Our Poverty, Our Sense of Duty, and Where Our Future Lies

“The number of poor in the Orthodox community is [not] low . . . the Orthodox represent the largest identifiable such group. But . . . Orthodox communities centered on yeshiva life–usually referred to as yeshiva communities but in this report referred to as “yeshivish”–boast a significant communal support network, in addition to classic charitable giving.

“Made up of gemachs, a Hebrew acronym of the term meaning acts of kindness, this network goes a long way toward making up for the material sacrifices made by low-income yeshiva households. Some Jewish communities have so many gemachs they have their own version of the Yellow Pages. The gemachs are families or companies that lend out items to those in need, including everything from books to wedding dresses to childcare products. To put it bluntly: the Orthodox Jewish community may have poor households, but its members possess an admirable and energetic sense of duty to one another . . .

“The Orthodox certainly face challenges as their community grows. The Haredi community’s insularity means they must work hard to ensure that guidance counselors, special-needs educators, and other forms of crucial youth development services are available to their community. And poverty is often correlated with health risks that should not be ignored. But the Orthodox are also the source of the positive trends in the study. If the goal is Jewish continuity–as of course it should be–the Orthodox are leading the way.”

Seth Mandel “On Jewish Community and Continuity, Orthodox Lead the Way,” Commentary Magazine. Mr. Mandel’s article is based on the findings of a the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, a comprehensive study of the New York Jewish community conducted by the UJA.


Baby Steps

It’s here again, that time of year, those 15 days between Lag Ba-‘Omer and Shavuot.  I know this will sound crazy, but I always kind of hope that it won’t come around this year, like I’ll wake up the morning of Lag ba-’Omer and find that it is, in fact, the middle of Sivan. To date, by the way, it hasn’t happened.  Lag ba-’Omer always comes, and while for most people Lag ba-‘Omer is a joyous occasion, for the past few years it has evoked very different sentiments in my home.

I remember the sequence of events vividly. I remember where everyone was sitting that Friday night when he suddenly got very tired and my mom took him up to bed. I remember coming downstairs the next morning, and she was holding him on the couch, and she said he was lethargic but had no fever, that he had been up a lot the night before. I remember the day progressing, him not seeming to get any better, and my parents taking him to the pediatrician who told them to call hatzolah. And all I can think of when I picture her walking out the door holding him wrapped in my blanket because he was shivering on that day in June is that I never dreamed that the next time he came home it would be for his funeral. It never occurred to me to kiss him good bye so that he could respond to my touch one more time. We were so sure, those initial few hours, that it was nothing, that they’d be home later that night. I remember waiting for them to call after Shabbos, hardly anxious at all, to tell us that Aaron was fine, that they were on their way home. Instead, they called to say that he went into respiratory arrest minutes after they got there, how the doctors determined the cause to be an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in his brain, how he should have regained consciousness after they drained it, how he didn’t . . .

And so began the longest 15 days of my life. They called the following Monday and told us to come see him, and though I knew he was in in very bad shape, I wasn’t prepared to see him there, my beautiful little brother, hooked up to more machines than there are words in a dictionary and looking, as they say, like he could have been asleep. It was then that I was first introduced to a feeling I would come to know intimately over the next few months, a feeling I had never quite experienced before, though I was sure I had, a feeling that comes back this time of year, every year, an unwelcome guest: raw, primal pain.

This time of year, these images and so many others go through my head again and again, like a really bad movie I can’t stop watching. Then I begin to feel it, that warm, consuming pain that seeps out from somewhere deep inside and spreads over your body, wiping your strength away until you can’t stand anymore, so you sink to the floor and curl up on it and cry so hard that every breath is an ordeal and wish like you’ve never wished for anything that it would go away so you could just have your life back and knowing as you do that it won’t.

People say you have to take these things slowly. If you think of feeling like this for the next ten years you’ll never make it through. So you set small goals. Today I will handle today. I’m gonna try to make through today without losing it, and then maybe tomorrow. But I can’t think about that now. One day at a time. Bite size pieces. Baby steps.

Discovering Fire

On Friday night, I davened Kabbalas Shabbos with the Patriarch of the Ukranian Catholic Church, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, senior representatives of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Adventist Churches in Ukraine, the head of the Muslim community in Ukraine, and the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. It was a bizarre thing to see – six men dressed in conspicuous religious regalia sitting in a shul on Friday night, siddurim in hand, beside a man with a long white beard, curly sideburns, and a streimel. Rabbi S., the rabbi of the shul, introduced and welcomed them to the congregation.

