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Change The World By Making People Feel Special (Yizkor Day 5778 – 09/30/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanChange The World By Making People Feel Special

On August 13th of this year, the following article appeared in the Washington Post

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A man accused of plowing a car into a crowd of activists, killing one person (Heather Heyer) and injuring 19, long sympathized with Nazi views and had stood with a group of white supremacists hours before Saturday’s bloody crash.

The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old who traveled to Virginia from Ohio, had espoused extremist ideals since high school, according to Derek Weimer, his history teacher.

Weimer said he taught Fields during his junior and senior years, “It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler. He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff.”

As a teacher, he said, he highlighted historical facts and used academic reasoning in an attempt to steer Fields away from his infatuation with the Nazis. “This was something that was growing in him,” Weimer said. “I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

Weimer feels guilty for his inability to straighten out Fields. Yet, I believe his guilt is undeserved. Many of us here are teachers. We try our best to influence our students. But people are complex: family and personal dynamics come into play, and people largely make decisions based upon feelings, not logic.

Who knows what kind of family Fields came from? Maybe it was broken, maybe he was seeking family and bonding that only his white supremacist friends could provide?

In fact, this appears to be true:

  • Fields’s father died before he was born. His aunt, Pam Fields, said that she had not seen her nephew, whom she remembered as a “very quiet little boy,” more than five times in the past 10 years. He’s lacking family
  • A friend and former neighbor remembered Field as a quiet teenager who “kept to himself a lot.” Another friend who requested anonymity because she said she feared for her safety said, “He had some trouble in school making friends.”

So is it any wonder that he gravitated to people that accepted him, and made him part of their family. Is it possible for a teacher to influence one opinion, while his he’s being indoctrinated oppositely from a group who is filling his heart with love?

A case like this can only succeed if the teacher also fills that gap of family and friendship, in addition to the learning. If he/she touches the heart of that child by making that child feel special on her own.

We can influence people intellectually, but if we feed the heart, make them feel special, the impact will be so much greater.

We’re about to begin Yizkor. We pause to remember our loved ones. But what are we going to remember? We can remember the life – or remember the death. We can remember the times of joy – or the times of sorrow. Most likely we’re going to remember the special moments, the ones that stand out. The ones where that departed soul made us feel special, where our heart was touched.

20, 40, 50 years from now, what will be remembered of us, when our Yizkor prayer comes around? What will our children, our students, friends, neighbors, community remember about us?

I think about this every time that I am at a funeral where a grandchild rises to speak about his grandmother or grandfather. Many times, it is not the spouse or children who shed the most tears … it’s the grandchildren. There is no way to know how much you mean to them and how you uplift. How they cry the grandparent we won’t be at their wedding or see the birth of their child, or see them develop. But how glad they are that they lived long enough for them to know them and make them feel special. There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my grandfather, and he passed when I was 13.

I heard one senior rabbi say that he works as hard today as he did 30 years ago but he  find so much more time for his  grandchildren than he did for his children! How come? Because now at 75, he feels the clock ticking and he’s learned what really counts.

Time, it is often said, is our most precious commodity, because the time we have is limited. On average, a person lives 78 years. How we spend our time during those 78 years is our choice. In many ways it is what defines who and what we are. So, how does the typical American spend those 78 years? Here is what one survey (from a site called Distractify) tells us:

– Twenty five of those years are spent sleeping. There goes one-third of our lives!

– The average American works for 10 years (straight) and spends 48 days having sex. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could reverse that?

– We spend three months of our life in traffic, probably more if you live in Long Island. And one and a half years in the bathroom!

– Women spend one and a half years doing their hair – that’s 14,000 hours of washing, brushing, blow-drying, straightening, curling and cutting.

And men? Well, let me tell you about one man. We all heard of Rahm Emanuel, once Obama’s Chief of Staff, and current mayor of Chicago. He has a brother named Ari Emanuel and this brother is “big stuff.” He is the CEO of the William Morris Agency, whose client list includes Mark Wahlberg and Oprah Winfrey. He is also the inspiration behind the aggressive Ari Gold on the popular HBO program, “Entourage.”

