Lau­ra Nicole Dia­mond is the author of Shel­ter Us, a final­ist for the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Inde­pen­dent Book­sellers Asso­ci­a­tion Fic­tion Award. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

A few months after I gave birth to our first child, my hus­band and I went out for that rarest of date nights: din­ner and a movie. Third Street Prom­e­nade in San­ta Mon­i­ca bus­tled with peo­ple— teenagers and senior cit­i­zens and fam­i­lies with chil­dren of all ages. As we walked from the restau­rant to the the­ater, one woman sit­ting on a bench, her hand on a stroller, caught my eye. There was some­thing askew, some­thing that made me won­der about her all through the movie. When the cred­its rolled, I told my hus­band we had to go back to that bench.

The Prom­e­nade was qui­et and emp­ty, but the woman and her baby sat pre­cise­ly where they had been three hours ear­li­er. There was some­thing about her that broad­cast oth­er­li­ness.” We approached and asked if she was okay, and she explained that they had out­worn their wel­come with friends. They would sleep in that spot. They were homeless.

Maybe it was because we had a baby of our own, maybe it was because she revealed she was Jew­ish so I felt a cer­tain kin­ship, but we could not bear the thought of them — real­ly, her baby — sleep­ing out­side. But what could we do? Take them to our house? What if she was men­tal­ly ill? What if she harmed us or our baby? I didn’t think she would, but could I take that chance? I felt guilty, but knew we could not bring her home.

So we offered to take them to a motel for one night. She accept­ed and told us where to take her. We drove them there, pre­paid, said good­bye, and went home. I could not shake the thought that our act was tan­ta­mount to noth­ing. The next morn­ing at 11 AM, they would be with­out shel­ter again.

Per­haps it was guilt, or my good Jew­ish upbring­ing (one and the same thing?), but this inter­ac­tion gal­va­nized me to find and vol­un­teer for a non-prof­it that helped home­less fam­i­lies. I met young sin­gle moth­ers who were get­ting back on their feet with the help of social work­ers, fed­er­al­ly sub­si­dized rents, job train­ing, and their own determination.

Just as I couldn’t stop think­ing about that woman and her child dur­ing the movie, over the years I couldn’t stop think­ing about all of these women — their sto­ries, their courage, their set­backs, their suc­cess­es. They resided in my imag­i­na­tion and became an inte­gral part of my nov­el, Shel­ter Us. Shel­ter Us is the sto­ry of Sarah, a sub­ur­ban moth­er halt­ing­ly recov­er­ing from a ter­ri­ble loss, who becomes obsessed with sav­ing” a young home­less moth­er she sees on the streets of Los Ange­les. In the char­ac­ter of Josie, the home­less moth­er, I want­ed to human­ize one face of home­less­ness, to show the grit and resilience of the young moth­ers I had met.

Like so many peo­ple do when faced with intense need, Sarah strug­gles with how to help Josie. She con­sid­ers all of the con­cerns that pinged through my mind so many years before. Sarah, like me, wish­es the world were dif­fer­ent, that she could take them in. But Sarah makes a stark­ly dif­fer­ent choice than I did. She reach­es beyond the nor­mal con­ven­tions of do-good­ing and tzedakah, bust­ing the para­me­ters that say don’t get too close, don’t get too involved, with poten­tial­ly life-shat­ter­ing con­se­quences. As I wrote and revised, I was vexed by how to make Sarah’s out­reach to Josie more plau­si­ble. I found the answer in an unlike­ly place: Torah study.

Grow­ing up, my fam­i­ly cel­e­brat­ed Shab­bat inter­mit­tent­ly, and did not fol­low (let alone know) most Jew­ish law. Like many mod­ern Jew­ish fam­i­lies, social jus­tice was essen­tial to who we were. It was mod­eled by actions, not taught as dog­ma: my fam­i­ly went to ral­lies and walked for caus­es — civ­il rights, envi­ron­ment, peace — with­out explic­it­ly con­nect­ing it to reli­gion. As far as I knew, Torah study was exclu­sive­ly for yeshi­va students.

But a few years ago, mid­way through the writ­ing of Shel­ter Us, out of curios­i­ty I began attend­ing Torah study at my (pro­gres­sive, Recon­struc­tion­ist) syn­a­gogue. I was sur­prised to dis­cov­er that I loved it, that Torah study was not about learn­ing sta­t­ic rules, but was a dynam­ic con­ver­sa­tion about what it means to live with mean­ing, pur­pose, and com­pas­sion. One week, as my rab­bi led a con­ver­sa­tion about one of the thir­ty-six parashiy­ot that include the direc­tive to take care of the stranger,” an Aha!” moment for the nov­el came to me: This les­son would explain Sarah’s courage to reach out to Josie. It would be a strong con­nec­tion with her late moth­er, a Jew­ish con­vert who had mod­eled this val­ue. Her mother’s lega­cy would spur her on. Imag­ine my sur­prise that Torah study helped me weave togeth­er the fab­ric of my novel.

There is an epi­logue to this sto­ry. If it came as a sur­prise that Torah study would play a role in solv­ing a plot point in my nov­el, per­haps it should not be sur­pris­ing that it sub­se­quent­ly played an impor­tant role in a cru­cial fam­i­ly deci­sion. After the man­u­script of Shel­ter Us was with the pub­lish­er, I received an email from a friend of a friend, ask­ing if I knew any­one who might be able to fos­ter a teenage girl who had fled her vio­lence-plagued coun­try and need­ed a home. I showed the mes­sage to my hus­band. Down the hall slept our child who had been an infant when we first encoun­tered a young home­less moth­er. He was thir­teen, and his younger broth­er was ten. Re-read­ing the email, I couldn’t shake the feel­ing that in writ­ing Shel­ter Us I had writ­ten myself a map for this moment.

In a big­ger sense, it was Torah that had writ­ten us a map. Because of the week­ly con­ver­sa­tions about Jew­ish val­ues prompt­ed by its ancient sto­ries, I did not have to ago­nize, research, or debate. I had con­versed with my ances­tors and my com­mu­ni­ty, had wres­tled with it in my fic­tion, and although there was anx­i­ety, I had arrived at an answer: We would wel­come this stranger into our home. We would find the courage to do what we knew was right.

Lau­ra Nicole Dia­mond is the Edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Deliv­er Me: True Con­fes­sions of Moth­er­hood. A civ­il rights lawyer and for­mer Edi­tor-In-Chief of L.A. Fam­i­ly Mag­a­zine, Lau­ra writes about fam­i­ly, par­ent­ing, and social jus­tice for sev­er­al pub­li­ca­tions and on her blog, www​.Con​fes​sion​sof​Moth​er​hood​.com. She sits on the Board of Trustees of PATH (Peo­ple Assist­ing the Home­less). Lau­ra lives in Los Angeles.