Elegy for… a Character: A Tzedakah Story

Even a poor person—one who is sustained by Tzedakah funds—
is required to give Tzedakah to another person.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
Laws of Giving to Poor People 10:5

My friend Renee was a character. She was well known in our town; you couldn’t miss her. Her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair was often bound in a pigtail like a schoolgirl’s. She drove an SUV that was constantly breaking down, packed to the roof with the telltale possessions of an inveterate hoarder. She had weary eyes that conveyed years of adventures.

She lived on the precipice of homelessness. For a while she stayed in emergency shelters—scary places that she would recount with stark tales. In recent years, she found more stable housing, finding cheap rooms to rent in residential homes around Natick. And she knew how to work the system, making her rounds to get the food, gas money, and, especially, the money for medications that she needed.

I suppose that’s where I came in. She started dropping in on me years ago at the synagogue where I worked. At first she came for Tzedakah money, knowing that people gave me funds to distribute in emergency situations. But she would linger, telling me stories, asking about my family, and, I think, looking for some human contact that can be the harshest thing people who are very poor lack.

Like many such characters, she tested the nerves of those who didn’t “get” her. When she began to show up at the synagogue—ensconced in one of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—some people whispered behind her back. Being Jewish herself, she accepted my invitation to come to Friday night services. Sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah families with out-of-town guests would murmur about the woman who looked funny and took too much of the food that was offered before the service began. The staff grumbled when she would sit on the couch outside my office, waiting without an appointment to grab a few minutes of my time. Hebrew school parents and kids kept their distance.

She was funky. She looked funky, she talked funky, and sometimes she smelled funky. Initially our relationship was based on shnorring—she needed money, and she knew that I was usually reliable to help her pay her heating bill during the cold winter, or fill a prescription for her urgently-needed heart medicine.

Sometimes she exasperated me. I know, of course, about the social service agencies in our area that are there to provide a safety net. I begged her—I insisted—that she connect with them. She would reply that her nonconformist hippie soul wouldn’t be part of their “system.” That made me crazy; I threatened to cut her off if she didn’t take their assistance. But she would inevitably show up with a bill for heart medication, and of course I would help pay for it.

After a while, the dynamic of our relationship changed. She knew I was going through some rough times personally, so one day she invited me to lunch. I demurred—where in the world would she get the money from?—but she insisted. So a few days later, she took me out to a local diner. I’m sure we got a few stares. But the gesture meant so much to me: she considered me a friend; she knew I was down, and she treated. She didn’t even let me cover the tip.       

Yes, she was a character. She wasn’t invisible, but she became one of those offbeat folk who populate a suburban town who are tolerated as long as they don’t become too much of a nuisance.

But because she was my friend, I knew things that others didn’t.

I knew that she had a Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin. I knew about her daughter at American University, of whom she was very proud. I knew that she had spent time in Israel, and spoke a limited but comprehensible Hebrew. And I knew she still saw herself as a “Sixties Person”—committed to volunteerism and social activism. She once told me stories about working on the Clearwater Project on the Hudson River with Pete and Toshi Seeger.

But now I’ll share something with you that very few people knew (including her daughter, until I told her). She couldn’t stand just being on the receiving end of the cycle of caring. “This isn’t me,” she’d say, insisting that her younger self was alive and well inside her rather emaciated and graying body.

So one day she handed me a large folder. “I know you see a lot of hurting folks throughout the course of the day,” she said. “So when you feel it’s appropriate, please give people one of these.”

Inside the folder were ten envelopes labeled “For You.” In each one was a handwritten personalized note. Each was a gentle message of compassion and tenderness. For instance:

To remind you
How unique and

Wonderful You
every day,
every hour

—And to wish you
extra energy for the things you’re
currently tackling…

Renees Gift.jpg


Please accept this
as a symbol

of some
great things
comin’ your way—
for example
Enjoy your

And enclosed in each card was a $2 bill. (A $2 bill!) The instructions were not to keep this money for yourself, but to take it and use it to brighten someone else’s day.

