Jewish Journal

Hanging with the homeless at shul

by David Suissa

Posted on Apr. 19, 2007 at 8:00 pm

With about 40 people looking on, the elderly African American woman slowly got up and started singing a song she wrote:
"You can go to church Sabbath mornings
And shout out loud
But you can't hold out 'til Mondays
Before doing things wrong.
Oh, oh, God have his eyes on you and me.
He sees everything we doooo...
He got your numbers, and he knows where you is
Oh, oh, God have his eyes on you and me."
She gave a soulful rendition that made me think of Billy Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues." I went by to schmooze with her; she told me her name is Helen and she's from South Carolina.

Helen was one of about 25 homeless people -- Jews and non-Jews -- who come once a month to have lunch and schmooze with members of the B'nai David Judea Congregation, located in the heart of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The program started a year and a half ago, and it has become so crowded that they now hand out tickets.

I met quite a few people when I showed up there on a recent Wednesday. There was a middle-aged man named Roger, who said he graduated from San Diego State as an English major, and who carries an old-school transistor radio that he says is always tuned to NPR.

I also met George, who sat to my right as we both munched on kosher turkey sandwiches. George looks like an older Hank Aaron with glasses. I could barely get a word out of him; he mumbled to me that he was from New Jersey, and that he heard about the luncheons from a friend of a friend. When I asked what he did in New Jersey, he replied: "I just grew up."

I think he came mostly for the food.

But not everyone did. I got the sense that many of the homeless were also there for the schmooze.

How do I know? You should have seen them open up when David Nimmer, the person at B'nai David Congregation who runs the program, asked the traditional "ice breaker" question to everyone sitting at the two long tables. The question that day was: If you had your own jet, what would you do with it?

A teenage member of the synagogue, who goes to Shalhevet High School, said she would use the jet on weekends to visit random places, like Egypt. A young homeless man said he would sell it and use the money for a home.

An older homeless man said he would use the plane as a place to sleep in, and invite his friends.

My favorite response came from Helen, who, instead of answering, sang her blues song. I heard later that she's a regular who sings that same song all the time -- so I just might pop in again, because I really loved the song.

The "ice breaker" question was not the only ritual that was part of the gathering. There was also the blessing before and after the meal, the singalong to a Shlomo Carlebach melody and, of course, the rabbi's sermon.

Normally, the sermon is connected to the Torah portion of the week. But on this day, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, the liberal Orthodox leader of the synagogue, decided to change course. He started with the notion of "feeling lost," and took us on a 10-minute spiritual journey that brought home this one point: The greatest gift that God gives us is the ability to say that we are never alone.

It's as if the rabbi sensed the inevitable smallness of what the synagogue was doing. Here was a group of homeless people who were about to go back on the streets. He would not see them again for at least another month. How much warmth and love would get on the streets? Who would ask them what they would do if they had their own jet? Who would ask Helen to repeat the lyrics of her song so someone can write them down?

The shul members would all go back to their homes and the warmth of their families. Where would their homeless guests go back to?

So Rabbi Kanefsky did what he could. He poured out Torah quotes, personal stories, Psalms, references to the Jewish new moon and this special time of year, the Jewish idea of renewal, etc. -- all so his guests could take with them an idea that might serve as a protective spiritual blanket: Thanks to God, we are never completely alone.

It was a valiant effort. But as I walked back to my car, while Helen and the other homeless people gathered their belongings and walked back on Pico Boulevard, I couldn't help but think of how alone they would really be.

When I relayed all this to a friend, she mentioned a story she once read in The New Yorker magazine, on people who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. She recalled how one man said that if he received one smile on his way to kill himself -- one smile -- he would not jump.

It turns out that the man never got that smile, so he jumped, and -- guess what? -- he miraculously survived, so we eventually got to hear his story of the missing smile.

What my friend was telling me was not to undervalue the tiniest gestures of kindness, even the gesture of a single smile. The people at B'nai David Congregation were not pretending to solve any "homeless problems." But that didn't stop them from giving their homeless guests a little meal and a shmooze and lots of smiles, while the rabbi impressed on his guests why they would never be alone, even when they felt very alone.

Maybe we were all inspired by a certain blues song we heard that day, the one about God knowing "where you is," and "having his eyes on you and me."

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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