Our Humanity

Parshat Shemini, Friday, April 21st

This week I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a homeless Jewish man named Elliot Cohen z”l, who had been living on the streets of Placerville for many years. Rabbi Grossbaum, of the Chabad of Folsom, is to be commended for his leadership in making sure that this man received a decent Jewish burial.

The funeral itself was beautiful, we heard from people who knew and cared about Elliot, who described a man with a childlike directness and enthusiasm for the things he loved. It was especially moving that Jews who had never even met Elliot came together to make sure that there would be a minyan so that kaddish could be said, that people who hadn’t known him in life took time out of their busy schedules to help lay Elliot to rest.

As proud as I felt in that moment that our Jewish community came together for Elliot, I kept asking myself, would we have done as much for him in life as we were doing at his passing? From the stories people told at the funeral, it didn’t seem that Elliot himself lacked for support or care from his community; it also seemed that much of that support came from non-Jews—even non-Jewish religious groups. It made me wonder what more we as a Jewish community here in Sacramento could be doing to help people who are living on the street, many living, as Elliot did, with severe mental illness.

Certainly, there are a number of organizations like the Sacramento Food Bank that could use our financial and volunteer support for the important local work they do. I know some of us already supported them through the Run to Feed the Hungry, and I’m sure many of us support a variety of worthy organizations with our time and money. However, I’d love to see us find more ways to engage as a shul community in serving those in need here in Sacramento. If you have ideas for things we could do as a shul and an interest in organizing, I would love to hear from you.

One of the beautiful things about the funeral was that the stories and recollections people shared painted a picture of Elliot in his full humanity, which was greater than the facts of his homelessness and mental illness. So often I think, even if we know on some level that everyone is created in the image of God, we allow ourselves to think that some people are less human than others—this is especially true when it comes to people who live on the street, many of whom struggle with mental illness or drug addiction. When we see someone whose life is so different from our own, and so apparently difficult and degrading, it’s easier to imagine they are not a real human being or that they must have done something to deserve their current circumstances. It is much harder, more painful to recognize that the person who is suffering before us is a human being, created in the image of God, infinitely precious and unique, and that any degradations they experience are a desecration of God’s image.

One thing I think we can all do, besides giving of whatever time and money our circumstances allow us to, is to constantly remind ourselves to see every person we meet as an infinitely precious child of God, deserving of love and kindness. If we can adopt this simple but profound shift in consciousness, we can influence not only ourselves and our own behavior, but also those around us to create a culture and world that is more infused with kindness and recognition of the divine in everyone.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein