Grape Leaves and Gratitude


Adults L-R (Tamam, Bara’a and neighbor Abdulrasul). Smiles all around just before lunch prepared by Bara’a.

Judith Antelman, a new member of Shomrei, recently attended her first meeting of Shomrei’s Refugee Assistance Group. The group assists refugees who recently resettled in our area. The following is her response after meeting one of the refugee families.

Grape Leaves and Gratitude

These days, I greet every morning with gratitude. I am grateful for my health and well-being. I am grateful for compassionate family and friends. I am grateful for an abundance of organic, locally grown food. I am grateful for gardens, parks, and running paths in and around Montclair. I am grateful for my new community of friends at Shomrei. And on a crisp Autumn Sunday in November, I found gratitude in the humble home of Bara’a, Tamam, and their three children.

With enthusiasm and a collective appetite, a small group of us—Nick, Merrill, and Andy—gathered for lunch with our Syrian friends. On my first visit, I anticipated a lively afternoon and modest meal. I entered a tiny, but welcoming apartment in Elizabeth, NJ, and was greeted by aromatic scents of scrumptious home cooking, and the warm, affable eyes of Bara’a, Tamam, and their spirited children.

Abdulrasul—a downstairs neighbor and friend, almost fluent in English—joined us. When he spoke, I assumed he had lived in the US for at least five years. He arrived this past July. Born in Sudan, he came to the US by way of a refugee camp in Kenya where he had lived for ten years. He is 33 years old. His bright open face shines with light and hope for all possibility. Nary a trace or shadow of a history that certainly did not include light or possibility. Gratitude.

And then, amidst introductions and conversation, plate after plate of colorful food appeared endlessly. One, three, five, eight, ten…dishes kept emerging. I have regaled my friends with stories of my bubby’s holiday tables. The feast into which I walked this past Sunday rivaled any of my bubby’s spreads. Bara’a prepared a bountiful meal sufficient for a hundred guests, as if Passover and Rosh Hashanah were rolled into one. Hummus, falafel, grape leaves, beets, okra, tabbouleh, salads, and various meat dishes covered the table, with no spare inch remaining. My palate sang with every flavorful bite.

In Bara’a, I met a modest and smart woman who exudes a gentle fortitude. Her quiet demeanor hides a strong passion for cooking, learning, and raising her children. Her talent was evident in every dish we tasted. She attends English classes five days a week, her commitment to learning obvious in her exchanges with us. Tamam is a proud man with a welcoming smile who was delighted to host. The moment we arrived, his generosity shone, ensuring our plates overflowed with food at all times. They focus on what they have, not what they lack. They give unyieldingly without agenda. We ask what they need because they ask for nothing. Winter coats. Shoes. A bed and sheets. I never considered my many walking and running shoes a luxury. As I listened to their modest needs, I felt humbled.

After we filled our plates several times, we exchanged stories, and Merrill taught the children a few songs including “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and “Hokey Pokey.” The little ones were soon entertaining us, vivaciously performing what Merrill had just shown them. Children’s laughter, conversation, fragrant herbs and spices filled the rooms. And on a crisp Autumn Sunday in November, a small band of friends from different corners of the world shared tales and tabbouleh, laughter and Labneh, grape leaves and gratitude.

If you’d like to help the families, please click on this link for a list of their specific needs:



  See more photo galleries


Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterestemail hidden; JavaScript is required
Judith Antelman

Judith Antelman

Judith is a freelance writer and editor working with digital and print material from finance to food, politics to poetry, and tech to travel. A chocolatier as well, Judith owns and operates "Bark & Truffle" a business in Montclair and provides chocolate truffles for special events and parties. Judith joined Shomrei in 2017.
Judith Antelman

Latest posts by Judith Antelman (see all)

One thought on “Grape Leaves and Gratitude

  1. Bara’a and Tamam are happy to welcome guests to their home. They do not know the word MITZVAH, but they know the concept. It would be a mitzvah for them to host you and a mitzvah for anyone in our congregation to visit. As Judith wrote so beautifully, they humbly and modestly asked for a few essentials to help them through a cold winter. Knowing Shomrei’s generosity, we promised our support.

What do you think?