I’ve been present when Rabbi S. has welcomed many prominent political and religious figures to his shul, and listening to him do it again on Friday night, this is what struck me about him – he does not hate. He does not criticize or attack groups of Jews or non-Jews or anyone, really.  Instead, he reaches out to them, no matter how different they are (and trust me, they don’t come much more different than that) and tries to bring them in. If I had to summarize his approach in one line it would be, “Let’s work together.” We’re on the same team.

Rabbi S.  lived in Budapest under Nazi occupation during WWII. He has since devoted his life to promoting interfaith cooperation. He created the Appeal of Conscience Foundation* to promote “peace, tolerance and ethnic conflict resolution.” Maybe it had to take a Holocaust to teach us that hatred is a terrible thing, that it kills and destroys and leaves nothing good in its wake. Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We can exist it without it, and that being said, there’s simply no place for it on our world anymore.

You don’t reach people by hating them. You don’t elicit their cooperation by criticizing their beliefs or ways of life. You reach people by accepting them, by respecting them, by showing them that they may find in you an ally, maybe even a friend.  That’s an offer most people won’t refuse, and we can accomplish much more by working together than by working apart. I think it’s due to an awareness of this that Rabbi S. invites these people to his shul, and that they come.

In the words of French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955):

“Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tide, and gravity, we shall harness for G-d the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”


* On which the quote “A crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion” is prominently displayed. Totally tangential, but I thought it was great.

New Yorkers Aren’t Rude II

Parking in New York is complicated. There are people, probably city-dwelling individuals (who, by the way, don’t even own a car) who will try to convince you otherwise. Don’t listen to them. If you are fortunate enough to find a spot (pumps obviously don’t count), you will notice that somewhere near the spot is a green post-like object with (if you’re lucky a meager) five different signs on it indicating where you can and cannot stand and/or park at what times, when the Muni-meters are and are not in effect, how long you can park there if they are or aren’t, etc., etc. You know you’re missing something when you get through all the signs and realize that according to your probably mistaken understanding, your car simultaneously may and may not be parked in the space in which you just parked it.

I was in the city one night this past week, and after finding a spot, taking few moments to decipher all the signs on the green post (It is NOT Tuesday between 9Am and 1PM,  it IS a weekday between 9 AM and 7PM, so I CAN park here and the Muni-meters ARE in effect), I headed over to the Muni-meter to purchase my ticket. I placed my credit card in the slot and the screen lit up, flashed neon green, and proceeded to inform me that my (and I quote) “transaction is incomplete.” So I’m standing there, pulling my credit card in and out (because of course if it didn’t work the first five times it will obviously work the sixth time) when a man walks up to me and says cheerfully, “You only need 25 cents!” I thanked him and explained that my credit card seemed to be malfunctioning, pulled it out and told him to please go ahead of me. He slipped his quarter into the slot and the machine instantaneously printed out a receipt for him to place in his window. I took out my wallet and started looking for change (who carries change?) when the man slipped another quarter into the machine, pressed “add time” and handed me the receipt that, of course, rolled right out. “There you go,” he said, smiling and handing it to me.  “Thank you very much,” I said, touched and somewhat taken aback, “but really, please let me pay you back.” I handed him a quarter’s equivalent in nickels and dimes.  “Don’t worry about it,” he laughed. “Give it to a good person,” I insisted. “You are a good person,” he said and walked right off.

I know, it’s only 25 cents, but it’s the thought, the gesture, the fact that I’ll never be able to repay him or help him out in any way at all, and still . . .

I think I’m starting to like New Yorkers.

Just Like Me

On Shabbos afternoon we sit outside, the women in my neighborhood. Sometimes we sit on my lawn, sometimes we sit on my neighbor’s lawn. We just sit outside on those sunny, warm, long afternoons and talk.

The women, in ascending age order:

Mrs. F. is a mother of two in her mid twenties. She and her husband , who she married after meeting him only twice, moved from Williamsburg to the house next door to us almost two years ago. She dresses beautifully, is going to school to become a stenographer, and just got her driver’s license. Her husband is an architect, they both have an incredible eye for beauty, and they send their little son (the second is a baby) to a local Munkatch cheder.

There’s Mrs. S. (for clarification purposes, Mrs. S. the First). She grew up in a Modern Orthodox home the midwest and lived on the Upper West Side for several years before she married her husband at 27. After living in Israel for half a year, they decided to become Bobover Chassidim. They now have ten lovely children and aside from their lack of proficiency in Yiddish, are virtually indistinguishable from the Bobovers-from-birth in my community.

My mom grew up in Brooklyn , attended Bais Yaakov elementary and high school, became a CPA at Deloitte, and “retired” after ten years on the job to be a full time mom.

