We celebrated two notable birthdays: the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Tu B’Shevat (the “birthday” of the trees.) It also happened to be my own birthday, which I happily spent at service projects around New York, part of UJA’s community-wide MLK Day of Service.
In all, 5,000 people ventured into the cold to participate in dozens of UJA-supported programs across the region.
I made my way to four projects, with my children taking turns joining me — really, what more could a dad ask for on his birthday? Jewish service learning and packing supplies at Union Temple in Brooklyn for families in need. Putting together baby-care packages at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side for low-income parents. Learning from former Borough President Ruth Messinger about the “Talmud of MLK” at JCC Harlem, as we prepared to assemble meals to be distributed at the Community Kitchen of West Harlem.
And at Sixth Street Community Synagogue in lower Manhattan, I found myself having a conversation I’ll long remember. We were there with Knock Knock Give a Sock, an organization that collects socks for the homeless, launched just a few years ago by then-NYU student, Adina Lichtman.
At the program, where homeless people and volunteers sat together to eat lunch, every one of us received a bag with two pairs of socks, one to keep and one to give away. It was an effective way of recognizing our shared humanity and erasing the lines between “them” and “us.” Adina spoke about the anonymity so many homeless people face and posed an interesting question: “Do you know the name of a single homeless person?”
When I turned to one of my tablemates, a man who likes to go by “T,” I instinctively asked, “Where do you live?” His response was, well, complicated — because T is homeless.
From talking with T, I gained a more nuanced understanding about the reality of being homeless. And I was very glad to leave the program with a different answer to Adina’s question.
That exchange really captures why UJA invests in these days of service. We accomplish a tremendous amount on the day itself. Beyond that, our hope is that people will see the vast need in our community and be moved to come out and volunteer again and again.
Because we should have a friendly chat with people like T year round. Food needs to be delivered to hungry people year round. Older adults should have people reaching out to them year round.
I want to thank the thousands of volunteers who came to serve and learn together, and all the organizations that worked tirelessly to create meaningful programs.
Monday may be remembered as the coldest day of the season — but it was unforgettably warm in all the ways that count.