By Ariana Zwern, NFTY CWR teen
One of the most inspiring moments in my life came at a time when I least expected it. About this time last year, my family and I were discussing our financial limits and the choices we’d have to make going forward. The conversation ultimately concluded with all four of us bolting from the table in tears, and I ran out the door and headed towards the park. When I got there, I plopped down the middle of a concrete slab, cried, and made a mural out of rose petals. Lost in self-pity and sadness over the financial unrest wreaking havoc on my family, I was completely oblivious to my surroundings. When I ran out of petals, I wandered to a patch of grass, sat down, and picked some daisies. And then, for the first time, I looked up. And I saw her.
She wore ragged scraps of clothing and her filthy hair was tied back in a messy knot with a piece of twine. She had a blanket, but it was thin and torn and even the gentle breeze made her shiver. Her meager belongings lay jumbled in a basket at her side. As I walked closer, slowly but without fear, I saw within it a water bottle with no cap, a plastic fork missing two of its tines, a torn box of Band-Aids, a single sock, a container of baby oil, and two cigarettes. That was all. She looked up as I neared, then quickly down again. She probably figured I’d just walk by like everyone else. After all, aren’t homeless people scary and dangerous and unworthy of human connection? But I sat down beside her on the bench and said “Hi, I’m Ariana.” She looked at me, tilted her head in a confused, cautious manner, and after a moment replied with “Hello”. I sat there for a second, not knowing what to say, and just looked at the ground. She then pulled out the baby oil and started rubbing it on her cracked, calloused, sore-covered feet. I continued to sit there silently and watch, daisies limp in my hand and tears still trickling down my face, lost in a peculiar kind of awe. That moment was incredible and unbelievably profound. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt more at home in my life than I did at that moment. There was no judgment between us; she didn’t resent my clean clothing, and I felt no disgust at her bedraggled appearance. All the pre-conceived differences between us melted away completely. We just sat there in silence together, and simply existed; two lost souls taking a moment to acknowledge and comfort each other.
She never asked why I was crying, and I didn’t feel the need to say. It didn’t matter. She shouldered a little of my pain, I took on a little of hers, and we held space for each other in the cold, cruel prison that life can sometimes be. I didn’t have to wipe my tears, I didn’t have to keep up the pretenses, I didn’t have to worry about the streaks of mascara meandering down my face or what people might think of me. And the strong, kind, good woman at my side rubbed oil on her feet without people judging her or feeling disgusted by her or even worse, pretending she didn’t exist. Each of us was emotionally exposed and vulnerable, but I’ve never felt safer. She showed me a piece of herself and, in a way, I did too. That woman gave me two things nobody else could have: A moment to truly feel what I was feeling, free of judgment and opinion; and a sense of humanity that goes far beyond how we talk and what we wear and what we do with our lives. We were the same, and it was amazing.
I got cold, eventually, but I sat there anyway because she needed me and I needed her; and it didn’t matter so much that my hands were freezing on the flower stems, because for the first time in a long while my heart was warm. She rubbed her feet in silence and I sat there in silence and thought about my lovely, warm home. The bittersweet irony of the situation truly hit me in that moment; the fact that after running from conflict rooted in finances, here I was having an incredible experience with this homeless woman. Any concern about my family’s financial situation vanished completely. I was overwhelmingly grateful for what I had, and in that moment I developed a newfound appreciation for the beauty of simply being alive. And I realized that sometimes, one needs to feel the pain, the cold, the heartache…not just to appreciate the good things more, but also to figure out who one is when times are hard. Do you accept pain, or stand up for what you deserve? Do you give up, or fight for what you believe in? Do you sit alone, or provide comfort for another? Who are you when you have the choice to be nothing….or everything?
Eventually, the sun started to go down and I knew I couldn’t prolong my stay any longer. I took her hand in mine, placed the daisies in her hard, calloused palm, and said “These are for you.” As I stood up to go, she caught my wrist in her other hand – kindly, softly – and looked into my eyes for a minute. She said so much, though no words breached her lips, and finally she choked out “God bless you, child” and let go. I stared over my shoulder as I walked away, reluctant to part from that surreal moment, and saw her head bowed over the flowers I’d just given her. She smiled, even as her tears fell on the dainty petals, and nothing I’ve seen since has ever been so beautiful to me. She was old, frail, dirty – but on the inside, she was golden. She was incredible. She was inspiring. And I will never forget.
As a child, when asked to explain Judaism I would often say “Basically, its Christianity minus Jesus with some Hebrew thrown in the mix.” Although not particularly accurate, this was an easy definition for Christians to relate to and a tried-and-true method of satisfying the curiosity of my friends. Since then, though, my answer has changed significantly. The strictly religious aspect of Judaism may be important, but for me – it falls second to the principles and values so central to the way we, as Reform Jews, practice our religion. We believe in the practice of tikkun olam, making the world a better place. We believe in kindness, empathy, justice, and individuality. We believe that every life is a gift, and that we must accept one another despite our differences. We value community and connection and creating an environment where in three seconds flat, complete strangers become one’s family.
Assuming most would find my story pointless, I have been reluctant to share it with many. But one day, I told it to a group of fellow Jewish teens at a CWR event, and their reactions helped me grasp the true value of the experience I’d had. The encounter I had with the homeless woman highlights so many important Jewish values. It emphasizes the importance of looking past appearances, and realizing that a person is far more than a simple shell. Life is about choosing to take a leap of faith and connect, as opposed to wandering through our existence alone. It’s about being oneself despite societal pressure, and living in a more meaningful way. Making a difference in someone’s life isn’t difficult. Kindness doesn’t cost anything. Reach out to those shunned by others, embrace differences, and never feel ashamed of who you are. Everyone is worthy. Everyone is beautiful. And everyone deserves a chance to feel cared for and understood.