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The Smile Experiment

The Smile Experiment

It was a simple idea, really: a tear-off sheet, like the ones you always see advertising “Guitar Lessons” or “Housecleaning Services.” Instead, I was going to offer “Free Smiles.” I saw a posting for something similar on the new social media site, Pinterest, and I decided to make one of my own. On the top, I placed a large clip-art smiley face, with the words, “Free Smile – Take One!” And the bottom was filled with little sections that could be torn off, one by one, with individual smiles on each tab. I taped it up on my office door and waited.

I figured, at the very least, that it would bring a passing smile to someone’s face who walked by. I didn’t know if anyone would feel comfortable taking one of the smiles, so I made sure to tear one away, showing that it was actually okay to take one. Within a few days, they were all gone! Now, about three weeks later, I have just put up my third new page. And I have noticed a few interesting things.

The kids really seem to like them. When my door is closed, and they don’t necessarily know I’m working inside, the religious school students walk over and discuss the smiles. I heard one girl remark, “I took one and hung it up on my bedroom wall!” I heard another student ask his friend, “Hey, did you get one yet?” And other students seem to like knowing that I am smiling at them, even while they are home.

The adults have resonated, as well. After particularly challenging pastoral appointments, where a few tissues may have been used, some of my visitors have liked taking a smile home with them. Some of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah parents like the few moments of relief from party-planning stress that the smile affords. And some of the other staff in the building even take a smile home with them!

What is so powerful about a simple little piece of paper with a smiley-face on it?

It all comes down to what so many of us seek when we go to the synagogue. We search for a bit of sanctuary from the tzuris of our daily lives. We need comfort when we are trudging through the darkest parts of human experience. When we have experienced loss, illness, pain, or heartbreak, we come to the temple for a bit of hope, and a reminder that the world is really okay. When we hear about the very real, very scary events going on in the world around us (in Toulouse, in Sanford, in Israel…). We need someone to say: not every day will feel this bad and not every moment will be this painful. The presence of loving and caring friends and clergy strengthens us when we feel at our weakest.

I think that, at the risk of over-generalizing, the smiley-face pieces of paper symbolize the comfort and optimism that we find among the Jewish community. We know that there is someone who can hold our hand, who can give us a shoulder to cry upon, and can bolster us when we need courage. We know that there are others who have experienced similar challenges, and they have somehow persevered. We even find inspiration in the story of the Jewish people, who have been through so much, and have survived despite it all.

We may feel those qualities in the synagogue building itself, but any little thing that individuals can take home (smiley-face or otherwise) allows us all to take some of those good feelings into the rest of our lives. The sense of renewal and rejuvenation that we feel when we are at the temple can be extended into our daily routines at home.

I pray that we each find something this week that will give us even the smallest bit of comfort, or even the tiniest hint of a smile, when we are otherwise feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the challenges we face. May we remember that we are never alone, and that there is always someone out there who can help us, who can be with us, and who can remind us how to smile.

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