When Devora Farrell from Passaic, N.J., flew to Atlanta on May 18, she had no idea that about 40 women in the community would help her make Shabbat at the Sheraton for herself and 12 other women of different Jewish affiliations.
It all started late that Wednesday afternoon when Farrell, at the National Association of Professional Organizers conference, searched online for kosher restaurants in Atlanta. She contacted Uber and was soon at Pita Palace.
Standing in line near her, Brian Spaner asked Farrell about the ladder of ribbons she was wearing. She said she forgot to remove them, but the ribbons identified her as a professional organizer. Some indicated places she had lived or visited, including California, New Jersey and now Georgia. Others were personal messages such as “No whining,” “Plays well with others,” “I love to volunteer,” and “OCD,” appropriate for a professional organizer with a sense of humor.
Spaner connected her with his wife, Suzanne, who invited Farrell to her home for Shabbat. But Farrell declined because she was staying at the conference and celebrating Shabbat with two other observant organizers.
When she got back to the hotel, Farrell started receiving text messages from a “Join us for Shabbos” notice she had tacked up on the bulletin board in the lobby.
“I’m Reform; can I come?” one person wrote. “I don’t keep kosher,” another text read, “but I’d like to light Sabbath candles.” Several others wrote, “I’m only staying 5 minutes.”
Already, 10 people had committed to joining Farrell at 6:45 p.m. Friday (when NAPO was serving dinner so as not to conflict with their program) to light candles in her room. Then she realized that she had only grape juice and matzah to feed them.
Thursday night at 10, she called Suzanne Spaner and asked whether she thought she should contact Chabad for help. “I can help,” Suzanne said.
She sent an email to the 300 women on her Atlanta Tehillim (Psalms) list. She created a menu and listed all the foods and items such as tablecloths, paper plates and plastic ware that the group at the Sheraton would need for a memorable Shabbat.
“On Friday morning about 40 Atlanta women walked in and out of my house,” Suzanne said. One came with a cholent stew, another a potato kugel. Others dropped off chicken, rice, salads, desserts and, of course, challah. It was enough food for 15 people for three Shabbat meals.
Friday afternoon, Trudy Robbins of Chai Peking, who donated a good portion of the food, helped pack the van for delivery to the Sheraton.
After Shabbat, late Saturday night, Uber picked up Farrell from the Sheraton and drove her to the home of the Herscovici family in Toco Hills, where some of the women who had made the Shabbat food gathered. She wanted to show her appreciation.
“I’ve lived in a lot of communities,” Farrell told the women, “and, yes, this is the kind of thing we do. But this level on erev Shabbos, when none of you even know me.”
She thanked everyone and told how Shabbat turned out. Because she didn’t have a roommate at the conference, she used the extra queen-size bed for a table. “None of this food is from me,” she told the women sitting around the makeshift table. “People did this without knowing us.”
Farrell said she and the women who knew how helped the others recite the blessing over the Shabbat candles. And for multiple generations in the room, “we showed them how mothers could bless their daughters and granddaughters.”
Kiddush and Hamotzi were recited, and everyone enjoyed the food. During the meal, whoever knew a “Jewish” song started singing.
“It was Jewish women joining together without the distance of denominations,” Farrell said.
Farrell also told the Atlanta women about her personal struggles. Five years ago she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She has had treatment and relapses and takes injections and oral chemo daily.
After the diagnosis, she decided to turn a hobby, organizing, into a profession. “I really love organizing,” she said. “It makes me happy to help others and to attend conferences.”
Today, Farrell speaks, writes articles and teaches. Recently, she taught a class for Sharsheret, an organization helping Jewish women with cancer. She gave organizing tips for those in medical crisis, including showing the women how to organize their medicines.
Speaking to the group in Toco Hills, she opened a plastic square container of her daily meds. The numerous pills were arranged and labeled in multiple sections to help her remember when to take them. Because she experiences some memory-related side effects of chemo, she can help others with similar issues.
Farrell deals with her illness through medication and emunah (faith), which she learned from Rabbi Leib Kelemen. She doesn’t understand why she has her illness but knows there’s a reason. “Sometimes, we have to cry,” she said. “We’re not supposed to be robots. … Only through struggling can we move forward.”
Before the end of the evening, Farrell advised everyone to move forward. “Get rid of the stuff that isn’t working for you. Fix it, or let it go,” she said. “And ask each other for help.”
That’s what she did to make Shabbat for a group of women at a conference downtown. She asked for help, and the women of Atlanta responded. Then those women were inspired by Farrell, battling a terminal illness, who said, “I get up in the morning and thank Hashem for allowing me to get up.”
With a twinkle in her eye, she added, “It’s about being engaged in life, relying on friends — and chocolates.”