A man with a long white beard, dressed in rags, comes about an inch away from my face and says, “I’ve been waiting for you.” I try not to act too startled. I had just finished leading a session on spirituality at a day program for the Jewish homeless, and this would be the first of many such conversations, where social norms disappear amid the schizophrenic street prophets of New York City.
As a rabbinical student, my days are usually spent interacting with sacred texts. As a chaplain this summer, the texts are transformed into people, as our supervisors remind us: “People are living texts.” I wonder if people really believe that about themselves.
“Rabbi, you’ve got old eyes,” the man says to me, looking deep into my soul. Clinical pastoral education has occupied my summer days, twice a week in seminars, and the other days interning at a social service agency. Nowhere in our coursework have we talked about the astounding power of staring.
Jay, a homeless man who works as a custodian at a few different synagogues, is looking tired today. He reminds me that sleeping in your storage unit is grounds for immediate eviction. To that end, Jay woke up to a near arrest this morning. Sheyneleh is a Holocaust survivor who comes for free hot kosher lunches at the only place in Manhattan that serves them. I introduce myself in Yiddish. Sheyneleh bursts into tears and holds onto my hand tightly.
“Acknowledging what you can offer is fundamental,” the clinical pastoral education instructors say, “but thinking your presence is fully healing is just blasphemous.”
In class, we’re pushed to differentiate between helping, fixing and serving, to be attuned to subtle implications in language and what might drive using one term over the other. I listen quietly as I shy away from the deeper question: why do I feel so comfortable around such suffering?
Benny, an elderly Jewish social worker who has worked with the homeless for decades, shares: “We’ve got dozens of synagogues on this New York island and how many of them offer services for the homeless? A couple. These are our own,” he says referring to Jews. “Jewish homeless people?” he asks sarcastically, “Maybe in Poland. Maybe in the 1930s. Not today, not in Manhattan.”
My supervisor pushes us. “If we really believe what’s written in Genesis that every single human being is created in the image of God,” he says, “then aren’t you going to give your whole heart and soul when engaging with another?” Our class discusses personal interactions with those who are homeless, weighing the want to acknowledge people’s humanity with a smile, spare change and food, with awareness of the intense mental illness and bureaucratic tsunami many of these people face.
On Monday, there’s a heat wave and the air conditioner is busted. The clients complain to the social workers, each other and the walls, while Benny lets off steam. “Isaiah taught in Chapter 58, ‘Give shelter to the homeless.’ And us? We’re still waking up to the ancient call.” I feel stuck in my deep agreement and frustration for change. I am a transient worker, here for only a few weeks, while the social-work team lives this nightmarish reality with Jay, Sheyneleh and many others.
Our conversation gets interrupted when Lou, a former client at the shelter, who now has a job and an apartment, walks into the office. Lou is greeted warmly.
“Wow, meet a real lamed-vovnik,” Benny says smiling, referring to the kabbalistic idea that there are 36 hidden righteous people who help sustain the world through acts of loving kindness.
I discover that Lou recently helped a new client, Jacob, get off the streets and land a job at the post office.
“I saw him on the corner by the office when I left work,” Lou explained. “I went up to Jacob and asked him, ‘Do you want help?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘yes.’”
Avram Mlotek was recently named in The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” section as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He is a second year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.