Judaism is a Verb

Pennies from heaven

Rabbi Rachel Smookler

Can you imagine…your very first experience of walking into an American home was piles of pillows, bedding, household items everywhere, mattresses lined up on their sides in the living room, sets of dishes, diapers, car seats. Well, if this was your first experience in an American home, then you would be luckiest person in the world, because that house would be Ellen Smith’s house. Those piles and piles of household items are the gold she collects through donations in order to help refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who were given Special Immigrant Visas.

Ellen started the Western, NY chapter of No One Left Behind after a friend of the founder of No One Left Behind, Matt Zeller, sought help for two Afghan interpreters who were resettling in the Syracuse area.

Ellen is an accredited journalist with thirty-seven top journalism awards in her career. She has been a long-time volunteer and finds projects that may not fit a typical fundraising scenario. She is known to her friends as the “One-woman FEMA.”

Ellen has worked in partnership with NPR on a series that garnered the Edward R Murrow award. She has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, NPR and BBC Radio services. Most recently though, she appeared to me, welcoming me into her sprawling farmhouse in Pittsford.

At first I was taken aback, not because of the tremendous volume of items that people donate, although I am blown away by so much generosity right here in our own community. I felt very humbled in the presence of all of these donations and the fact that Ellen and her husband and son have given their life over to a cause that truly helps people to start their lives over again.

Ellen and No One Left Behind transform the stranger into a citizen just like you and me. It is so “face-to-face”; nothing that Ellen does is at arm’s length. Every step of the way, from taking these incredibly brave refugees to medical appointments, having them stay with her in her home and then moving them to an apartment in a safe neighborhood, or finding caring host families to do the same. It is face-to face and with dignity.

After having the privilege of sitting down at her large kitchen table and hearing about the needs of No One Left Behind and the running of the organization, it became clear to me that her mission and the mission of No One Left Behind is the embodiment of what we heard Vivian talk about today.

It is the ultimate example of what the Torah teaches us. You shall not oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. There is one standard for citizen and stranger alike.

Ellen’s home is filled to the brim with items that are moved in and out weekly in order to set up homes for those refugees holding Special Immigrant Visas. There are also beautifully appointed bedrooms for them to sleep and even a special private living area where they spend their days as they wait for their new lives to begin. Ellen has thought of everything.

The organization that Ellen started here in Rochester, The Western, NY chapter of No One Left Behind, is a 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to saving the lives of America’s Wartime Allies and their families who have saved the lives of thousands of Americans in service to our country.

Their mission is to help resettle Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) safely in the United States. No One Left Behind bridges the gap that exists between current State Department and NGO refugee relief programs, and provides assistance with housing, employment and cultural adaptation.

Ellen and those who work with her treat their clients as the heroic veterans that they are. No One Left Behind has volunteers who are Jewish and Muslim, Buddhists and agnostics. Their belief is that “We are all Americans, and in the true American tradition, we all come together with the common belief that these men and their families must not be left behind to be tortured and killed because they had hoped for a more open society.”

Ellen said that when the interpreters and their families arrive, or when we know they are coming, there is not a lot of time to find and furnish an apartment. “This is where our team of volunteers steps in to find everything needed for the family upon arrival.”

On this day, as they were moving in a newly arrived family – I have no idea how Ellen and her husband even had the time to meet with me – we discussed ways in which Temple Beth David could help. And not just help – really make an impact.

There was one project, above all others that she shared with me, that seemed to have the most lasting effects and could even shape and determine how integrated and successful a refugee family could be, right away and for many years into the future.

The few times we had spoken before I came to her house, Ellen had been sharing statistics with me about a program No One Left Behind had started called Pennies from Heaven. The premise is simple: ask 600 people to each donate and raise 500 pennies, enough for a $3,000 car grant.

Ellen shared with me a seventy-five page research study entitled Driving to Opportunity: Understanding the Links among Transportation Access, Residential Outcomes, and Economic Opportunity for Housing Voucher Recipients.

Families with access to cars found housing in neighborhoods where environmental and social quality consistently and significantly exceeded that of the neighborhoods of households without cars. Particularly noteworthy is that families with car access felt safer in their neighborhoods and were less likely to live in neighborhoods with high crime rates than those without car access.

Cars are also associated with better employment outcomes because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

Generally speaking, having access to a vehicle has effects that are much stronger and more consistent than any other household characteristic, including income.

Despite these findings, there are few federal programs aimed at helping low-income families gain access to automobiles and some programs actually act as a barrier to gaining such access.

The research is definitive. For refugee and immigrant families who have access to cars, their successful integration into our society is significantly higher than families who have no access to a car.

When I read this article and reviewed the statistics with Ellen, there was no doubt in my mind that Temple Beth David could take this on. We, as a community, could participate in Pennies from Heaven and truly make an impact with far-reaching results.

I’d like to share with you a chassidic story, one that can help us visualize and keep in the forefront of our hearts and minds how we can be of help to the strangers in our midst, those who come here to start their lives over, much like our own ancestors did once upon a time.

Here is the old Hasidic story about Reb Nahman Kossover, a friend of the Ba’al Shem Tov: Reb Nahman believed that the proper way to remain close to God was to constantly contemplate the four-letter name Y-H-V-H; to see the letters of God’s name ever before him.

Reb Nahman was a preacher, and when he looked out at his audience, he was able to see God’s name in every face. But then times changed and the preacher was forced to become a merchant in order to survive. In the marketplace, with the rapid pace of all the buying and selling, he found it harder to always concentrate on the name of God.

So we are told that he hired a special assistant to follow him wherever he went. The person’s only job was to be a reminder. Whenever he looked at his assistant’s face, he would remember the name of God.

With all due respect to Reb Nachman, I would change one thing about his story. Instead of paying someone to be a reminder of God’s name, I would collect all of the coins I could in order to sanctify God’s name and follow the Torah’s teachings, in order to free the oppressed. To me, Reb Nachman, each time he looked at someone’s face, into their eyes, he saw potential…divine potential.

Now when I look into someone’s eyes, I see someone with the potential to donate to Pennies from Heaven. If each and every person I see has the essence of God’s name written on their face…

Right now there are about 200 of us gathered here together. If each of us asks two friends for 500 pennies, we will have enough for our first $3,000 car grant.

There are three families scheduled to arrive in May, totaling sixteen individuals. A family of five and a family of seven arrive May 18. There are many items needed! Each and every one of us, as Reb Nachman visualized, has God’s name written on their face.

This is what I mean when I say…Judaism is a verb!