It is very important for Jews to first help family, then other Jews close to us, then Jews not as close. Next, if possible and appropriate, Jews should help those of any race or creed.
I was blessed to see my parents, a”h, do many acts of kindness for each other, for my brother and me, for their daughters-in-law, and for extended family, neighbors and many others.
My father learned procedures so well that he was able to help my mother with her health issues. Hospital staff would call him to find out the best ways to work with my mother. My mother, during her illness, didn’t want my father to spend all of his spare time with her, so when she saw an ad from a Jewish agency seeking volunteers to help newly-arriving immigrants she encouraged my father to apply for the position. Without her encouragement, he probably would have never sought the position. This post opened up new opportunities for personal fulfillment in his retirement years.
At the age of 10, I witnessed an act of kindness toward a stranger that left a deep impression on me. While my family and I were waiting in line to enter the Washington Monument, a man was finding it difficult to fit into a tight parking spot. My father helped the driver by letting out the emergency brake of the car in front of his, which had been left open. He then steered that car a foot forward so that the other man could fit into the spot. My father’s act was a powerful lesson in the importance of helping others.
When I asked my very ill mother what she was knitting, she replied, “I’m knitting sweaters for babies with AIDS.”
I am very aware of the powerful Kiddush Hashem brought when a Jew helps a non-Jew, as it places the Jewish people in a positive light. And even if no one witnesses the act of chesed, helping someone in need is still the right thing to do.
Here are two personal examples of this: I formerly worked (mostly spending time running Oneg Shabbos programs and assisting in many Jewish-related activities) in a nursing home whereby 98 percent of the residents were Jewish while the staff taking care of them was mostly non-Jewish. There was an undercurrent of friction between the non-Jewish and Jewish staff members.
An Irishman (I’ll call him Tom) with no family member involved in his life moved into this nursing home, a result of a Jewish neighbor’s compassion for a man having difficulty living on his own. Tom’s adjustment to his new home was hard for two reasons: he had to get used to being in a nursing home with all of its strict rules and less privacy than he was accustomed to. Additionally, as an Irish Catholic, Tom had to get used to seeing religious Jewish men and women living a lifestyle alien to him.
The non-Jewish staff, especially one home health aide I’ll call Ron, took a liking to Tom. Ron was among many of his co-workers who were bitter about how they perceived the way they were treated at the nursing home.
I visited Tom in his room whenever possible, and brought him to programs when he was up to it.
An Irish society in Manhattan sent literature about the Irish county Tom was from that he loved to look at. But as there was only so much time I could spend with him, he was forced to remain in his room much of the time – with nothing to do. He loved watching old movies (and television in general) but didn’t have a TV, since no family member or friend was available to get one for him.
When I accepted another job, I capitalized on an opportunity to do something nice for Tom before I left the nursing home. My wife and I had gotten a new color television set despite having one that was still working fine. We could’ve kept the old one, but after telling my wife about Tom she enthusiastically agreed that it would be a nice gesture to give the television to him. When I brought the TV to Tom’s room, he became teary-eyed and gave me the same sweet smile he usually saved for me. After we wished each other well, two things left a powerful impression on me.
Walking by his room, I saw Tom focused intensely on an old movie. This gave me a great feeling inside. And Ron, the bitter home health aide, heard that I had given the television to Tom. With an enthusiastic smile on his face, he called out to the other home health aides, “Look what Alan did for Tom.” Many of the home health aides saw Tom’s new television for themselves – and they seemed thrilled at the sight.
The second experience I’d like to highlight: I certainly wasn’t thrilled to see a homeless man, about 70, standing outside the subway in affluent Forest Hills, Queens. He just stood there, not looking for handouts.
He stood there day after day. I soon learned that he slept down in the subway, away from the platform, on a cardboard box. People would sometimes buy him food (myself sometimes included), for which he was appreciative. He wouldn’t go to a shelter because he said he got beat up there.
I was very involved with a theater group at an Orthodox shul a stones’ throw from where this homeless man “lived.” We had done a number of theatrical programs, raising money for Jewish causes. With Thanksgiving behind us and colder weather arriving, we decided that the next play would raise money on behalf of the homeless.
We decided that by helping the homeless, we would be helping this man (who I’ll call George). We never questioned whether he was Jewish. The only things that mattered were that he was suffering, he was near our shul, and we wanted to help him. The play raised $70 in donations. I went to George on the chilly subway platform and asked him what we could buy for him. He was very touched by our offer.
“You know, it’s getting colder,” George said. “I could really use a green, velour sweater, with a high collar and a zipper.”
I was surprised with his specificity. With $70 on hand, I headed to Alexander’s department store. Instead of purchasing the sweater he had requested, I purchased a beautiful, stylish, warm winter jacket – marked down from $189 to $89. Joyful with the belief that George, with so much taken from him, should have this jacket, I was only too happy to lay out the $19 difference.
With jacket in tow, I found George lying on the cardboard box in the subway. Upon informing him that we had gotten something for him, his red face from the cold seemed to warm into a gentle smile.
Thanking me, he took the bag. When he pulled out the stylish winter jacket, I was so happy for him. With a big smile he hugged me and said, “Thank you very much.” But then he added, “I can’t use it.”
Stunned, I told him that he deserved it and should enjoy it.
“I wish I could,” he said, “but if I wore it, people would beat me up and steal it from me. It’s too nice.”
With visions of having to return the jacket to an extraordinarily crowded Alexander’s, I asked George what he wanted instead. “A green velour sweater with a high collar and a zipper,” he calmly answered.
I said I would work on it and wished him a good night. Back to Alexander’s I went, but this time with reinforcement – a woman who knew how to shop. When the clerk inquired as to why I was returning the jacket, I said that it was too nice.
With money returned to me, my professional shopper and I went to the men’s section. Somehow, within a minute, she found the green velour sweater with the high top and the zipper. She had the good sense to put it in a box and wrap it so it looked like a present. After paying the approximately $70 cost (about the amount we had raised), we headed to the subway stop. I hoped that George wouldn’t be there on this very cold night, for maybe he had overcome his resistance and gone to a shelter.
But he was there. Upon seeing us, he smiled as we approached him. When my professional female shopper handed him the wrapped present, he was genuinely moved. His numb fingers made it hard for him to open the package, but although we offered to help him he insisted on doing it himself.
George finally opened the box, held the sweater in front of him and inspected it. Then he looked at us and said, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I wanted.”
I believe that this is exactly what Hashem would have wanted someone to do for this lost, forgotten soul. If anyone had seen two religious people giving this gift to a homeless man and the hug of thanks he gave us in return, it would have been a Kiddush Hashem. But even had no one seen our act, George knew what Jewish people had done for him. And even if he’d forget, it was still a good thing to do.
Postscript: Some time later, on a cold evening, I tried to get George into a Y so he could take a shower and spend the night. The Y needed some kind of identification from George – ID that he didn’t have. So I took him to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to get a non-drivers license. A clerk there told me that I needed proof of his birth. Pointing at him, I said to the clerk, “He’s standing there, living and breathing – that’s proof of birth!” But the clerk didn’t buy that line.
George, adopted and raised by a non-Jewish family, had a clear enough mind to tell me to write to the county clerk in Iowa in order to obtain his birth certificate. The last name I knew for him was a decidedly non-Jewish name given to him by the people who adopted him. But I would find out that his birth name was Miller – so there’s a slight chance that I was helping a born Jew after all.Alan Magill
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