Look at what an extraordinary Mitzvah that is. She did it completely anonymously; she left it to me to identify the adults, teens, or kids who needed cheering-up. I was not to tell the recipients where it came from; it was just from “a friend, someone who cares.” And the cards were designed to trigger a chain reaction of compassion and human kindness. This is Tzedakah—but Tzedakah with the personal touch, rooted in compassion and a desire to make a connection with people who may be desperately lonely.

Renee died last week; her heart finally gave out, surely not helped by the on-the-edge lifestyle she was living. There weren’t obituaries in the paper or online; few people noticed. Many who encountered her over the years may have forgotten her, or figured that she just skipped town. But she deserves a better memorial.

I know many more juicy stories that she shared with me, but I won’t tell them here. Suffice to say that she was a character, and she lived out the Rambam’s principle that everyone’s (everyone’s) task is to bring kindness and caring into the world, not indifference and lies. I just wanted to say that she was my friend, I’ll miss her, and she made a difference.

Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

Fragile Dialogue.jpeg

First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.


A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.


Book Cover.jpeg

Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.


Check ‘em out!

Gleanings in the Fields of Israel

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.Leviticus 19:9

 We came to the land to build and to be built [livnot u’l’hibanot] – Early Zionist Song & Slogan

The Torah created a remarkable framework for caring for the most desperate and hurting people in the ancient world.  At a time when wealth was your land, animals, and crops, the Torah stipulated that a certain part of your fields didn’t in fact belong to you at all, but belonged to people who were poor, needy, and homeless. These are called:

Pe’ahthe corners of the field;

Leket – the gleanings that were dropped by those harvesting the field the first time around, or were neglected to be harvested;

Shichechaparts of the field that had inadvertently been forgotten to be harvested.

Each of these belonged to poor people, who had the right to come and take what belonged to them. The most well-known illustration of this from the Tanach is found in the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, as Ruth herself gathered grain for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi.  This is what social justice meant in the days of the Bible. As later generations of Jews (and Christians) became urban and less agriculturally-based, they took these ideals and transformed them to systems based on money (i.e., the laws of Tzedakah). But it all starts with food.

Leket (“gleanings”) is alive and well today. I spent the morning with other volunteers in fields operated by Leket Israel, harvesting daloriyot (butternut squash).  Leket Israel relies on a handful of employees and hundreds of volunteers to glean vegetables in their fields and then distribute it to hundreds of organizations around the country that get food to people in need. 

Standing in the hot Middle Eastern summer sun this morning, I was thinking of Ruth the Moabite and I was singing.  I was reminded that harvesting these squash was a deeply spiritual exercise, one that the early pioneers of this land understood well when they harvested their fields and sang “Livnot u’L’hibanot: We’ll build and simultaneously build authentic selves, new identities.”

One stereotype of meditation is that it entails sitting crosslegged in silence. But many meditative practices involve mindful, meditative movement. For instance, dance, exercise, flyfishing, hiking – any of this can become focused spiritual disciplines (but they aren’t automatically so. They have to be performed mindfully.) As I look to the ground to identify a ripe squash, break it from its stem, put it in my basket, and walk on to the next one, a begin to develop a rhythm.  Identify, break off, basket, walk on.  Again. Again. The repetition lifts me. The sun is hot; the field goes on forever. And my basket gets more and more full, until it has to get emptied. This continues for two hours, with water breaks.  I get very into it, losing myself to the rhythms of the gleaning.

The two hours fly by incredibly quickly. I look to the bin that I’ve filled with squash and the volunteer coordinator (she was a Temple Executive Director in Arizona where she went by the slave name “Nancy”, before she made Aliyah, came to Leket, and became “Nechama”) looks at my accomplishments.  “You’ve gleaned 400 kilos of squash,” she tells me, “Enough to feed 100 people.”

But the fields are so big, and she explains that most summers she has hundreds of volunteers gleaning it all.  The war this summer has scared many of them away; this morning there are just a few of us.  She says that much of this field will never get gleaned this summer, and the vegetables will probably rot on the vines.  There’s just too many vegetables and not enough hands to harvest them. We’ll do the best we can – but hungry people will be another set of victims of the war.

