Like so many modern news stories of our time, it started with a tweet.
On Erev Pesach last year, I opened my Twitter account and posted the following: “Tonight is #Passover so if you’re in London and you’ve got nowhere to go for Seder, get in touch. Nobody should be alone tonight.”
That tweet, sent around eight hours before we were to sit down to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, did not appear to gain much attention.
Some time later, a message appeared in my inbox from an American journalism student who was in London for a semester, working at the Evening Standard. During her stay she had not managed to find a Shabbat dinner, and being away from her family in Indiana for Pesach, was desperate to find somewhere for Seder. I told her to meet me at a tube station in North London and my wife and I would pick her up and take her to my parents for the evening.
We met Samantha and drove her back to the house. I wondered how I would explain Twitter to my grandparents. I needn’t have worried. Before I had even sat down, Grandpa had engaged Samantha in conversation about Indiana, before whistling a song that she knew. She appeared very much at ease, leaning back on the couch and chatting animatedly with the family.
What followed was a rather typical Seder night in our family home. There was laughter, the traditional bet on whose cup of wine would stain the shimmering white tablecloth first, and a chorus of singing with some rather indistinguishable harmonies. We sang, we ate, we remembered. Samantha looked happy, smiling as she fielded inquisitive questions from Grandpa, and even laughing at my father’s jokes.
Once the Seder ended, we bade farewell to Samantha, making plans for her to come back for Shabbat soon. We waved her into the night, blissfully unaware of what was to happen in the next 24 hours.
On her way home, Samantha began to tweet the story of the night. By the time we woke up the next morning, it had gone viral. Articles quoted her tweets, I had messages from various news sites asking for comment, and my mother couldn’t stop crying because she was so touched by Samantha’s words. We had become, in Mum’s words, “Seder celebrities.”
Samantha’s beautiful account had clearly struck a chord. And yet, in the immediate aftermath something struck me as quite sad about the story. Why was it that a simple gesture, an invitation to dinner, had caused such a stir?
It seemed only natural to offer hospitality to a stranger, out of a heartfelt concern that nobody should be alone on such a night. This was not a conscious decision made to adhere to the no fewer than 36 references to caring for the stranger made throughout the Torah. Rather it was an emotional gesture. For our family, and for hundreds of families, opening our homes to those in need is a way of life. We do it every Shabbat or chag,and throughout the year, because it’s second nature.
Hundreds of people began to share their own stories on Twitter, of how they had spent past Seder nights alone, missing loved ones and not having anyone to share the evening with. Others shared their own tales of how they were taken in by families whom they had never met, and yet had this most precious commonality with, our Judaism.
As a teenager, one of the most difficult questions I wrestled with when it came to Judaism was that there were so many things I couldn’t do. As an adult, my perspective has shifted to the many wonderful things I can do. Opening up our homes, our minds and our hearts is something which all of us are capable of, no matter what our circumstances.
This year we will once again welcome strangers to our Seder table. Not just because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, but because we want to welcome those who feel lost, those who want to come home but find their path blocked or hidden from view. Everybody should feel part of a family, even if it is one they have only known for a few minutes.
In recent weeks I’ve listened to people struggling with homelessness. I’ve visited shelters and seen first hand what a community can do in the face of adversity, and the incredible work of volunteers. Do not for a moment be dismissive about how fortunate you are to have loved ones, and do not be afraid to share that love with those who seek it and would treasure it.
James Masters is a news and sport journalist at CNN and a former JC sports reporter. He has donated the fee for this article to charity.