everything was said with a smile, a laugh and complete sincerity. Although we are all Lubavitch girls, and having worked on Shlichus myself for two years, being on the receiving end of kindness such as this was an eye opener.
As promised, we were woken up later and joined the family for their meal. Everything was delicious and offered to us over and over again. The atmosphere was warm and homey and the shluchim were for me, a true example of what Shluchim should be. They were constantly involved in their children, whether it was in play, in learning or in laughter. The other guests from their community were treated with respect and care, as were we.
To explain further just a little more of their desire to assist us, when we went for a walk later on to the beach, when the weather was a little chilly, the Rabbi’s wife went ahead and handed us each a warm jacket so that we wouldn’t be affected by the cold.
As soon as Shabbos was over, we left to continue our journey. We had a busy week ahead with plans to visit some wonderful places. We were offered food for our trip as a last show of thoughtfulness.
We left Oxnard with deep respect and admiration for the Shluchim. Yes, the small acts of kindness may have seemed less important had we not been searching for a sign of Jewish life for half of Shabos, but all the same, what they did for us, three girls who turned up – frum girls, who do not need the same attention as the irreligious of their comminuty do- left a deep impact on us and a lasting impression.
So thank you, Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Oxnard. We know there is more than one Shliach where you live, but we are quite certain you know who we are. You are a true example of what Shluchim can be.