At the end of last summer, when I picked up my son Naftali from Camp HASC, he didn’t greet me with a hug, kiss or even a “I missed you, Ma.”
As I schlepped his luggage into my van, he greeted me with a request. Okay, not really a request. More like a demand.
He wasn’t asking me for his favorite supper or for a new knapsack for school.
He was letting me know – in no uncertain terms – exactly where we would be going for our Sukkos Chol Hamoed trip – even though Rosh Hashanha was still weeks away.
Apparently, at least according to Naftali, the decision was final. We would be heading to the indoor water park in Lake George, like we had the year before, and we would be spending the night at the water park’s hotel.
That’s how life works when you live with someone like Naftali. I’m not sure if it’s true about all children with autism, but for Naftali, everything in his life needs to be scheduled. He needs to know exactly what’s coming. He craves structure like I crave carbs.
So the very minute camp was over, he was ready to plan the next month’s calendar. And even though I hadn’t yet bought my kids’ school supplies, polished my honey dish, or sent my husband’s kittel to the dry cleaners, Naftali was ready to choose our Chol Hamoed destination.
I couldn’t blame him for wanting to go.
Our whole family had had a great time at the water park the previous Chol Hamoed.
The Chabad of Saratoga had worked with the water park to arrange separate hours for men and women. They’d also built a large sukkah on premises, coordinated three minyanim each day, and arranged for there to be a sefer Torah readily available.
For us, the trip was especially perfect because Lake George is on the way to Montreal, where we always spend one half of the Yom Tov. The water park is less than five minutes out of our way, and mercifully breaks up the trip, sparing me a good few hours of “Are we there yet?” and “How did we run out of nosh already?”
So even though I was a teeny bit embarrassed to be calling the Chabad of Saratoga while summer was still in full swing, I put in the call with Naftali hovering over my shoulder.
But there was a snag in his perfectly-laid plans.
The Chabad of Saratoga gently informed me that Chol Hamoed fell out on a Columbus Day, a legal holiday when public schools were not in session. Therefore, the water park did not think it was in their best interests to allow the Chabad to make separate swimming hours and cause them to turn away other guests.
So any other mother might have hung up the phone and said, “Oh well. Guess we need to make other plans.”
But this mother didn’t really have that choice. Naftali wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Let’s just say that flexibility isn’t his strong suit.
So in the weeks that followed, he insisted daily – no, on the hour – that we would be going to the water park, separate hours or not.
With his, uh, persistence, I just didn’t know how to say no.
So Chol Hamoed morning, ever so reluctantly, we agreed to go to Lake George, even thought it would be less than ideal.
We’d have to drive a half-hour each way to the Chabad of Saratoga for a sukkah and a minyan. Plus, my husband would have to take the other kids to mini-golf and some other attractions down the road, while I would sit fully dressed at the water park, sticking out like a sore thumb. We’d likely be the only frum Jews in a pretty wide radius.
Sounded like a real blast.
So imagine my shock when we pulled into the parking lot in Lake George, and we felt strangely at home.
“Um, every car in this lot is a minivan,” Tzvi, my 12-year-old pointed out. “And lots of them have magnets from Jewish day camps.”
How could that be?
Puzzled, we began circling the lot for parking, but we quickly came to a screeching halt.
Was that a mirage?
Were our eyes deceiving us – or was that a sukkah in front of us, taking up ten spots in the lot?
Naftali leaped out of the car before it came to a complete stop, and we followed him outside where we saw a group of chassidishe men heading into the sukkah.
What was going on?
My husband approached one man and asked for the inside scoop. Apparently, they were mostly from a shul in Boro Park, and they had arranged a group trip. When they’d heard that Chabad wasn’t organizing anything this year, they took matters into their own hands. They asked management for permission to build a sukkah and rented a conference room to be their shul, bringing their own sefer Torah.
They’d even negotiated for separate hours for men and women once the water park closed for outside customers.
Of course, we hadn’t chipped in for any of their expenses, so we felt like the schnorrers of the century.
But that didn’t matter at all.
The “Shalom Aleichems” came quick and enthusiastic as we were ushered into the sukkah, where there was a beautiful catered meal all set up.
“Come in! Help yourselves to our leftovers!” they enjoined.
My kids were salivating, but my husband and I tried to play it cool.
“Don’t worry! We have Tradition soup and leben!” we insisted lamely, but our demurrals were waved away. We sheepishly sat down at the table and took in the spread.
Um, let’s just say their leftovers were an eight-course meal.
Sesame chicken. Lo Mein. Beef and Broccoli. Chicken fingers. Rice. Cole slaw.
Was that cholent?!
My kids abandoned their Tradition soups and lebens before I could blink.
Our discomfort quickly disappeared as we got swept into the conversation and played a few rounds of Jewish geography. The women schmoozed, and the men joined together for an impromptu kumzitz. Don’t you worry – they had their guitars handy.
In the sweetest harmony, the sukkah echoed with the tune of “Ata Bichartanu MiKal Ha’amim…..”
It was the perfect song.
As perplexed Lake George locals peered into our strange little hut, the sukkah felt like a giant hug.
The walls reverberated with unity and togetherness, a shared embrace of the mitzvos that separated us from the other nations.
The best part was watching Naftali taking it all in.
He was beaming.
It was like he had known it all along
This might sound overly dramatic, especially because we were in Lake George for one night and not in the Midbar for 40 years, but even in the wasteland that is Upstate New York, it was clear that Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s clouds that once protected and exalted us had been preserved all these years.
Wherever we go, even as we wander in these too-long years of galus, we always know where – and to whom – we belong.
Chag kasher v’same’ach!