A friend of my father (z”l) recently posted the following on Facebook, about a teaching he remembered from my father:
“Sholom taught that we don’t say a bracha before giving tzedakah because you might miss the opportunity and it’s more important to just give the money.
Sholom: ‘But when you give the money look the person in the eye and smile. That’s also tzedakah. Sure he needs the money but maybe he needs your smile even more?’”
I have a story to share with you. It’s a hard story, a sensitive story, but one that deserves to be shared.
As many of you know, for the last four years, Richmond Jewish Day School has been partnering with Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy and Save-on-Foods to have our grade 6 and 7 students deliver over 1,000 lunches along with toiletries and blankets, to residents of the Downtown East Side, the poorest neighborhood in Canada. It has been one of our favourite programs, but the most special aspect of it has been the relationship that has developed between the students and a resident of the Downtown East Side, Fred Miller. He has come to our school to speak to our students, he has been a guest of honour at our Chanukah Zimriyah to light one of our candles, and we have been going in small groups to visit him for a number of years, to bring him his favourite challah, to smile with him, wish him well and take him to lunch.
I wanted to make sure that one of the final things I would do in my last week here at Richmond Jewish Day School would be to go and see Fred Miller with a small group of grade 7 students. Fred has not been well recently, and I knew that a visit from our students would cheer him up. And so yesterday, Morah Reesa and I took six students to go and see him and take him to lunch, a bag of Garden City challah in tow. The students were excited, it was a beautiful day, and even though the Downtown Eastside is a hard and often depressing place to visit, the students were looking forward to seeing Fred again. We arrived, and it was immediately clear from when Fred stepped out of the elevator, that he was not well. We walked with him a few blocks to a restaurant in Gastown, and he had a hard time walking there. We were not in the restaurant for more than 5 minutes when it became clear that I needed to get Fred back to his place – he was slipping off of his chair, could not eat, or even talk to the students. I left Morah Reesa with the students, and I took / carried Fred back to his place. When it became clear that Fred was in danger, I called Morah Reesa, and asked her to take the students back to the school, which she did. Upon their return to the school, the group of students met with Malki, our school counselor, and Morah Reesa, to go over what they had experienced and to talk about how they were feeling. The kids were amazing, and composed, and mature beyond their years throughout this whole experience.
At the apartment, I had to call the ambulance to come and get him because his situation was deteriorating fast – he was slipping in and out of consciousness and was in a lot of pain. I rode with him in the ambulance, and watched the paramedics do their incredible work to try and stabilize him. I went back to the school once we got Fred admitted to St. Pauls Hospital, and updated them on Fred’s condition.
The Downtown Eastside is a hard place to live and Fred is someone who has been clean for a number of years. While he has had a number of physical ailments, and we knew about his past and his struggles and addictions, we have always had a meaningful and memorable time with him. It looks like he suffered a relapse and he was overdosing when we went to go and see him. The emergency doctors had to give him a shot of Narcan, which is used to reverse an overdose, and save his life.
One of the things I have always admired about Fred is his compassion and his sensitivity when it came to our students, and even the other residents of the Downtown Eastside. He would always try and shield our students from some of the uglier sights and experiences on the Downtown Eastside, taking us on detours around some of the harder blocks, or shooing away addicts he knew should not be around students. Even in the restaurant, he sat facing away from the students as he was starting to crash, so they wouldn’t have to see.
When I spoke to the students, I shared with them that is highly likely that our visit saved Fred’s life, that our visiting with him was the difference, as he was able to get medical attention quickly. I believe that if our students had not gone to take Fred out for lunch, to be with him and smile with him, that in all likelihood, God forbid, he would have overdosed, alone in his small single room apartment, like so many other people do on the Downtown Eastside. Fred didn’t need our tzedakah yesterday, Fred needed the smiles of our students, and the human contact. I believe that the simple act of students showing they cared, that that simple act of chesed, of loving-kindness, was actually an act of divine providence, of hashgacha pratit. I believe that Fred Miller is alive today because a simple act of chesed by our students ultimately allowed him to get the medical care he needed.
As I was sitting in the emergency room with Fred yesterday, watching the doctors save his life, I was reminded of the famous quote by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, who was a rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto, and was murdered in Treblinka in 1943. “Kinderlach, taire kinderlach, gedenkst shon, di greste zach in di velt ist, zu tun mit emetzin a tova. Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.”
Baruch Hashem that our students went to do a favour yesterday. I am overwhelmed with love for the beautiful, soulful school that is Richmond Jewish Day School, that produces students who run to do a mitzvah, a simple act of chesed. You never know what a smile, a kind word, a helping hand, can do for others.