A Beautiful Day In My Neighborhood
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Op-Ed

A Beautiful Day In My Neighborhood

Mr Rogers in the late 1960s. Wikimedia Commons
Mr Rogers in the late 1960s. Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I would ask the same questions raised by many a young girl and boy on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. When is Children’s Day? Why don’t we get a special day of our own?

The response — but every day is Children’s Day! — was never satisfying, not that I felt deprived of the requisite bouquet or tie. My range of vision was then too narrow to see that we commanded attention all the time, and that it was only fair to give our guardians some special treatment and a moment in the sun.

I thought of the standard answer I received each year when friends recently shared a story out of Pittsburgh’s West Penn Hospital, where newborns were dressed in red sweaters and ties. The event pays tribute to Fred Rogers, native of Pittsburgh and host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as one of many different observances of World Kindness Day on Nov. 13.

As an adult, I’ve read a lot about the exceptional deeds Rogers performed in his lifetime, especially the way he modelled compassion to children. When I was a little girl, I could feel his kindness emanating from the television screen. I remember the calm in his voice and the way he made me feel — that his soothing words were meant just for me, though I knew he was sharing them with everyone else watching, too. Kindness is astounding like that. We can generate plenty of it without worrying about diminishing returns.

I watched the video of those adorable newborns, sweater-and-tie clad in their bassinets, over and over. Everything about it made me smile, as did knowing that Kindness Day is a real event, celebrated annually. Part of a global movement to reverse the kindness deficit in the universe, the day is meant to show how fundamental kindness is to human interaction, like a bridge with the power to link people of all backgrounds.

A week earlier, I was bemoaning the plentitude of walls dividing us instead, the general lack of civility in public discourse, and the way so many of us walk around in a smartphone bubble, squandering countless opportunities to exchange basic kindnesses with one another.

In response, I suggested to friends that we take time the next day to perform a special act of kindness for someone — whether an acquaintance or family member, the cashier at the market, a buddy at the gym, even a total stranger. The hope was that it would warm the hearts of both giver and recipient as the cold season got underway. Had I known about World Kindness Day earlier, I would have timed my plan better, but hindsight is 20-20 vision and all that.

I have been handing out little crocheted hearts for a while now, a gesture of love or support, friendship, gratitude or compassion, depending upon the circumstances. I eagerly whipped up a new batch that night.

Early the next morning, a friend took me for coffee as her kindness. I gave the first heart of the day to our barista Kevin, who pinned it to his regular green apron. I beamed, though I had no idea if he was doing it solely for my benefit. A day later, however, when my friend returned to the same coffee shop, she saw that he’d attached the heart to the special red apron he was wearing for the launch of holiday beverage season. He told her it was the best heart anyone had ever given him, swelling my heart to bursting.

Our Torah is filled with laws and customs that cover every aspect of our lives, many of them linked to specific times of the day or year, to holidays and Shabbat. Others impact the way we eat and talk, live and parent, even how we tend our gardens and conduct business. And yet, kindness underpins them all, transcending time itself. 

Kindness Day, whether the official one or a day we designate for ourselves, creates an opportunity to focus on positive interactions with our fellow humans. But according to Judaism, every day should be Kindness Day. It is, above all, the essence of our tradition to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

An act or word of kindness is a moment when we look entirely outwards, taking the time to notice the longing in someone else’s soul. So build bridges. Listen with an open mind. Smile. Greet the person next to you in line at the market. Give generously. And when you have the chance, surprise someone with what may well be the best heart or quart of soup or cup of coffee anyone has ever given them.

Merri Ukraincik, a regular contributor, lives in Edison, N.J., and is a columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.

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