My Hero, the Rabbanit Bracha Kapach

November 27, 2013

One of the world’s Great Souls went to her eternal reward this week.  Her death will receive some coverage in the Israeli media and the religious press, but from my perspective, when a Giant is gone, the world should stop for a moment. Perhaps if she were a CEO, or a general, or a politician, her death would receive more recognition, but make no mistake: The Rabbanit Kapach was a giant of the human spirit.

Her name was Bracha Kapach, but everyone called her The Rabbanit.  (“Rabbanit” is the Hebrew form of the Yiddish “Rebbetzin,” a rabbi’s wife.)  Her husband, Rav Yosef Kapach, was the one of the foremost scholars of Maimonides in the 20th Century and the gadol ha-dor (the great leader of his generation) for the Jews of Yemen.[1]  Every aspect of her early life is remarkable:  married at 11 in order to rescue young Yosef from conscription into the Yemenite army; a mother at 14; arriving in the State of Israel with other Yemenite Jews in what was dubbed “Operation Magic Carpet” in the 1949-50.[2]

Both the Rav Kapach and the Rabbanit were recipients of the Israel Prize, the highest award that the State of Israel bestows upon citizens who make extraordinary contributions to the nation.  They were the only husband-and-wife who both received the award – in completely separate realms for distinct and different contributions to the Jewish people. 

What made her great?  She was the living embodiment of the principles of Tzedakah and Chesed. But that sounds feeble: We often eulogize people with words like those. I mean that sentence absolutely literally:  More than any human being I’ve ever met, her essence was in giving to people in need and caring for people who were hurting.  I’ll explain.

Like most of the Great People whom I’ve met in my life, I was introduced to her by Danny Siegel.  She lived in the heart of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood called “Shaarei Chesed” (“the Gates of Lovingkindness”). Years ago (I met her in 1992) you could get in a taxi and say, “12 Lod Street” and the driver would say, “Are you going to see the Rabbanit?”  And he might then launch into a story of how she had saved or restored the dignity of his cousin, or his brother-in-law, or himself.

For many, she was known as the Wedding Dress Lady – and that’s the context in which I first met her.  Jews from around the world would bring her donated wedding dresses, which she would give to poor brides.  That would be the tip of the iceberg:  she would create entire weddings for brides and grooms who had nothing at all; she would provide the dress, the food, the musicians, and sometimes even the guests.  I was privileged to be a guest a half-dozen times over the years at her weddings for needy brides; there is a special uplift in the soul to be part of this particular Mitzvah.

Then there was the Passover food project.  She and her small cadre of loyal volunteers – mostly elderly Yemenite women from the community, and a bunch of hangers-on like myself – would distribute thousands of Passover food packages to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had a holiday.  In these packages were matzah, wine, sugar, eggs, honey, fruit, and a half-dozen other materials to ensure that the Festival of Freedom could be celebrated with dignity and joy.  When the distribution took place, there would be a patient line of people snaking up Shefaram Street.

In 1993 I had an astounding privilege:  not only to volunteer with the food distribution, but to spend the afternoon with the Rabbanit making food deliveries to homebound people all around Jerusalem.  Throughout that day – it was, in reflection, one of the most important days of my life – I watched her in action.  She knew everyone by name.  She uttered blessings for every person to whom we delivered food.  Before we would enter an alley in Nachla’ot, she would take me by the arm and, with tears in her eyes, tell me, “This is a very sad story…”  My G-d, it seemed like she personally knew every sad, broken, hurting person in Jerusalem.

There were too many poor children in Jerusalem just hanging out on the streets of Jerusalem in the summer when school was out.  So she started a summer camp for them, hundreds of them, that did (and still does) everything that summer camps should do:  sports, activities, hiking adventures, trips to the beach and to water parks.  (My son Jeremy still sleeps in an oversized t-shirt that says, in Hebrew, “The Nachla’ot Summer Camp of the Rabbanit Kapach.”)

