There are some times in life when you meet people who help you understand why we were given life. A few weeks ago I was privileged to spend Shabbat with Rabbi Moshe Lefkowitz, director of an organization called Afikim
. You should all go their website to find out more, but in short, it is network of afternoon centers across Israel for disadvantaged and troubled families - religious and not-religious, providing enriching, constructive, and development activities for children as well as parental, vocational and home training for parents. It is really an amazing organization that provides invaluable services and resources in an attempt to solve many of the social, educational, and economical woes of poor and underdeveloped towns and cities in Israel. He also used to be the Director of Meir Panim, a well-known and widespread soup kitchen organization in Israel.
He spoke to our group and I spoke to him privately afterward.
I asked him why he does what he does. Now he's a pretty religious guy - wears a bekeshe, long beard - a real chassid. To me that was surprising, that someone like that would be so committed to helping Israeli youth and attempt to improve Israel's social framework, and I asked him what made him different from other charedi people who don't seem to be trying to make a real difference in this world. He told me that actually a huge majority of Jewish chesed organization are run by chareidi or chassidic Jews. However, and this is a big however, most of those are intracommunal projects - providing services for one's own community and one's own social and religious circle. While valuable in its own right, it is somewhat selfish and shortsighted not to look outside of your own box, your own 'daled amot' when looking to make a difference and help people.
Moshe said that when started out as a teacher, he somehow came to small towns, like Yerucham, and he saw the tremendous lacking and needs that existed in those places. He thus decided that he would try and give people what they needed - and he built an organization around what people needed - food, clothing; simple things. This is the highest form of giving, he said, giving people what they need, what they want, not what you want to give them or what you think they want. It reminded me of a passuk and Rashi in parshat Eikev:
י:יח - עשה משפט יתום ואלמנה - הרי גבורה, ואצל גבורתו אתה מוצא ענוותנותו:
ואהב גר לתת לו לחם ושמלה - ודבר חשוב הוא זה, שכל עצמו של יעקב אבינו על זה נתפלל, "ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש"
Here Rashi points out that the Torah delineates God's greatness in connection with His "modesty" and acts of chesed, specifically providing food and clothing. Rashi then emphasizes the greatness and Godliness of small acts like that, giving food and clothing, adding that it was all Yakov lived for as well.
Moshe then pointed out the distinction between this form of giving and kiruv, or as they call it, keyruv. He lamented the fact that 'kiruv' is about telling people something, saving them, giving them what you know is best for them. He said that when he goes to big rabbis to get approval and support for the work he is doing, they always ask him how much 'kiruv' he's doing. Why, he asked, couldn't they understand the value in helping poor, underprivileged Jewish, Israeli kids who needed some help, some hot food? Is that not the essence of giving and the greatest imitatio dei, Who gives to us what we need, not what He needs - for He needs nothing!
But even without being a 'kiruv' organization, through his programming that he provides he does make an impact on people in a religious sense as well. He told me one story that one hungry, homeless guy once came to Meir Panim for food. When he got up to the serving table and saw a chassidic guy running the center, he asked Moshe where the box of kippahs were to put on. Moshe replied to him "what do kippahs have to do with this? What does religion have to do with this? You're hungry, I have food, come and eat and be happy". He said that after a few weeks or months, this guy started coming with a kippah on his own, started bentching... That, he said, was the greatest form of kiruv, showing people what it means to be religious and inspiring them be like you - that believing in God means living a life a purpose and goodness. Nothing changes sterotypes of chassidim like a chassid serving food and running social programming to needy children and adults across all spectrum of Israel's society. Imagine if every frum person made this kind of impact on people - the masses would come flocking to be passionately involved in this life-changing and inspiring movement!
Now if only there were more people like Him/him in this world...