Forty-six years later I once again experienced the same feeling as I handed over money to a complete stranger. This woman was not quite a complete stranger-- she came to me via a trusted friend. I handed over the bag with the coins and bills that had been taken out of one of our tzedaka (charity) boxes and lovingly counted by our children. They had all agreed that this money should go to JobKatif, a charity aimed at helping those from Gush Katif resettle and find jobs; all donations to them are tripled through matching funds from the government. And as I did this, my thoughts went back to the main street of a very small Canadian town, a very long time ago.
You see, as a psychologist, after many years, I was finally able to understand my behavior as an 11 year old. I knew "rules were rules" and one didn't challenge this. Most of us would simply call it the innocence of childhood. My mother let me go downtown (which consisted of one main street a few blocks long) and even cross this busy main street (its two traffic lights were the only ones in the entire town at the time.) However, I had to be home by a certain hour, and knowing the rules, I knew I couldn't be late. But, back then, a zillion years ago, in this small town far away, there were phone booths and as I walked past the phone booth, for fun I pulled down on the silver coin return holder. As if on Candid Camera (a television show from the good old days where people were surreptitiously filmed in funny situations), tons of coins poured into my hands. Now came the dilemma. What do I do with all this money I was raised in an environment of one hundred percent honesty and I lived a very naïve life. We locked our back door only rarely, I could walk into any store, simply give my father's name and take something home "on approval" and we were taught that the punishment for lying was far greater than that for whatever misbehavior we were trying to cover-up. Knowing that the money was not mine to keep, and that I had to be home and didn't have the time to personally take it to the phone company, I did what I thought anyone would do: I handed over all the coins to a grown-up (whose face I can still picture) and with the urgency of an eleven year old at risk of being late, explained my predicament and asked if he could do me a favor and deliver the money to its rightful owner, the phone company. He of course assured me that he would and I of course believed him. My beloved mother humored me when I arrived home and actually called the phone company to check. No money had been returned. I was devastated. It was then that I learned that adults sometimes lie, and that children can be incredibly naïve. Today, while looking at this lovely woman, perhaps just as naively, I was sure that this time, the money would end up where it belonged.
More recently, one of my children met a man on a New York subway. This stranger somehow realized that my son was Israeli and began a conversation with him in Hebrew, saying he was visiting with his family, his son was in Golani, his credit card had been declined and he needed money to pay for his hotel. Offering to settle his debt upon returning to Israel, he even suggested that our family visit his restaurant. Hearing that he was short of cash, Israeli and a stranger to New York, my son "lent" him forty hard-earned dollars. Yes, the phone number and address he gave were false. Somewhat older than his mom was, he had decided that even if it was a scam, he would feel worse if he didn't give this stranger money and he actually needed it. As a close friend who had her Chanukah menorah stolen twice when placed outdoors, commented, if someone had stolen it, they clearly needed it more than she did.
So now, as I reflect on this woman who I met this morning, I'm reminded of the naivete of children. Our children today, many of whom shed their innocence at an early age and who have much more freedom than many of us grew up with, have a much more complex world to face. They have many difficult choices to make around such things as drugs, alcohol, and sex than we did and have the internet and Facebook to introduce them at a very young age to things we had no idea existed.
As parents and grandparents, a critical question for us is, "Besides our material possessions, what do we want to leave our children when we are gone?" What values do we hope that our children will learn from us and how can we encourage this? I was so impressed when the woman from JobKatif asked for my children's names as she wanted to ensure that they received a personal thank you. Trust me, our donation was not large, but our children will remember her note, learn that their actions were appreciated and feel good that they made a difference in someone's life. They will be surprised but appreciate that someone took the time to say thank you and show that they cared. Being a "mensch" starts with a single, simple act. Be nice to someone, hold open a door, help carry someone's groceries, wish someone a Good Morning or a Shabbat Shalom, say thank you, pick up something that dropped or place litter in a garbage can. Your children learn from your actions– for better or worse. What kind of role model will you be for them?
During this very hot summer, caught up and too busy with our own lives to take a step back, we may not notice what is really important in life: our children. It is your responsibility to look out for and look after them in every way and to make this a priority. You must find a way and take the time to transmit your values and your beliefs. We must all learn to look after and care for one another. As a new year begins, and we reflect upon what we can do differently, we are blessed with endless opportunities to really make a difference, improve our world, and the world we will leave behind for our children and future generations.