I scrambled down the dimly lit stairs and squeezed into an overly packed Beijing subway – it was already 6:47pm, aka still in the rush “hour” that lasts from 4-8pm in this congested city, and we had guests coming over in just over an hour for our very first Shabbat in the 2010 Moishe House Beijing. My co-M.H.’er Alison and I had hand-picked a unique set of 10 people in the community that we either didn’t know that well or were new to Beijing, and hoped for the best. Would everybody get along? Would there be enough to talk about? Were we in way over our heads?
As I raced out of the office, I continued ticking off boxes in my head – did we have the candles ready? (We ended up having candles, but… no candleholders, so we had to improvise with a very unique melted-wax-and-anchored-by-frozen-peas contraption.) Did we have enough plates and silverware? (Plates yes, but somehow we only had 8 knives… but we shared those.) Did we have a good enough music playlist prepared? (A mix of jazz to start off, followed by some more upbeat jams, and finally some pop hits for an impromptu mini dance party on our way out to a bar.) The questions scrolled through my mind at a mile a minute, alternating with panicked thoughts of work projects I still had to finish and emails I had to send. I hustled off the subway, raced on my bike through honking taxis and dangerously weaving motorbikes, and ran into the apartment door in a crazy huff of anxiety and babbling off last-minute things that needed to be handled. And there was Alison, who calmly assured me that everything was under control, told me to go send that work email, and then, reminded to get into Shabbat mode.
As soon as I pressed send on that email, I threw my Blackberry into a drawer, took a deep breath, and let the calm wash over me. It was Shabbat. A day of rest. A night of fun still ahead of me. A chance to press pause on our busy lives – to slow down and learn about new people, start forging new foundations, find connections that will hopefully evolve into friendships in which we can barely remember a time that we weren’t integral parts of each other’s lives.
I changed my clothes and went to the kitchen to set the table and throw some last-minute garnishes on the hearty food that our amazingly talented friends helped us cook. Soon our guests started streaming in, and we soon settled into stories and laughter and knowing smiles of cultural recognition, even among a group of people from incredibly different backgrounds, nationalities, careers, and levels of religious belief. As I sat looking around the table at the interesting mix of individuals we were able to welcome into our home, at the candles melting down among the gradually emptying bowls of food, at the warmth we were able to foster among people who had largely been strangers only a few hours before, it struck me that this is what the Moishe House is for. This feeling of comfort and of growth, the strength of these bonds – and not the hundreds of boxes to be ticked off in my head – is what defines the Moishe House, and what I hope we can continue to build for the Beijing community throughout the coming year.