Hello, my name is Emma Epstein and I have just biked more than 400 miles from Washington DC to Cleveland to be with you tonight and celebrate Shabbat under the beautiful night sky, soon to be filled with stars. I didn’t realize this, but apparently, it is common for congregations in the warmer summer months to have Friday evening services outside. After thinking about it for a moment, I realized that having Shabbat services outside gives us the chance to welcome the stranger, allowing others to join in prayer and song. I love the idea of open doors when celebrating something like the coming of the Sabbath Bride.
I am honored to be here tonight, giving you the d’var torah and to tell you about my year of service with AVODAH, the Jewish Service Corps.
AVODAH is a program that facilitates the formation of an intentional, pluralistic Jewish community. All of the Corps members work with various social service organizations who work on the frontlines to fight poverty and tend to our nations underserved. In DC, Chicago, New Orleans and New York, more than 60 AVODAH Corps members live, work and learn together in order to support one another through the difficult experiences that arise in the long fight for social justice.
I am here this evening to tell you my story and to teach you about how the torah commands that we all must fight until we live in a just and fair society.
A few months ago, six of my 10 roommates were walking together in a nicer neighborhood of DC. On the way, we passed by a man, lying face down on the grass next to a tree. He appeared homeless and hungry and we offered him an apple and water that we carried. He took the apple and subsequently, let it fall to the ground. From his mannerisms, it looked like he had been drinking and probably needed a safe place to go for the night.
Melissa, one of my roommates, suggested we call the homeless emergency hotline, which will provide transportation to shelters when the temperature in D.C. reaches or falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. We learned about the hotline in the winter time, but thought that someone might answer on this warmer night.
Someone did answer the phone, but told us the last van was in for the night. The closest shelter was over ½ mile away, but we had learned, most shelters require individuals to check in earlier in the day, and only provide emergency shelter beds when the temperature is 32 or below.
We thought he might be sick enough to go the hospital. Melissa reminded us that if you go the emergency room and are uninsured, it is in fact federal law which states that after an initial screening, doctors are required to treat you, no matter if you are uninsured or otherwise.
The man, whose name we later found out was named Rafael, continued saying “solo quiero ir a mi casa,” I only want to go home, and together, my fellow Corps members and I strategized about how to ensure Rafael would pass the night safely. We were influenced by our year of work in the various social service agencies. We knew the city and had engaged with the local population in need.
Rafael suddenly pointed in a direction and said “casa.” We knew of a church near-by and surmised that maybe he was staying there. Many churches in DC tend to lend the homeless a safe place for the night, regardless of age, race, income or any other demographic. Rafael kept repeating vamos a mi casa, let’s go to my house. In our 7 person parade, he asked, porque ustedes son tan especiales, tan especiales, como unos angeles, why are you all so special, so special, like little angels.
It confused us that he kept talking about his casa, when from face value, it appeared he had no house. When we arrived at the church a few blocks later, he insisted on leading us around to the next block. We were hesitant and I confronted him sternly and directly in Spanish that we were going to have to leave him.
He began to walk away, took a swaggering step and spilled his water. Hesitantly, we followed, until he pointed to a new condo, the walkway of a new vacant condo, and said, aqui esta mi casa. His house consisted of two thick gray, wool blankets on the ground, in what appeared to be an excess puddle from the rain. He once again, asked us why we were tan especiales and we left, some of us returning home and others continuing on with the night’s plan.
I cannot imagine another group of individuals, out on a weekend night, who would stop and not only engage with a stranger, but be competent enough to ask questions and be able to mentally navigate the system of available social services. It is because we had unique experiences engaging in social justice work all year. Just a year ago, this same situation would not have been possible.
This story has three if not more endings. It has a happy ending; we successfully accompanied Rafael from the street to his casa, where at least he had warm blankets. This story has a sad ending; that ultimately, his bare, exposed house showed a hard reality of homelessness in the city. And this story has a never ending.
The never ending to this story relates to some of the greatest mitzvot in the Torah. It is our lifelong obligation to continue serving others and to ensure that society cares for all of its residents. This week’s portion, Parsha Ki Teitsei contains 72 of the 613 mitzvot, more than any other portion and many of them elaborate on how to care for our fellow human beings.
Verse 22:8 in Parsha Ki Teitsei says that “when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet or railing for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”
I see the house as our society, which has the potential to protect and nurture all of its residents. The railing or parapet is our social service network. In order to ensure that the parapet is safely and thoroughly constructed, we have to encourage each other and share ideas in order to build a supportive network.
This past year in AVODAH, we gained knowledge of the tools that are needed to build a functional parapet. I did AVODAH and can now participate in the construction. AVODAH creates leaders like me, who will continue constructing the parapet. Everyone has an obligation to help build, to help create a society where no one will fall off the roof. I challenge you tonight and throughout the next week to think about what the dangers are in your society and where the holes in the railing are. What are the identified dangers for people in Cleveland, in Beachwood who do not have enough to eat, or who do not have a roof over their heads at night?
Working together in communities enables us to construct and rebuild and grow. Within AVODAH, the supportive community has allowed me the chance to engage in difficult, straining work and come out of the year not feeling burned out.
AVODAH has given me an awesome foundation to continue building a parapet in DC and elsewhere. I wish to share that knowledge with a larger community. As I embark on this 3,400 mile journey, I know that knowing I have support from areas around the country like Cleveland, that will keep me going. As I embark on this journey, spreading a message of the important work AVODAH does, I am also asking for financial donations for AVODAH. Since this is Shabbat, I am not asking for you to make a donation today, but I have left envelopes and I am hoping you will be able to make a donation in the next weeks for AVODAH. Thank you and again I am honored to be here with you tonight. Shabbat Shalom.