By Stacey Zrihen
Here in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, we go all the way. We don’t have a few small restaurants, we have dozens, some of the best you’ll find anywhere. We don’t have two or three schools, we have dozens, many of which are new, huge, and beautiful. Some communities have a weekly shiur; we’ve got hundreds for men and women every week. And when our community does chesed, it’s no different; we go all out.
Recent weeks have been a whirlwind that has affected our community in a way I cannot remember in the 35 years I have lived here. Everyone has been affected, their lives turned upside down in ways big and small.
Before the storm, my daughter and I played with the Hebrew letters that would spell “Sandy”—samach, nun, dalet, yud. We reorganized the letters and created “Nes yud dalet”—the miracle of the 14th (the storm hit on Monday night and Tuesday, the 14th of Cheshvan). We davened that the nes would be that no one from our community be physically harmed from the storm. A little far-fetched, I’ll admit. We then calculated the gematria of “Sandy,” which comes to 124, and noted that perek 124 of Tehillim mentions floodwaters. OK, noteworthy. After the storm, when we reviewed the week’s parashah, however, we were certain that it was not accidental that Hurricane Sandy arrived during the week of Parashas Vayeira.
Parashas Vayeira, so famous for the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, describes Avraham not only performing the mitzvah of hosting guests, but literally sitting outside in the desert heat (right after a b’ris milah) desperate for someone to come. Really? I try to perform acts of chesed when I can, but I can’t say that I’ve ever sat outside my front door hoping and praying for a chesed to come along. I most certainly could not relate. Then came Sandy, and these past weeks have been different.
I have not only felt but watched my friends, family, and community express a desire to do chesed so strong that there was actually some despair when their home was not needed or meals were already arranged. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar. We invited more than 15 different families to sleep in our home once we got power back, hoping someone (anyone) would come to stay! When a friend who was housing and feeding 18 guests starting 24 hours after the storm heard that another neighbor had bought diapers at Wal-Mart and delivered them to Bayswater, she was devastated that she hadn’t done that too. Another friend was actually a little bummed that her expected company got their power back—she was so looking forward to housing and feeding them! Two other friends all but had a tug-of-war over which of their houses some friends should stay at.
I knew I needed to put my thoughts in writing after the following texting exchange with my brother-in-law, who wrote to ask me if I knew of ways he could help local hurricane victims. (After feeding and housing my family for a week, I would have called it a day, but he and my sister were ready for more!)
It looked like this:
BIL: Now that you have power back, I’m sure you’ll find out how you can help others. Can you please let me know what’s out there in ways to help?
Stacey: Of course
A day later . . .
BIL: Nothing yet?
Stacey: Maybe call Achiezer—they seem to be coordinating various efforts.
BIL: You housing anyone?
Stacey: Have a woman from minyan and her kids coming tonight—her husband is out of town and they have no power. Another couple coming Shabbos.
BIL: How did you get them?
Stacey: Drugged and kidnapped them
(Eight minutes later, our power shut off for a second time, and there went our guests . . .)
What makes this recent situation unique is that while some members of our community (many of whom are not used to receiving help) are now in need, everyone in our community is feeling the need to give. Those blessed with no damage or loss of power jumped to the forefront, but even our friends whose own homes were devastated are finding ways to give. One woman we know took someone she met at Chabad with her to Achiezer so that she could help him fill out his FEMA forms.
Thankfully, as the power is restored, fewer people are finding themselves on the needing end, but all of us still have this tremendous desire to help.
And so I would like to share some suggestion on giving.
Focus on your own strengths and specifically on the situations that present themselves in your own life (i.e., you don’t usually need to search for chesed). Hashem has a way of sending the specific acts of kindness that he wishes for each of us to perform right to our door (think Avraham and the angels). Don’t go running to Achiezer if your neighbors need help emptying their basement. Don’t worry that you didn’t sort clothing when there are 25 boarders in your house that are loving your homemade lasagna. As the days and weeks wear on, many of the people needing temporary housing may be settled, but inviting them for a Shabbos or weekday meal can give their more permanent host a needed reprieve.
Most importantly, not all chesed has to be done on a large scale. A morning phone call to check up on a friend, letting someone pull into the parking spot you were eyeing, or a kind word to someone waiting in line all qualify as chesed—especially now.
Even if the act is small, our neighborhood is known for doing things with a full heart. It makes all the difference.
Stacey Zrihen is the cofounder of i-shine, an afterschool program for children coping with illness or loss in their family. She is also a longtime resident and big fan of the Five Towns/Far Rockaway community.