The Jewish Week
A Tale Of Two Cities
Rifka Rosenwein - Special To The Jewish Week
I live in a thriving Jewish community. I look about me and see
new houses going up all the time, kids tumbling out of every one of them. I hear
the conversations in the kosher restaurants or at the local grocery about
choices of schools, career options, investments in stocks or real estate. I go
online to our very own listserve, Teaneck Shuls, and read the dozens of postings
each day — people trading in everything from contractors to carpools, from
babysitters to Yankees tickets.
This was the town I moved to nearly 10 years ago. I knew it would be a great place to raise my kids and live a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. It would also be a community where I could find like-minded peers — ambitious, bright women and men combining successful careers with family life and communal and intellectual pursuits.
But then, nearly two years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. And a whole new town opened up to me. This one lies just beneath the surface of the other, more familiar one. I entered into this alternative universe unwillingly, but now that I am firmly entrenched in it, I continue to marvel at how active and challenging and engaging it can be.
Behind the facades of many a home unfortunately lie families in distress. There is illness, sometimes chronic, sometimes acute; there is unemployment or economic hardship; there are difficult marriages, unhappy adults, straying children. None of this is unique to my community, of course. In fact, these are the cliches of suburban life: no one could possibly live up to the pristine standards that the beautiful homes and manicured lawns would seem to suggest.
But what leaves me astounded is the myriad of individuals and groups that spring up, on their own initiative, to serve and aid those less fortunate than themselves. Now that my eyes have been opened to this underworld community, I see signs of it everywhere.
There’s Project Ezrah, a grassroots organization that came into being when the economy went south, to help those in our community in need of financial assistance. There’s the group of women who meet every Tuesday morning to recite Psalms for Jews around the world who are ill or are victims of terrorist attacks. There’s the friend who attended clown school for six weeks in Philadelphia so that she can be well trained when visiting the sick in local hospitals. And there’s the group of amazing friends who banded together to help me on my new macrobiotic diet, forcing me to eat well, almost despite myself.
Mind you, these are not angels swooping down to repair the world. These are the very same people who take care of their families, pursue their careers and carpool to soccer. They work quietly, often anonymously, on these acts of chesed, or kindness, and they get the job done.
I am the first to admit that I used to be oblivious to this world of doing good. I’m not sure I even knew it existed. Of course, I gave my charitable donations to what I considered worthy causes, and I tried to help people out when I could. But my focus was inward: on my career, my family, my own circle of friends. I did a good deed when the opportunity presented itself. What I am learning, by contrast, is how people create opportunities to do a good deed.
The effect can be contagious, even in the smallest of gestures. The joke about TeaneckShuls is that people are always looking for a lift to somewhere. “Is anybody driving to Brooklyn on Friday?” “Can someone drive my grandmother here from Monsey?” My initial, cynical response to these posting was: get your own car! But lately, I’ve been noticing a new trend online. People are now posting messages when they are driving somewhere and have space in their car. “Does anyone need a lift to Newark Airport? I’m going on Sunday and have room for two…” Mitzvah goreret mitzvah — one positive act leads to another, goes the Hebrew expression.
We are approaching the High Holy Day season. This has always been a period of introspection. In the past few years, between the breakout of the intifada in Israel and the attacks of Sept. 11 — both of which occurred at around this time — the Days of Awe have also served as a kind of wake-up call. Clearly, there is much to be done on the world stage and too much, too much that needs to be remedied in Israel. But charity, as they say, begins at home. Look around you and listen closely. You too may find a way to help someone in need, be it by giving them a lift to Midtown, or simply by giving them a reason to smile.
There’s another Hebrew expression, the full meaning of which I have only learned these past couple of years. It’s really more like a blessing, something you will say to another person after they have already done something wonderful. Tizku l’mitzvot — may you be worthy to perform additional positive commandments. It can truly be a z’chut, a privilege, to perform an act of kindness for another. If nothing else, it means you are in a position to do so. I can think of no better wish for us all for this coming New Year.
L’shanah tova tikatayvu v’tachataymu. Tizku l’mitzvot.
The Jewish Week
Wired To Community
When it comes to the Internet, I am a minimalist. Sure, I use
e-mail, I get news updates from various sites and I have occasionally purchased
books from Amazon.com. But I’ve never “surfed” the Web, promulgated jokes to my
22 closest friends, or corresponded with strangers I’d “met” online.
Until now. A few weeks ago, I was trying to advertise a service when a friend suggested that I post a notice to a list serving my community: TeaneckShuls@yahoogroups.com. Enough said, right?
Go ahead, laugh. But this group has changed my life. Ask my husband. Not a day goes by that I don’t come home with some tidbit to relate from the list. He claims this is only aiding and abetting my natural predilection for gossip. But there’s a reason I’m a journalist, and hey, talk about keeping your finger on the pulse!
The entire array of daily concerns of those in my community is on display for anyone to see. I now know when a neighbor needs someone to fix their basement, or is looking for a part-time secretary for their medical practice, or has a spot open in their carpool.
At first I found the barrage of messages in my in-box to be an annoyance. By now I’m addicted.
Of course, as much as I laugh about my own sense of voyeurism, the list, on one level, is really just a bulletin board, reflecting the natural ebb and flow of a community. But the reason I became addicted to my almost constant stream of messages is that I have to come to realize that during these times, it has become something much more.
I happened to join the list the week of the tragic bombing in the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem. To the extent the Internet can instantly connect you to people and events far away, this list-serve made me feel the tragedy and the pain in real time, and with real names and faces. Every member of the list seemed to know someone directly or indirectly affected by the bombing. People posted messages from eyewitnesses, from relatives of the victims, from friends asking others to pray on behalf of the injured. You could click onto photos of the victims or descriptions from their family members, bringing them to life, even in death.
This sense of connectedness has continued over the last several weeks. People have posted e-mail they receive from friends in Israel, messages urging concerned citizens to lobby the White House or Congress when criticism of Israel mounts, descriptions of the orphans left behind by one attack or another, who need our assistance. These kinds of details are not available in your local newspaper.
I am feeling so torn during this terrible time for our people, wishing there was more I could do, feeling guilty for worrying about it all from this very safe distance. TeaneckShuls is hardly the answer. But it’s not to be totally discounted, either. Just as members trust each other to recommend a reliable handyman, they trust each other to provide a level of understanding and support during these trying times that they know cannot be found elsewhere.
One great danger of the ongoing violence right now is the threat that it poses to the already tenuous connection that American Jews have to Israel. Outside a select group of highly committed people, American Jews are not moving to Israel, are not visiting Israel and are losing touch with the realities of life in Israel today.
My little list-serve is a link. It is like a quiet alarm that goes off every hour or so while I sit at my desk going about my business. Yes, I have problems in the office that I have to deal with, but someone just got shot in Israel today. Yes, I do have to resolve my childcare issues for the fall, but there’s a little girl in Modi’in still waiting for her mother to come out of a coma brought on by being in the wrong pizzeria at the wrong time.
The truth is there is not that much we can do sitting here in America — although I will put in a plug for the solidarity rally being held in Manhattan on Sept. 23. But we can make sure that Israel is never far from our thoughts. We can be sure to include the injured in our prayers. We can send aid to families who have suffered tragic losses. And we can offer support and connectedness to one another, here and in Israel. We can offer community.
We are now entering the holiest time of the Jewish year, which happens to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the start of this intifada. Last year at this time, many of us thought the violence was just a blip, a distraction on the road to peace. Now, we have all but lost hope for a real peace; we don’t even know how the current violence will ever end.
We have much to pray for on this Rosh HaShanah. Those prayers, of course, are between us and God. But there is much comfort and strength to be derived from praying, with our families and loved ones, as a community. This is why we don’t pray at home. This is why we go to shul — and not the virtual kind, either. May we be privileged to have our prayers answered this year, for ourselves and for all the people of Israel.
L’Shana Tova Tikatevu V’Techatemu.