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The kindness of strangers

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I never had a bat mitzvah. Growing up, I did not belong to a synagogue. My family did nothing religiously organized. I married into a heavily community-affiliated Jewish family. I was married in their synagogue. My husband’s father was eulogized there. My children had their namings there and have attended the temple’s preschool. Our oldest is in Hebrew school and all but my youngest go to Sunday school there. Over the years, we have regularly attended Shabbat services for the kids and High Holy Day services there. I have made some friends and I have met some good people. But truth be told, after over 14 years, a connection to, or a soulful belonging within temple walls, has eluded me. Then one month ago, I found my connection to my Temple community. It was through the heart of the North Shore all the way to the South Side, in Englewood.

My husband and I have volunteered with young people in the Englewood community for many years. This spring, two of my Englewood students, whom I’ve known for the past four years, were accepted into college on scholarship. They are both the first in their families to go to college. The excitement in these kids was palatable. I was very, very proud of them. But, my excitement was a bit tempered when I found out from an Englewood community leader and mentor that the kids had received “the list.” That’s the list everybody gets telling you what you need to bring to college– from soap to a duvet and everything else in between. I remember that list– it represented the first step into my independence—and the argument that ensued between myself and my mom about my deep desire to buy light mint green sheets. She was attempting to dissuade me from my color choice as it would, “show every piece of dirt and dust!” I won the fight. (But she was right. Duh.) However, for my students, this list represented something else: an additional, unexpected roadblock. They had beaten the odds, earned scholarships through academic merit, and yet the reality set in that despite all that, they couldn’t afford the things they needed for school. They couldn’t afford the new beginning.

I was bereft. I was angry. But the larger issue for me was the injustice. And even larger, my issue was that here on the North Shore, I knew no one knew anything about it. So I called my friend, who is also a rabbi at my synagogue and I told her the story. She had been involved in many mitzvah projects over the years and I thought she might provide me with some guidance. A starting point. Anything. She listened intently and then asked me to email her the lists as well as a mini bio about each kid’s journey. I did. She then forwarded the information to about 30 people within our synagogue walls. The subject header read: “Want to help an incredible student go to college?” I was CCed in the email. Literally, within two minutes, someone emailed me offering $500. One minute later, I received an email donating $200. And it snowballed. People from the original email passed it on to friends and so on. In poured gift cards to Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and Target. Checks. Cash. Someone offered to bake cookies and brownies and mail them to the kids during the year like she did for her own daughter in college. Another person bought sheets and a duvet. Pillows, lamps, soap, shampoo, laundry baskets, hangers, cleaning supplies. It was soup to nuts. Every single item covered and then some. Then I received a call that someone wanted to buy a brand new laptop and right after that, another laptop had been secured for the other student— at a shiva no less!— by someone simply being moved by the sharing of the story of kids who so desperately want to make it.

I cried. I cried tears of gratitude and happiness. I was so unbelievably moved by the kindness of strangers who were in turn moved by these kids’ stories and motivated to take action to help them succeed. Englewood, geographically and culturally, can feel like a very far away land from the North Shore. It would be easy to turn away and pretend like the kids there don’t dream about growing up and being someone great, just like our kids do. What I feel happened, was that strangers made attachments to the hope. Bigger things were opened— much more than just wallets – doors, opportunities, hearts. The students were sent off with a sense that they are deserving and that people – strangers, who felt a world away from them— believe in them. As for me, as someone who has felt at a distance in connecting in the organized Jewish community, I also finally felt like less of a stranger myself.

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