Random Acts of Kindness

Every morning, I walk my dog through our neighborhood park. During these walks, I always pick up whatever litter I find to help keep our beautiful park clean and to keep the trash out of the waterways.

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Tenney Park

Since I keep my eyes on the ground for signs of trash while I walk through the park, every once in a while, I am fortunate enough to find some money. Indeed, sometimes I have found as much as $50!

Over the past few months, when I have reported a fortunate discovery of money to my son, who is away at college, he asked me what I was going to do with the money. His question gave me pause because in the past, to be honest, I just put the money in my wallet and considered myself lucky, and really never thought about what I would do with the money. Since I am fortunate enough not to need the money to meet my basic needs, I responded to my son that I would use the money for random acts of kindness.

Of course, responding in that way presented a new challenge to me, namely, to consciously remember that I am committed to using my fortunate findings of money on the ground to engage in random acts of kindness. This has actually raised my consciousness about the privilege I have to be economically secure so that when I encounter those who do not have that security, I can provide some assistance to them. It also means that these random acts of kindness need to supplement rather than supplant my normal charitable giving.

Earlier this week, I was given an opportunity to help someone in need. While relaxing at home with my wife watching a show on TV, I received a call from someone who I have been supporting along with a few other people in a Circle of Support. Our support is generally strategic and not financial (i.e., how to find housing and employment). It was unusual for him to call me at night, particularly because we had a Circle of Support meeting scheduled the following evening. He asked me if I could come to meet him, and I asked him if it was urgent. He said it was, so I agreed to do so.

When I met him, he told me that his few belongings were gone from his apartment and when he asked his roommate what happened, his roommate told him that he had been evicted and the landlord had thrown out all of his belongings. He was wearing slippers as his shoes had been thrown away. I told him I would contact his landlord in the morning because self-help evictions and throwing away a tenant’s possessions are both illegal. However, the most immediate concern was where he would spend the night.

He asked me if I would take him to an inexpensive motel as he did not want to spend the night in a homeless shelter. Although I had some concerns about where he would stay in the future, I decided that my random act of kindness would be to honor his request. Before doing so, I bought him a sub sandwich and a bottle of water. On the way to the motel, he also asked if I could give him some money for a soda. Since I was concerned that a sub sandwich and a soda would not give him sufficient sustenance the following day, I gave him $20 to buy some food the next day. In doing so, I told him that I found the money in the park. He didn’t believe me, but I insisted it was true. He told me he would pay me back and I informed him that he did not need to worry about it, although if he chose to do so once he was back on his feet, that would be fine.

While random acts of kindness may not change fundamental systems of oppression and poverty, they are the necessary acts that help each of us survive and remind us of the qualities that make us human. Perhaps if we all practice random acts of kindness on a regular basis, those who suffer from oppression will receive enough relief from their burdens to persevere another day.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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My Rabbi’s Granola Bars

Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.

As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.

Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”

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Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.

Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.

Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:

  • b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
  • achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).

As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.

Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.

As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Justice & Charity: Feeding the Hungry & Homeless

For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary.  On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought.  On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.

Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change.  Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store.  Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.

However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food.  I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store.  He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to  do so.

Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him.  However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink.  Both seemed pleased at my effort.  Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.

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In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word.  My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice.  A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts.  As the author states:

Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

Sometimes systems change is personal.  Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice.  I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.