We Wanted a Life That Had an Open Home
by HEATHER ROBINSON
“We agreed we wanted a life that had an open home,” says Jodi Samuels, co-founder of Jewish International Connection New York, a nonprofit organization that provides a home away from home to immigrant Jews from around the world.
And an open home they have. On a recent Sunday morning, Jodi and her husband, Gavin Samuels, co-founder of JICNY, are packing for a trip to visit their native Johannesburg, South Africa, for Gavin’s brother’s wedding.
But that doesn’t stop them from meeting to discuss their efforts, which include holding Friday night dinners at their home — they have been host to 7,000 people since establishing the organization in 2000 — and organizing Torah classes in immigrants’ native languages.
The point is to give people a sense of community.
“If you have been here for a year, and let’s say you have a baby, it’s so hard to be away from your own community,” says Gavin, who at 39 has the round, fresh face of a man 10 years younger. “We’re trying to replicate that community for people.”
As he speaks, the couple’s two older children, Meron, 6, and Temira, 4, run into the room. Temira is crying because she lost a lip balm.
“Shh,” Jodi says, long dark hair cloaking her daughter as she hugs the little girl. “We only cry about important things.”
The couple’s nanny walks through, holding their newest family member, 6-month-old Caila.
“We’re always busy,” says Jodi, 35.
Someone shuffles on the other side of a wall that divides the Samuelses’ airy upper West Side home from another apartment they maintain to host people.
“An older couple is staying with us who are parents of one of the internationals,” Gavin says with a grin. “When the door is open, it’s like one big apartment.”
The Samuelses met in Israel, where Jodi was visiting after graduating from high school and Gavin was completing his medical elective, a six-week course that was part of his training to become an intensive care physician.
Upon arriving in Israel, he put a note in the Western Wall with a prayer to meet a wife.
“I met Jodi less than 24 hours later, asked her out and decided two hours into our first date that I was going to marry her — she was so passionate about so many different causes,” he says.
They married and settled for a time in Australia, where Gavin worked as a doctor and Jodi helped a nonprofit organization, AISH HaTorah, to expand outreach in Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast.
In 2000, they won the green card lottery and came to the U.S. Soon afterward, they were introduced to Steve Eisenberg, who hosted dinners on Friday nights for the Jewish Sabbath.
Eisenberg, a consultant and co-founder of JICNY, and the Samuelses pooled their guestlists and organized a dinner for South African immigrants at Darna restaurant on the upper West Side.
Afterward, the couple’s Australian friends got jealous.
“They said, ‘No fair, why not a Commonwealth dinner and include us?’” recalls Gavin. “Then our French friends were like, ‘What about us?’
“So we had an international dinner.”
Eight years later, the Samuelses hold a large international dinner in their home every month for Jewish immigrants from around the world. They also have dinners for particular groups that offer immigrants their home cuisine, including French, Persian, British, Mexican, Russian, South African, Australian and Turkish.
They try to find rabbis who speak in the participants’ native languages to lead the dinners.
For the Turkish dinner, the couple tapped a rabbi to lead the service who spoke Ladino, a language traditionally spoken by Jews in Latin and Arab countries.
“It’s funny because sometimes [Gavin and I] can’t understand what anyone is saying,” says Jodi.
In addition to the dinners and Torah study classes, some of which are taught by Eisenberg, JICNY coordinates a business networking group and offers couples and marriage classes and classes in medical ethics.
Forty couples have met and become engaged through JICNY events.
Those who have met through JICNY feel a debt of gratitude. “There aren’t many people like them,” says Ari Pfeffer, 39, of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, a development professional who met his wife, Andrea Rosenthal, through a Torah class. “They just want to share what they have, and they do so much for people.”
Gavin, senior partnering director for Teva Innovative Ventures, an Israel-based pharmaceutical company, teaches a relationship class that meets four times a year. Using insights from Jewish law and spirituality, the class offers perspective on how to find your mate.
He says he was “distraught” that many single people in New York, when asked what they are looking for in a partner, cite superficial characteristics.
“These superficial traits people are seeking are not good predictors,” he says, of long-term happiness.
His classes stress a Jewish spiritual perspective, which focuses on giving, a quality dear to both him and Jodi.
Jodi says that during the time she and Gavin met, she was staying with a family in Israel. “I told them I didn’t know how I could ever thank them,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Just keep the chain of hospitality going.’ “