Mr. Emanuel makes about 300 phone calls a day. He wakes up at 4 a.m. and if he works a 12-hour day that means 25 calls every hour. Now why does he do that? Because he wants to! That’s his choice! A man in his position of power could certainly have his underlings take care of some things. But no … he chooses to do it himself. And because of that he’s successful!

Yes, successful at his business. But what about in his home as a husband and father? How much time and strength is left for them? And how will that feel, looking back, in ten years? I know numerous people, some multimillionaires who have no connection with their children.

We are the ones who decide how to spend our time. Our parents, our children, our youth … we only have them for a while. Are we making the best use of our time? Are we connecting with our heart, are we making them feel special, because it’s those special moments that will be remembered.

Robert Green is a well-known political columnist and author.  He is now 70 years old and recently he was looking through a book of photographs he had saved from his youth.  He came across a picture of his first grade teacher, Patty Ruoff.  He wondered if she was still alive and if he could find her.  He discovered that she is alive and is now 88 years old, never left the community where she had taught.  He called her and in his words:

“I tried to explain to her why I was calling. I said that if I’ve ever written a graceful sentence, if I’ve ever appreciated a turn of phrase in a good book, if I’ve ever found comfort in a beautifully told story, it all began with her. I told her that hundreds of other boys and girls who once passed through her classroom likely have reason to be just as grateful. And I told her I was sure that many other men and women, now grown, must have called to thank her over the years. There was a slight pause, and then she said: “None.” She said: “No one ever has.”

How many people remember their elementary school teachers? I remember my mean 5th grade teacher, but not his name. On the other hand, I fully remember my fourth grade teacher, who treated me special. Whose affection and attention I still cherish to this day. I’m sure Mrs. Ruoff must have been one of those teachers, as well.

There was an interesting phenomenon that occurred during my time as a rabbi in Youngstown, Ohio. I taught in the local Jewish Day School and in our synagogue Talmud Torah. There was no confirmation class, we just kept on learning together without stop after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Every boy that I played tennis with eventually became more religious or observant. It wasn’t as if I was indoctrinating them on the court; rather, just caring about their forehand. But each one of them either continued their Jewish studies after high school or became kosher or adhered to some other level of Jewish commitment.  Perhaps it was the quality time I was shared with them that reinforced what I was teaching in synagogue.

In 1955, a young college student got pregnant, and her parents opposed the match with the father of the child.

She fled to San Francisco to be cared for by an obstetrician who quietly ministered to unwed mothers. This doctor would deliver the baby and then work with the birthmother to find suitable adoptive parents. Her only requirements were that the family be college educated. A family was found, but when the baby was born, it was a boy and they wanted a girl.

The mother was in a rush to secure a family for her child and due to the extenuating circumstances a new family was contacted but neither spouse had a college education. The mother was adamant about her condition and refused to sign the relinquishment papers. Days turned to weeks. Finally, after receiving assurance through the doctor that the adoptive parents promised to send the boy to college, the mother agreed to finalize the placement.

The boy grow up in a loving family, and they kept their promise. All of this working-class parents’ savings were spent on this boy’s college tuition. He went to Reed College and ended up taking a calligraphy class. Combined with his love of electronics, he formed Apple Computer with his good friend Steve Wozniak. All of us, who use and love iPhone and smartphones, are indebted to the Jobs who kept their promise and sacrificed their whole savings to send their son, Steve, to college.

But there’s a more important part of this story. Jobs always knew he was adopted. “My parents were very open with me about that,” he told Walter Isaacson. But he recalls a chilling moment when he was maybe six or seven years of age. He told the girl across the street that he was adopted, to which she replied, “So does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?”

“Lightning bolts went off in my head,” he said. “I remember running into the house, crying. And my parents said, ‘No, you have to understand.’ They were very serious and looked me straight in the eye. They said, ‘We specifically picked you out.’ We wanted only you! Both of my parents said that and repeated it slowly for me. And they put an emphasis on every word in that sentence.”

“Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned. I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.”

Perhaps if Fields had been made to feel that way by his mother, or grandparents or friends or even a teacher or rabbi, he wouldn’t have gotten involved with the wrong crowd and killed Heather Heyer.

But we know have that opportunity, for our children, grandchildren, students, and neighbors.

Time is the most precious commodity we have, let’s use it to make people feel special. Then not only will we be remembered well, but we’ll make the world a happier more functional place.

Shana Tova

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
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