It was a really chilly night in late March, when, instead of playing my daily dose of Fortnite before bed (just kidding), my dad and I headed for church. Yes, not kidding, we went to the United Methodist Church of New Canaan, in order to fulfill my Mitzvah Project.
Now that I have you confused, for my project, I went to New York with an organization called Midnight Run, where along with six others, I personally handed out clothing, fresh meals and toiletries – at midnight – to homeless people on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
This project in fact ties into both my Torah portion and the festival of Passover.
My portion of Metzora discusses leprosy, a disease that was very contagious. No one wanted to touch or go near people who had it, so they were excluded from the community.
Except the Kohen, the priest, who would talk to them. In Leviticus 14:3 it says, “When (a case of leprosy) has been reported to the priest, he shall go outside the camp to see if the leper has been healed.” The commentators say that the priest was not to wait until people came to him. He had to go to them. Even the very contagious person with leprosy needs to be met with personal human contact… no one should be an outcast.
Which brings me to the homeless. It so happens that for me, homelessness is not just something you read about. In the past, I have had friends who were homeless. So when it was time for me to pick a mitzvah project, I didn’t want to simply donate to a homeless shelter or deliver food to a food bank. I wanted to go out to where homeless people live and personally help them out.
Also, today is Shabbat Hagadol, meaning Passover begins this week. The story of the Exodus and the night of the tenth plague is another story about a midnight run.
It says in Exodus chapter 12:
וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, וַיהוָה הִכָּה כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
“And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.”
At that moment, the Israelites had no choice but to prepare to leave right away.
As ex-slaves, they knew and we know what it’s like to be an outsider – and that’s why we are told to love the stranger 36 times in the Torah – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And it all started with that midnight run from Egypt after the tenth plague toward a better life and a more hopeful future. Just like the homeless people I met, who were trying to escape to a better reality.
Also, my haftarah speaks of the prophet Elijah, who visits every Seder table. He’s not there just because he likes Manischewitz (pause), but because he brings the promise of hope to those who are poor, homeless or otherwise down on their luck.
So let me tell you more about my experience that cold night in New York City.
It’s hard to express it, but it was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be.
The other volunteers were members of the church. My dad told them that we were doing this for my bar mitzvah. They were like, “Hey, that’s a great idea.”
Twenty-five people helped to prepare the food and load the van, most of them older volunteers and also a few teens. But as I said, only 7 of us went on the trip, and I was the youngest one.
We drove to Hell’s Kitchen – on the west side in the 40s, which is now a very touristed area. A lot of homeless people knew we were coming, through word of mouth, but a lot were pleasantly surprised that they were going to get supplies to help them through the night.
We would drive around in our van to different stops. Some of the people we served showed us where they sleep. Some had succeeded in moving into a tiny apartment, with the help of Midnight Run and other organizations. Some of them sleep in front of churches, outdoors. Others in recreation buildings open 24/7. At each stop, I handed out sandwiches, asking each person whether they wanted turkey, meatloaf, roast beef or my homemade PB&J.
They were all super thankful. Some even gave us hugs.
One guy needed a sleeping bag so we gave him one and he was ecstatic. He said, “I wanted a sleeping bag so much.”
There was another guy who was using toilet paper as socks and had purple bruises all over his feet. And the toilet paper was getting stuck between his toes. This really hit me hard. But he was super happy to get socks and shoes from us.
Counter to what some believe, I’d say that only a small percentage had mental health or drug issues. Everyone we met wanted to talk with us and was very thankful.
About half a dozen of the people we helped were women and there were maybe 60-70 men. Lots of people. One woman had been living with her husband, and after he sadly passed away – now she is on the streets.
The people we helped would all say “God bless” when I gave them supplies. Everyone wanted blankets and underwear and stuff like that. When we gave people food, most ate right away, but some took the food back for family.
Some of them have jobs, but NONE want to be homeless.
This was an amazing experience and I hope we can do something like this here at the temple.
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