“If we have extra space at our house, and it’s warm here, why don’t we just invite over the people who don’t have somewhere else to sleep?”
My 5-year-old son asked this just days before he and my husband would spend the night at our synagogue as volunteers so that over 30 people struggling with homelessness had a place to sleep.
Interestingly, his question seems to be an echo of the opening of the haggadah that we read on Passover: “May all who are hungry, come and eat.” And, yet, we don’t literally open our homes to the hungry as the text might imply we should.
Jeffrey Goldberg in the “New American Haggadah” points out the hypocrisy of opening with this line: “By the time we read this passage, we are seated, our hands are washed, the wine is poured, the table is crowded with fine dishes. And only now we invite the poor to join us? Tonight, we speak of hunger, but do nothing to alleviate it.”
The irony is intense. And so is the tension that my son’s question raises.
A few days earlier, on our way to the Museum of Natural History, we had passed someone sleeping on a grate covered in a few blankets and surrounded by numerous bags, which got my son thinking and asking. As a suburban family that spends most of our time in the car while moving from home to school to grocery store, we have the privilege of making choices about who we see and who we don’t in a way that my city dwelling peers can’t. My son mostly doesn’t meet or even see people struggling with homelessness. However, I do every day as I walk from Penn Station to my office a few blocks away—and I’ve become numb to those around me.
These individuals are part of my routine. I expect them at the corner sitting under their blue blanket with an upturned hat filled with coins. I’m not surprised or shaken. I’ve forgotten how to even ask the questions that arise from seeing someone sitting amidst bags of belongings behind a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless but not hopeless” or something of the sort.
So when my son began to ask questions, I was reawakened to the pain and suffering of those struggling with homelessness and the brokenness in our community that exacerbates their situations that I so desperately hope will go away if I just don’t think about it. His simple, basic question has me struggling to explain to him—and really to myself—about the reality of many communities in our society where cost of living is high, many jobs pay less than living wages, addiction afflicts people, and health care still is limited.
My son’s keenness and honesty provoke deep exploration and awaken me from my slumber, just like the Passover story reminds us each year of our history, re-engaging us in different ways, whether it’s tradition, narrative, or stories of liberation.
As adults, we’re often stuck in our ways of thinking. Maybe we’re disconnected from our heritage and community or disillusioned by society. And then, at the seder, we have children asking us questions—in many forms and at different moments—to shake us and ensure that we’re engaged. On Passover, the children are mandated to ask us questions not only to keep them interested in the ritual, but to keep us connected to life as well.
I don’t have an answer for my son this Passover about the root causes of homelessness. Instead, we’re committing to explore the questions, support those currently struggling, and work to build more just systems.
To begin, we’re talking about homelessness and not ignoring it. My husband and son spent the night at the synagogue so that homeless guests could sleep in the space. OK, so my son’s contributions are limited; my husband could have volunteered with or without my son so that the guests could spend the night. In fact, he was only able to hand out plates when volunteers were serving dinner, and there were other people there who could have done this. And, I guess I should mention, he got hungry and needed to eat some of the food meant for the guests. Lastly, he was exhausted the next day at school. So, sometimes, I wonder why we did it. Why did we have our son accompany my husband?
Partially, we hope to foster a commitment to service so that he understands that contributing to our community and making sure everyone is safe and warm is just what we do as Jews and as people. As he grows up, we hope it becomes habit. But, I also learned that having him volunteer makes us vulnerable to being asked hard questions and raising issues we often try to ignore. It raises questions in all of us. One of the homeless guests actually said to my son, “Thanks for being here. How old are you? You remind me of my 8-year-old son who I haven’t seen in years.”
When given the opportunity, as our tradition ensures that they are on Passover, our children remind us to question and explore—hopefully re-engaging us so that we don’t neglect our responsibilities—either to build a just society or to connect to our tradition. As long as we include our son in volunteering, exposing him to the complexities of society and the world, he will make sure that we do not ignore our responsibilities even if we can’t fix all of the problems.