When I woke up to a snowstorm this morning, I was so happy I could dance. It wasn’t just snow, it was big-flaked, sticky snow, the kind you could make snowballs out of were there enough of it, and it looked for all the world like there would be before too long. I grabbed my camera, bundled up and headed outside to find a bizarro Jerusalem as much as a bizarro snowstorm. Unlike the procedure I’m used to, they are so unprepared here,
no one has shovels or salt or snow tires or parking chairs. In lieu of a plow, a construction vehicle drove down main streets with its shovel to the road, accomplishing absolutely nothing since there was no accumulation there.
And who uses an umbrella in the snow?
(Photo Stolen From: Shanee Michaelson)
On the ground, it almost instantly became piles of slush, the kind that splatter like a puddle when you stomp on them. By the time I finished running my Friday morning errands, it had almost all melted.
Far more lasting in the world is the effect left by people. We all fall to Earth in some time and place not of our choosing, and in the grand scheme of things, no one’s stay on this Earth lasts appreciably longer than a snowfall in Jerusalem. Really, the biggest difference between us is that, as people, we can make our worldly impact permanent, for good or for evil. This week at Pardes, we remembered two students who, though they were taken far before their time, didn’t just melt away but rather left legacies that continue to positively impact Pardes, the Jewish People, and the world. Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein were alumni of the Year Program and current students in the Pardes Educators Program studying to be Jewish day school teachers when they were murdered in the terrorist bombing in the cafeteria of Hebrew University July 31, 2002 during the Second Intifada. Each year since then, Pardes has sponsored a Yom Iyun shel Chesed (a day focused on kindness) in their memory, a day when we take a break from our normal class schedules to go out in the world and do good.
This year’s Yom Iyun began with abridged morning classes themed around Chesed, חסד, translated by Rabbi Shai Held of Machon Hadar in New York, not as “lovingkindness,” a meaningless word often found in Bibles and prayer books, but rather more accurately as “acts of kindness done in love.” During the large brunch following morning classes, it became obvious just how much Marla and Ben exemplified this trait. While eating the big country breakfast: biscuits with butter, eggs and cheese with “sausage,” grits, home fries, “bacon” salad, and maybe the best peach cobbler I’ve ever had, I and most of the other Americans in the room were downright giddy. But once the presentation started, everything changed—the girl with the infectious smile who made a trip to the airport just so a friend could arrive in Israel to a friendly face, who regularly kept Rav Landes after school to ask questions; the tzitzit-wearing DJ and musician who never backed away from an intellectual challenge, both aspiring Jewish educators. The more I learned about them, the more I admired them, and the more I admired them, the more painful it became that they were stolen away. After only a few minutes, I felt like I’ve known them all year. They
were are Pardes.
I have rarely been so motivated to go out in the world and do good as a Jew as I was following that presentation. Luckily for me, we all got that chance directly afterward. This year’s Yom Iyun featured three chesed projects: The first stayed in Jerusalem to prepare lunches for hospital visitors. The second and third went to Tel Aviv to either paint walls at a center for the children of Darfuri refugees, or to volunteer with the Jaffa Institute, an organization that runs various programs in the area to help impoverished children and their families. I chose to volunteer with the Jaffa Institute.
We began in their conference room with a presentation about the horrifying scale of poverty in Tel Aviv, then immediately got to go downstairs to the warehouse and do something about it. We split into two groups, one would pack boxes with food for the poor, the other envelopes with petitions for the rich. I opted for the boxes, but my group threw back 20 boxes so fast (thanks in no small part to my rugged brawniness) that we got to do both. Following this, we took a short bus ride to one of their after school centers to play with the kids. As much fun as stuffing stuff is, this was what we really came to do. All week we had been told to find a friend and plan getting-to-know you and English-learning games for groups of kids. When we finally got there, our plans for pedagogical versions of duck-duck-goose and rock-paper-scissors at the ready, the kids were so engrossed in their computer and video game screens that they hardly noticed us. Some people found some loose kids started trying to play with them, others found craft materials and began making things, hoping that some kid would see them out of his peripheral and decide he’d rather make stuff out of paper with white strangers than continue to shoot at bad guys, others just tried to look busy. A friend an I found a small group of boys playing FIFA soccer on a PlayStation 3 in the back and went to cheer them on.
Sometime while they were in the middle of their game, a woman came out of nowhere and started hugging and kissing the boy sitting next to me. When she got off him, she turned to me and said something like, “You see this kid here? He’s the best in the class at math! The best! He’s going to be a math professor someday, aren’t you?” The boy had just scored the first goal of the game maybe a minute before this and paid little attention. I assumed she was his mother, but then she turned to the boy on the couch opposite him who was definitely not his brother and began hugging and kissing him in the same way, then went on her way. I like to think she works there. But even if she doesn’t, her enthusiastic encouragement really drove home just how important this work is more than any formal presentation on poverty could have—it reminded me not only of how many of these kids probably don’t eat meals regularly outside of Jaffa Institute programs but also of how many of their parents probably work nearly all day every day and have little time or energy left to give them once the day’s through. As someone who’s never lived without every advantage in the world and then some, I can’t even imagine what this woman’s encouragement, the Jaffa Institute in general, and potentially even our being there, must mean for them.
After a few minutes of trying to play FIFA with them himself, my friend went to the shelf of games and got out Memory. No one seemed interested at first, but we eventually managed to cajole one boy into leaving the PlayStation to play with us instead. We soon had a group of four: Three Pardesians and him. We started a system where, after a card is flipped over, we say what the object it depicts is in English, and he tells us it in Hebrew. It was a ton of fun and we all learned a lot.
The belief that rain in Israel is determined by the Jews’ righteousness dates back at least as far as the Book of Deuteronomy. After seven years of drought, this winter has been one of the wettest in Israel’s recorded history. The water level of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is at a four-year high, but still at least 3.5 meters short of its optimal amount. I want to leave a lasting impact. I say we make it overflow.
Quote of the Week: “’Love your neighbor as yourself’ is not a Commandment, it’s a fact.” – James
Hebrew Word of the Week: שלג (“sheleg”) – snow