David was 11 years old and was preparing for his bar mitzvah. His father came home one day, all white in the face. He told his family his job had been eliminated by his boss. His mother had lost her job three weeks earlier. By the time David was 12, after months of struggling, the family had become homeless. Their only choice was to seek refuge in a church-run homeless shelter since the local Jewish community was not set up to help.
Upon entering the shelter, David was overwhelmed with what he saw by the hopelessness that infected the residents of this place. Interestingly, David never lost hope because he kept thinking about the bar mitzvah he would soon have. Yes, he accepted the fact that there would be no money; that the dreams of a big bar mitzvah with a great party were all but forgotten. He did not care. If he could be called up as a bar mitzvah to the Torah, he would be happy – and that is what kept him going.
But David also recognized that he was the only child there with anything to look forward to. He soon found himself driven to do something that would help the other kids. He knew there had to be something he could do to make things better for them, but what could it be? Something? Anything? He felt so sad for the other children who could see nothing in their own future.
After a couple of days, David decided to explore the building. As he was walking around, he came upon unused rooms and at once thought how wonderful it would be to turn these rooms into a spacious place for the other kids to learn. What he had discovered in his brief time there was that a lot of the children had lived in so many different shelters that they had never attended school. This shocked David because he himself loved school, and he valued the opportunity in helping the kids in his classes with their homework.
So, what did he do? David told the principal of his school what was going on. David also promised the principal that if he donated old texts and workbooks to the shelter, David would instruct the other homeless children in the newly found rooms. The principal not only agreed, but he, too, volunteered his free time to help David tutor the kids. And so it was.
One day, something happened that proved to be one of the most difficult things David ever faced. David’s parents found jobs, allowing the family to leave the shelter. This forced David to have to say goodbye to his “students.” But David could not leave them behind. He kept going back to the shelter to work with the kids he cared about so much. He volunteered his services in the neighborhood where he lived.
David’s bar mitzvah came. And during his address to the congregation, he said, “People have always helped me, so I believe it is always time to give something back. There is nothing more important than volunteering. There is nothing more important than Tzedakah. There is nothing more important than Tikkun Olam.”
David’s story should inspire all of us to reach out and become stewards of our communities, especially in the New Year. Even in our very troubled economy, while we are all pinching pennies these days, we must always remember that even a used book, an old sweater we no longer wear, a can of food, or just a few minutes of compassionate understanding, can mean the world to someone who is in need. The time to act is now. Keep in mind that with every gift, we make two people incredibly happy – the one who receives and the one who gives. Give all you can, whatever you can, until it feels fantastic!
Wishing all a Shanah Tovah Umetukah – a New Year 5783 filled with all that is sweet and good as we work together to help repair the world that certainly does need our utmost attention.
Rabbi Richard Perlman is the senior rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore in Peabody.