With Strangers Like This, Who Needs Friends?
When my husband, Seth, and I, were dealing with the enormous challenges related to our daughter Ayelet’s illness, the outpouring of support we received from our community had a profound impact on my understanding of community. Upon receiving the tragic call from the Gift of Life informing us that no perfect match for Ayelet existed in the worldwide bone marrow registry, we immediately posted on Facebook information about our first bone marrow drive. The simplest way to describe what happened next is that our community took matters into its own hand. We didn’t have to ask people to do anything — they intuitively knew what to do: hundreds of drives were held around the country, mostly hosted and organized by complete strangers; and, because of those drives, over 62 people have found their match. This outcome has not only ensured, in the most concrete and meaningful way, that our Ayelet’s memory lives on, but, has also offered tremendous strength and comfort to Seth and me.
These “strangers” continued to stay with us throughout our journey with Ayelet — sending care packages to the hospital with Ayelet’s favorite toy of the day and the organization of “tehillim” (psalm/prayer) gatherings when we were in the ICU. Emails we’d receive would typically begin with: “You don’t know me but….” One of the more unforgettable “strangers” was a Chassidic woman from Brooklyn. Every week, after Ayelet tragically passed away, in January 2012, for months and months after the conclusion of shiva, this amazing woman sent us (all the way to the upper west side) homemade challahs. This kind of compassion and the hundreds of other such acts made me wonder if I would do the same. If I heard about the pain of a Chassidic family, would I rush in to attempt to soften it? Or would I convince myself that “they” weren’t really part of my community and I therefore had no obligation toward them.
During our journey, there was a sense that ideological or political boundaries didn’t exist. This compassionate community (which we referred to as “Ayelet Nation”) cared only that a fellow Jew was in need. For me, as a Jewish professional, this experience was actually quite startling. After all, in my professional world I see individuals and institutions often berated and demonized; stellar and remarkable Jewish organizations and leadership chronically besieged by critiques, complaints and derision. Even a relatively benign public statement or an announced new initiative can be met with a series of critical emails and phone calls. None of this is new, of course. Moses and God certainly experienced this aspect of our people, so, at the very least, we Jewish professionals are in excellent company! But my personal experience has opened me up to the possibility that if we can get past the noise or the latest negative email or petition; we can be attuned to the kindness of Jews. While our story with Ayelet is well known to many, I don’t think that the “random” compassion we experienced was unique. Just last week, I learned about a Satmar Chasid who gave his kidney to a complete stranger.
Its like the old Jewish joke about the essential difference between a Jew’s and an Anti-Semite’s view of Jews: the anti-Semite is described as loving “Sidney Cohen”, his accountant, trusting him with his life, and at the same time insisting that “the Jews” are a “despicable and untrustworthy people”’; vs. the Jew who insists that “Sidney Cohen is a thief and scoundrel”… but the Jewish people!!!! Ahhh…What a beautiful people we are!” So I urge all of us, including myself, when we feel frustrated and disappointed by the “Jewish Community” writ large, that we actually delve deep into the community, feel the kindness and renew our faith in the Jewish people — one stranger at a time.
Hindy Poupko, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna (Class 19), was appointed as Director of Israel and International Affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York in 2008. She also serves as Executive Director of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, a network of over 40 young professional organizations. In November 2012, Hindy was named to the Forward’s list of the 50 most influential Jews in American that year. Hindy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.