It was a long journey that brought Drs. Mesa and Edward Leventhal to Brooklyn to share a unique Shabbos experience with more than 100 other Jews from across North America. 

One People One Family One Shabbos, a project sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) and Partners in Torah, brought Jews to Flatbush two weeks ago to have the type of intensive Jewish weekend that only Brooklyn can offer. The Leventhals and the other guests stayed at hosts’ homes and took part in a whirlwind program of activities geared toward people who were not always observant.

Mesa Leventhal was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania as Mary Theresa Baker. Her family was active in the Catholic church until she was about 10. After college at Penn State she went to the Medical College of Pennsylvania where she met her husband, Edward, who described himself as a “three day a year Jew: Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” After medical school they both did their residency in El Paso, she in pediatrics and he in urology. They were married in 1987.

“My time in the neo-natal unit was very hard,” said Mesa. “I was dealing with my stress and the issues of death and life. Edward and I had agreed to raise our children Jewish and I was pregnant with our first child. So I started talking and learning with the rabbi there. I was attracted to Judaism because it seemed initially more logical.” In 1991, Mesa underwent her first conversion.

Each year on Rosh Hashanah the Leventhals would take on a new mitzvah. They started with lighting candles on Friday night. When it came time to enroll their first child in school, they chose a Jewish day school. The Leventhals say they began to learn more about Judaism from their children, and that inspired them to do more. In 1999, Mesa had a second conversion with all three of her children who are now 12, 11 and 8. The family became Shomer Shabbos and created a kosher kitchen. The sold their dream house in a suburb of Baltimore to move into Baltimore proper, with its larger observant community.

It was in the Baltimore shul where they now daven that they learned about the One People One Family One Shabbos program. “I went to have an uplifting weekend,” said Edward, “and a fun Shabbos. Mostly I went to recharge my spiritual batteries.”

Their hosts, Dr. Benzi and Esther Jacobs of Flatbush, went into the weekend with few expectations. “I was just looking forward to an enjoyable Shabbos with my guests,” said Esther Jacobs.

Friday night at the Shabbos table the Leventhals shared their story with their host family. From that meal the end of the weekend, the Jacobses received as much as they gave. Esther
explained, “I had a wonderful, wonderful Shabbos beyond whatever I thought it would be like. It was wonderful in every sense. We enjoyed ourselves and our guests seemed to enjoy themselves. They told us their amazing story — they’re very special people. They made difficult choices.”

After dinner, they went to a tish with the Hornesteipler Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, who handed out l’chaims and potato kugel. There was plenty of singing and dancing, and Alan Proctor, director of Partner Development for Partners in Torah, gave a moving talk on his path toward observant Judaism from Wharton business school to Aish Hatorah through the present.

On Shabbos the group davened at Agudath Israel, Bais Binyomin. Agudath Israel served as the host shul throughout the weekend, in part due to the efforts of Yanky Arem. “Many of the hosts, who were pretty much all friends of mine, were nervous about doing it at first,” said Mr. Arem. “After the weekend, most of them called me and thanked me and asked me to keep them on the list if we do it next year. They opened their homes and their hearts to the people there. The appreciation between the hosts and the guests was mutual.”

For shalosh seudos, the men and women participated in separate programs, the men enjoying an inspiring talk by Rabbi Pinchos Breuer, the rav of Bais Binyomin, while the women were being treated to a talk by Mrs. Chaya Sora Gertzulin, a senior lecturer for Hineni.

Motzei Shabbos there was a spirited malava malka with Rabbi Shmuel Dishon, director of Yad Yisroel of Karlin-Stolin. Srully Wulliger was on hand to enhance the singing and dancing.

Said Mesa Leventhal, “I think one of the nicest things about the malava malka is that you had such a variety of people there-from different parts of the world, from different levels of practice, and everyone was together enjoying themselves. We were also very impressed by the organizations that helped put this together. Because of the diversity of groups that wouldn’t ordinarily work together, it allowed them to bring together a lot of different types of people.”

“It was great — the three organizations working together,” said Rabbi Labish Becker, associate executive director of Agudath Israel of America. “Each took a piece of the burden. 

The organizations worked wonderfully together and it was a labor of love.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, national director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP), said he found that “the hosts may be even more inspired than the guests. I think that they’re very inspired by the dedication and passion of the people who come from out of town. It takes real mesiras nefesh. They’ve got to change their whole lives, they have to be different than their family and friends; it’s a hard thing to do.”

Added Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, national director of Partners in Torah, “The typical yeshiva-educated men and women underestimate the impact they can have on another Jew simply by being. Simply because of who they are, because of the lifestyle they live, people can look at them and see that’s the person I’d like to become. The real impact is the one-on-one relationship where there is one person who is observant who is dedicated enough to bring them into their home, to share their life with them.”

On Sunday, most of the One Shabbos participants visited with HaRav Ahron Schechter, rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin. They then had personal appointments with the Rachmastrivka Rebbe. According to one of the translators, a participating teenager said to the Rebbe that he didn’t want anything for himself — what he wanted was “for the rest of my family to see the light of Yiddishkeit.”

After the inspiring weekend, the Leventhals were back in their Baltimore home stuffing invitation envelopes for their oldest child’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Mesa summed up her feelings after the event: “I get a feeling of how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go. This is the closest we can come to the truth, to our origins and our connection.”