If you’ve ever been around a 5-year-old for longer than a minute or two, you know one of their favorite things to ask is “Why?” Long after you have answered, or at least tried to, they will continue to pepper you with a string of “Whys” until you forget how you even got onto a certain topic.
Our daughter Madison was exactly that age during high holiday services in 2014, as and my husband Jeff and I were perched high up in the balcony in our regular seats with the other parents and fidgety toddlers, each praying ours was not making the worst commotion. Madison was sitting on the carpeted floor at our feet, pushing a little red matchbox car back and forth, creating a ramp out of the siddur. It was probably sacrilege, but she was quiet so I let it go.
The Rabbi’s sermon focused on tikkun olam, the idea that as Jewish people we are not only responsible for our own welfare but also for the welfare of those around us. He talked about how sheltered we’d become in our quaint little neighborhood where everyone had what they needed and then some. Then he went on to remind us about the men’s homeless shelter housed in our own synagogue basement and run by volunteers from the congregation. Without two volunteers manning the overnight shift each night, the shelter could not remain open. He emphasized what a mitzvah this work was and asked all the members of the congregation that had volunteered in the past to stand up and be recognized.
Within seconds, the people in front of us stood up followed by the people next to us and when I looked down at the main floor of the sanctuary lots of others were standing too. I was dumbfounded. These were people with full lives. People with children and big careers—and yet each of them had found the time to spend a night at the shelter.
As I scanned the crowd in awe, I felt a tiny little tug at my skirt.
“Mama, why is everybody standing?” Madison whispered.
“Because they volunteered at the men’s shelter we run,” I whispered back.
“We run it?” She asked loudly and somewhat incredulously.
“I mean they run it, all the people standing up.”
“But why can’t we do it, Mama?”
It was that question, “But why can’t we do it, Mama?” that changed our lives for the better. In that moment, I vowed the next time congregants were invited to stand, we would be amongst those who volunteered. We had no excuse. We lived right across the street from the synagogue and I work from home. It had simply never crossed our mind.
When it came time to sign up, we decided that once a month Madison and I would volunteer to set up the beds and serve dinner—then Jeff would pick her up and I’d stay for the overnight shift.
From the very first time we set foot inside the shelter, I knew we had made the right decision. Madison was the ideal icebreaker. Without a second thought, she walked right over to the dinner table, plopped down in an empty seat, opened her little lunchbox and began eating alongside the men as they gazed over at her innocent little baby face.
It was obvious they loved having a child around, as some had children of their own elsewhere—and some were even grandparents. These men couldn’t wait to play Uncle and showered Madison with attention from the get-go. As the months passed, they played chess with her, became masters at tic-tac-toe, learned to color again and even created their own makeshift version of baseball using a spatula as the bat and a packaged fortune cookie as the ball.
At bedtime when Jeff would arrive to pick Madison up, everyone was sad to see her go. It would be thirty days before they’d get a chance to laugh and play with her again.
Last year a few days before Valentine’s Day an urgent email was sent to the congregation letting us know unless two people stepped forward for the overnight, the shelter would be forced to close that evening. Everyone including Jeff and I had made romantic dinner plans and yet we couldn’t bear to think of the guys not having a place to stay. We cancelled our plans and offered to both do the overnight shift as long as we could bring Madison. They agreed.
Madison was overjoyed when we told her the news of our sleepover and immediately set out to make Valentines for the men. That evening while setting up the beds, she gently placed little chocolates on each of their cots like she’d seen in some of the hotels we’d stayed in.
That night we had dinner together like one big happy family, and reminisced about our childhood days and how we all looked forward to getting Valentines. We laughed and shared tales of childhood crushes until it was time for bed.
Later that night when everyone else retired to their cots, I stood over the shelter sink doing the dishes; still smiling over all the fun we had and grateful for those five little words uttered years ago from a child’s little mouth that set us on this path and changed our lives forever: “But why can’t we, Mama?”