Where did the money come from?  “Hashem Ya’azor,” she’d say, “G-d will help.”  And somehow, the money always arrived and the books always balanced – even as the Passover food project grew to thousands and thousands of people (Jerusalem is, disgracefully, the poorest city in Israel). 

You’d sit in her living room, for a moment of juice and cookies and just wanting to be with her to hear her stories.  But you wouldn’t get too far:  The phone would ring every other minute, and in alternating minutes there would be a knock on the door.  People with nowhere else to go knew they could come to her for support to get through the week.  Or visitors were coming to bring her money to distribute, just to be part of the amazing and pure network of Mitzvahs that she created.  No cynicism, no bureaucracy – and no naivete, either:  She knew there were people who might try to take advantage of her, and she wouldn’t have it.  I did, at times, see her turn people away (and I know it pained her).

I also saw, on occasion, a sly sense of humor.  She had a magic in her eye that sad she was no one’s fool, but that it was useful for her to be perceived as genteel and naïve.  I know she knew more English than she let on, but she liked to force people  to speak Hebrew in her presence.  One time I was saying goodbye to her (because it seems like whenever I’m in Israel, I’m always leaving), and she gave me a grin and a told me to follow her into an adjacent room.  She had something she wanted to give me, a volume of the Rav’s commentary on Maimonides.  She pulled some sheets and fabrics aside, looking for the book… and accidentally uncovered the small, confidential television that was hidden underneath.  (Now, the Rabbanit is an extremely religious woman; women like her do not sit in front the TV.)  “What’s that?!”  I said to her.  She grinned a wicked grin and said, “Well, sometimes I watch the news.”  She was acknowledging it was countercultural and slightly subversive – and she trusted me enough to let me see and share the smile.

When someone does a Mitzvah, it is customary to wish him or her “Yasher Koach” (“more strength to you”) or “Tizkeh l’mitzvot” (“may you merit the chance to do many more Mitzvahs”).  She had a retort if you wished her those things.  “Lo!” (“No!”) she’d say, “Nizkeh l’mitzvot.”  That is to say:  “May we merit the chance to do more Mitzvahs – together.” 

I tell my students she was one of the main teachers in my life.  But sometimes they don’t get it; they say, “Oh, what class did she teach?”  No – I mean the essence of teaching; a life’s teacher.  The sort of person who when you leave her presence, you say, “I wish I didn’t have to leave; I have so much more to learn just be being near her and watching her conduct her life.” I’d leave her thinking, this is what I’m supposed to be doing; what we’re all supposed to be doing: Mitzvahs. We’re supposed to be occupying our time feeding hungry people, taking care of children who are alone, bringing joy to needy brides, comforting those who are hurting, etc., etc.  Why do we have to spend so much time in life with tangential, unimportant things?  Mitzvahs:  These are what living is all about. 

Of course, I’d leave her, and after a while those feelings would dissipate.  And I’d want to write to her, or visit her on my next trip to Israel, just to get that inspiration again.  Now where are we supposed to go for that?

Since it’s Erev Chanukah, it’s tempting to link her life to the message of the Season of Light.  But it’s also the week when we read the section of the Torah about Joseph in Egypt; namely, how in a time of famine, Joseph fed everyone who was in need.  Joseph the Tzaddik, our tradition calls him.  My teacher the Rabbanit was a Tzadeket, one of the Righteous Ones:  everyone who was in need in Jerusalem knew her, sought her out, and was fed by her, body and spirit.

She was a Bracha—a true blessing—and the world is dimmer without her.

Zichronah Livracha.  Her memory is a Bracha.  A blessing.


[1] You can read more about Rabbi Kapach in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Sometimes scholarly articles call his last name “Kafih,” or other variant pronunciations, but in my presence they always pronounced their own name “Kapach.”

[2]Her biography is told in a beautiful Hebrew volume “V’zot HaBracha,” and by Danny Siegel in Munbaz II and Other Mitzvah Heroes (1988).