Then there’s my neighbor Mrs. S. the Second, who I’ve known since I was very young because she’s a close friend of my grandmother’s. She wears pants, doesn’t cover her hair and is one of the most generous people I know. The children of Mrs. S. the First are like grandchildren to her. She has their picture hanging on her refrigerator, and when Mrs. S. the First had her last child, Mrs. S. the Second brought the baby to the Bobover shul for his Shabbos bris. She has impeccable taste and probably has more shoes than everyone in the group put together.

Mrs. L. is probably the last steady “member.” She’s in her eighties. I’m not quite sure what her story is, but apparently her husband used to be a Conservative rabbi. She’s can’t walk very well and she doesn’t get out much, but she looks forward to sitting outside on Shabbos. She tells me all the time.

It never ceases to amaze me how easily and well everyone gets along, how conversation flows so naturally and seamlessly even though we’re all so different. It kind of makes me think that our differences, though very obvious, are in many ways superficial, and the things that tie us together are much more significant than those that set us apart. I guess there are things that every woman or mother worries about, whether she’s wearing pants or seamed stockings.

Sometimes I think that when we pass judgment on large groups of people, when we fail to judge them favorably, it’s because we’re seeing these people as a group, a large, amorphous, often menacing mass of exactly what we ourselves probably do not know. We forget that every group is comprised of individuals, real people with the same concerns, fears and insecurities as you and I. When we start looking at people as people, it becomes a lot easier to love them. And that, I think, is how change starts.

New Yorkers Aren’t Rude

Chol ha-mo’ed is the time of year when we start looking for activities that we haven’t done on previous chol ha-mo’eds, at least in the past several years, but preferably not at all. This year we were at a loss so a family friend recommended a scavenger hunt in New York City.

We had just completed one challenge (“To which store does the man without a shirt tell you to go?”) and we were waiting for our next one. The four of us were standing on the sidewalk crowded around my brother’s iPhone (Challenges were communicated via text message). I guess we looked somewhat lost because a man stopped and asked us just that.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

We explained that we were, in fact, not lost; we were waiting for a clue that would direct us to the next location in our scavenger hunt. He laughed (apparently he heard of  the hunt before), and we made small talk for a few moments. It turned out that he was a delivery man so he knew the city well. When we looked lost, he thought he’d offer to help.

I’m not sure why small acts of kindness such as this one move me the way they do. Maybe it’s their simplicity, a because-you-can type of thing. Maybe it’s the selflessness of the people who perform them – I’m unlikely to ever run into this man again or be able to help him in any way. Maybe it’s because they prove that we don’t have to invest enormous sums of money or perform great acts of self sacrifice to touch people. Or maybe it’s because we so often underestimate the power of the small, simple actions, and because we do, we forgo opportunities to help people in small, simple, ways, and it’s just so refreshing when someone essentially says, “I know small things are important too.”

And we shouldn’t. Because they are.

Because You Can

It’s that time of year, when my father sponsors a se’udat hoda’ah kiddush in shul. Every year he hires Moshe’s Bakery to cater the kiddush. “They are tzaddikim,” my father says.

Although my city’s current Jewish population can easily support several kosher bakeries, it was significantly smaller only a few decades ago in my city’s inchoate stages. At the time, there were two family owned bakeries, Moshe’s and another one we will call Avi’s. One night, Avi’s Bakery was destroyed in a fire. Recognizing that the profit from the bakery was Avi’s family’s sole source of revenue, Moshe’s Bakery opened their kitchen to Avi’s staff free of charge so that they could continue to bake and sell their products. Moshe’s Bakery put its competitor back in business

I would imagine that the thoughts that went through Moshe’s head must have been something like this: Avi is a fellow Jew who needs help. Since I am in the same business as he is, who is better equipped to help him than I am?

It’s a different way of thinking, one to which most of us are probably unaccustomed. It’s ridiculously linear, simple to a fault. It says, I will help you because I can.

An acquaintance once treated me obnoxiously. When she called me a week after the incident, I was sure she was calling to apologize. I was stunned when after a perfunctory, “hi, hello, how are you?” she proceeded to ask for a favor. Not wanting to perpetuate our disagreement, but not really wanting to help her either, I called a teacher for guidance. I explained to her how hurt I was by this individual’s actions and how this person was now requesting my assistance. “Help her,” my teacher immediately responded. “Why?” I asked. “Because you can,” she said.

Hearing that engendered something of a paradigm shift in my mind. Sometimes we need to help people not because they deserve our help, because it’s easy for us, because it will bring us any benefit at all, or because it’s the right thing to do, not even because we are beautiful, selfless, altruistic individuals, but because we can, because they need help, and we can help them. What better reason do we need?