You stood there now, wearing an oversized, faded flowered dress, your stringy, matted hair overgrown and sticking to your neck. Your misunderstanding of social cues and norms was sadly pushing you to be the centre of attention – negative attention.
“When you light the Shabbos candles, think of the week that past. Think of what you want, what you need, what you would like to pray for.”
The past week. You looked pensive and I too, thought back to the past week. It had started with Sarah not wanting to sit next to you on the bus, had continued with the girls snickering at your lisp and slightly slow way of talking, and had finished off today with a snide comment from Fiona, the ringleader, of “Is that your Shabbat dress Ariana? Where is it from?”
“If you had a great week, thank Hashem for it and ask that He give you another. If you had a tough week, this is your chance to pray that the coming week is better!”
You weren’t smart, but you were no fool. The simplest person can feel sad and I had watched the spark in your eyes diminish over the past few days. I, who had never felt hopeless at anything in my life, felt your eyes on me as I reprimanded the girls for their comments, pleading with me not to say anything because when I wasn’t there you only got it worse. And I had racked my brain to figure out how time and time again, Fiona managed to fix her eyes on me and turn the entire situation around to ensure her own innocence and, if anything, sterling behavior.
I was young. It was my first time being a counselor at a girls overnight camp and I had forgotten how cruel girls could be. Cunning and sly, just a gesture or a look could suggest a thousand words and evading trouble was easy that way.
“Now girls cover your eyes, say the bracha together, and pray.”
Eleven pairs of hands made three large circles in the air.
“Boruch atah Hashem Elokainu Melech haolam, asher k’dshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
There was quiet. Before I said my own bracha, I looked over at you again. It was with pain and shock that I saw your young shoulders shake with the cries of a ten-year-old girl. You may have been queer, eccentric, even and a little spaced out sometimes – but you had a heart and it was hurting. Your small hands covered the tears that were snaking down your face and suddenly your faded dress looked beautiful and your oily hair looked sleek and voluminous.
I felt my own eyes grow heavy with tears. Tears of helplessness and disappointment – in myself and in the girls I had in my care. I covered my eyes and felt the saltiness on my tongue. And I prayed, too.
Please, Hashem – give me the strength to help those who need it. Give me the strength to be discerning, understanding, bold and determined. Help me to advocate kindness, promote goodness and encourage acceptance.
And Hashem, please don’t let any of my girls cry next week when they light candles.