By Syd Nestel and Val Hyman
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada
Holiness is not the exclusive possession of those who engage in detailed ritual observance, nor is it the preserve of those who devote their energies to the pursuit of spirituality. True holiness is found in small actions that make a profound difference to the lives of the people around us and the world in which they live.
Wherever I travel in the Jewish world, I'm struck by the way that ordinary Jews are determined to perform kiddush Hashem—sanctification of God's name—and to avoid a hillul Hashem, the desecration of God's name.
The concept of kiddush Hashem offers a powerful challenge that has particular resonance in our times. Each one of us has to ensure that the word "Jewish" is always associated with the highest levels of ethics and kindness, so that our behavior always brings credit to our heritage and to our God. Rabbi Michael Melchior - at the time - deputy minister in the Israeli government with responsibility for Israeli society and the world Jewish community.
For the past 12 years, the congregants at Darchei Noam have been one of about 30 congregations and churches in Toronto that run a rotating weekly 24-hour shelter for people who are homeless and hungry. Originally, we ran the program in collaboration with a Roman Catholic congregation, who had space for the program that we do not have. While we now have volunteers who are from both denominations, the volunteers are an ecumenical group that is called the First Interfaith Out of the Cold program in Toronto. Darchei Noam contributes about 60 volunteers, about 50% of the total.
Because we operate in a multi-faith environment, and because most of the guests who are poor or homeless are expecting a Christian grace before meals, at our Out of the Cold program we make sure that guests and other volunteers know that most of the Jewish volunteers are present out of sense of fulfilling our Jewish religious obligations. Initially it was uncomfortable for us to put forward our own traditions. Our Catholic co-volunteers had no such compunctions. We, however, did not want to be seen as competing with Christianity, or to make our guests feel that they had to be subjected to a sermon before they were allowed to eat.
But preventing our Christian partners from saying grace, did not seem right, nor did hiding our own Jewish identities and motivations for working with the homeless.
For the volunteers from Darchei Noam, it was important make it known that we are not helping the poor for personal aggrandizement nor are we trying to proselytize. Nor is our presence the result of our individual quirks of personality or own off beat sense of morality. We want to represent our Jewish belief in the necessity and power of doing good. And we want to represent the Jewish community to the general community when we perform these tasks, so that Jewish values and the values of Jews are understood and acknowledged.
To this end, in addition to the Christian grace before meals, we always say the Hamotzi blessing over the bread. Sometimes it is said by a few volunteers, members of the B’nai Mitzvah class, or sometimes it is sung by a family, which to our delight is often followed by a round of applause, as if we had just completed the pre-dinner entertainment.
We also follow a tradition of making a package for each guest at Purim time (thus fulfilling the mitzvah of giving gifts to the poor—matanot l’evyonim). We usually make a package of chocolate, fruit, new socks and a streetcar token. Often we add a little note about the meaning of Purim.
At the end of our winter program, which runs from November to April, we invite our fellow volunteers to an "Out of the Cold Shabbat" where the contributions of all volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, are celebrated. Our Rabbi usually speaks directly from the bimah to our non-Jewish guests and one year invited them to come closer and view the Torah scrolls.
We are often asked by our fellow volunteers or guests about why we do what we do, and this provides opportunities for us to talk about a Jewish way of being that tries to maximize Godliness in this world. This is not without its dilemmas. Sometimes we wonder, who are we, to be speaking of our Jewish faith and traditions when we may not be the most ritually observant or knowledgeable of Jews? Sometimes, we get strange responses when we tell guests we are Jewish, like the time a clearly down and out and lonely fellow spoke longingly about “best girl friend he ever had” who was Jewish. Apparently she was a good cook and had “other talents” as well. Or another fellow who boasted that he had acquired guns for the Jewish Defense League. It not always clear how to respond.
Nevertheless we hope that by making our Jewishness visible as part of our volunteer work with the poor, we help build, in both our guest and our co-volunteers, understanding and tolerance, and the faith that Godliness is dwelling in all people and all groups, and that a commitment to making that Godliness real can in fact make the world a better place.
Questions for Thought and Discussion: