Can you please help me?
Jennifer Ginsberg: My stepdaughter, Haley, and I were walking on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, buying a few last-minute items she needed for her upcoming graduation ceremony when we walked by a middle-aged homeless woman who was begging on the corner. The city of Santa Monica is a glaring example of socioeconomic disparity -- it is common to find a homeless person asleep on the same block as a multimillion dollar home.
Santa Monica occupies a unique place in Los Angeles County as one of a handful of the county's 88 cities to use its own money to fund homeless services. The city is known for its compassion toward homeless people, who overwhelming also suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness. Love them or hate them, the homeless are deeply engrained in the culture of Santa Monica, and as a resident of the city, it is something that I must come to terms with and accept.
Maybe it is the social worker in me, maybe it is upper-middle-class guilt, maybe it is the Jewish teachings that inspire me, but I have always felt the need, at the very least, to acknowledge homeless people when I walk by them. I actually find it impossible to not at least say hello when I pass a homeless person. One of my favorite Jewish teachings is from Rabbi Telushkin, who lives in New York City. He writes about how he has a special container in his house for change, and he always grabs some before he leaves for the day for the express purpose of giving it to the homeless people he encounters.
I also have the responsibility to teach my children how to approach and acknowledge such people. Feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless (together with clothing the naked) are established as the prerequisites of righteousness. It is impossible for an individual to make a claim on piety without first having passed this threshold, according to the Torah. Even poor people are commanded to give to someone poorer than themselves.
How does this translate to my daily life, as I happen upon numerous homeless people each day as I go about my normal activities?
My own rabbi speaks about this topic often. One day, a homeless woman approached me as I was parking my car and asked me for exactly $4.75 because she needed bus fare to get to the doctor. I happened to have that amount and gave it to her. Then, as I walked down the street, I was asked by several more homeless people for change, but I was legitimately tapped out. I felt I had filled my quota for the day, but I didn't like the idea of having to say no to all the other people. I almost felt compelled to tell them that I had just bought another woman's bus fare! When I brought this dilemma to my rabbi, he said:
"Give every person fifty cents."
I love the idea of giving a little to everyone (rather than blowing my non-tax-deductible contribution on one woman's bus fare). But as Haley and I passed this woman, whose face looked both hard and gentle, I saw all the women I had ever loved in her eyes. I saw my mom and my grandma and Haley and Kiana. For some reason, I have always felt like it is sheer luck and privilege that separates me from the women I meet on the street. Fifty cents did not seem like enough. I looked in my wallet and only had big bills (interestingly, I have never considered giving a stranger more than a few dollars), so we went into Starbucks to get change.
"How much are you going to give her?" Haley asked.
"I don't know," I replied, "I was thinking three dollars ... what do you think?"
"I think five," she responded quickly.
We got our change and Haley gave her a $5 bill. She was so grateful that she nearly broke down in tears. "You were the first people to help me all day!" she told us. "Thank you so much."
Haley and I walked down the Promenade silently. We passed other homeless people asking for money, but I had no change and no more bills to spare.
Again, I questioned if I did the right thing. Should I have given everyone fifty cents, or was it right for me to follow my intuition and help only this woman that I felt a special connection with?
|Jennifer Ginsberg is a Los Angeles writer and mother to three, surprisingly angst-free children. As a former actress/waitress, turned clinical social worker specializing in addiction, turned full-time mother/part-time psychotherapist/writer, Jennifer is particularly well-versed on the topic of angst. Find out more about her life at angstmom.com|