Beth Cousens is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class 14 and a consultant in the areas of strategic planning, leadership development, and project management to Jewish educational organizations.  She can be reached at

I confess, this isn’t really “my” leadership moment.  But I’ve been thinking about it since it happened during a small meeting I was part of a few weeks ago.

While I was in my University City hotel room, working away on some deadline, my ten or so colleagues from our meeting on Jewish service learning were down Walnut Street, relaxing and chatting about their summers after a very long day of discussing meaningful service, a Jewish theology of service, our own service identities, and so on.

They were sitting together at the bar’s outside tables when a homeless person – too ubiquitous in this part of Philadelphia, just off of the Penn campus – asked them for some change. They offered her some of the bread and other food at the table, and then introduced themselves.  She stayed for 20 minutes, I think; they learned some of her story, she learned who they were, and then she went on her way.

The conversation after she left and the next morning focused on this interaction.  My colleagues felt sure, for all of the reasons that we had discussed all day, that this interaction would not have occurred in the same way had they not been at this meeting on service learning.  They were together, fortified by their camaraderie and motivated by the conversation of the day. They had easy access to food and could make the offer genuinely. They were sitting, without an agenda.

But these are not our typical routines. Most frequently, when I meet a homeless person, I am hurrying somewhere, without a sandwich in hand, and I am encountering person after person.  Sharing of myself in this situation is hard; it asks too much of me.

This is an important challenge, how we share of ourselves while maintaining our own senses of self. But this is the question that we think about all the time when we talk about Jewish service learning: How do we help all of us develop service dispositions, characters or senses of self that help us in the small and larger moments to create dignity and equity for all? How can we be people who stop and smile, who ask how people are, who offer something that we have to help someone else get by?

These are good questions but, again, we talk about these. There was a bigger question raised in this interaction that we had not considered before, one that we could not begin to answer.

Why did no one ask her to sit down?

What is it in our social contract, our sense of boundaries, or our (fearful) selves that prevented us?

More significantly, should someone have asked her? What is equity, here? Where is her dignity respected and where is it destroyed? In fact, I still don’t know.