Our Sages taught: Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness) are greater than tzedekah (charity) in three ways: Acts of loving kindness need not involve money because can be extended to both the rich and the poor, the opportunity for acts of loving kindness go beyond the earthly realm, and we can engage in acts of loving kindness toward both the living and the dead (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b).
During this time of year, as we experience mildly colder temperatures, fewer hours of sunlight and inescapable long and dark nights, we can rest assured that winter is here. Perhaps this notion is easier to bear as we keep in mind the holidays surrounding this season. After all, for many of us, December marks a time for gathering with family and friends to share in delicious meals, exchanging gifts, and giving thanks for having made it to a new year. All of these make the holidays so special. Yet for some, the winter holidays and the coming of a new year provoke a sense of loneliness or loss. My experience this year as a rabbinic fellow at Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati has afforded me a unique opportunity to help make the holidays a little brighter for a particular portion of the population in and around the city.
Jewish Family Services is a nonprofit communal service agency that strives to serve all individuals in times of need. Through services such as the food pantry, wellness programs and cultural activities, adoption connection and senior services, Jewish Family Services has the resources to help support people experiencing any of these difficult circumstances and feelings of vulnerability that result from them. My role at Jewish Family Services this year involves fostering an inclusive and safe environment for people to join classes on subjects from Hebrew to Jewish values. I am also involved in promoting wellness and stability for individuals through individual spiritual care counseling. As a result of my experiences and the relationships I have formed, I have come to learn why the holidays can be a stressful time of year.
The majority of us are blessed to cultivate festive holiday celebrations surrounded by those we love; we gather to dine and sing in jubilee. Others experience the holidays differently. Whether due to financial constraint, unemployment, lack of physical or emotional well-being, or loss of a loved one, there are many people out there who, for any number of reasons, dread the holiday season. My experience as a rabbi and chaplain has taught me it is impossible for any one person to solve the problems another is facing. We are also blind to someone else’s troubles unless we ask, making an effort to demonstrate that we care. By fostering a caring community and offering a listening ear, we can help mitigate personal despair. Creating a safe space for others to share is a primary goal of group activities hosted at the Barbash Family Vital Support Center. As a part of the professional team at Jewish Family Services this year, I have learned the power of being present and listening to another person from a place of empathy.
With each passing night of Hanukkah, as you join with family and friends to light the menorah, remember that not everyone has the luxury of celebrating in the same way. When lighting the candles, kindling a bright light into your home in contrast to one of the year’s darkest days, be mindful of your capacity to bring light into someone else’s life. As we welcome the new year, make for yourself the goal of reaching out to another to simply listen, open to discovering what they can teach you. Doing so will bring new meaning to wishing a stranger “Happy Holidays.”
Regardless of whether you choose to give charity or perform an act of loving kindness, Jewish tradition teaches that there is no better time than the present to begin engaging in the sacred act of mitzvah. The opportunities to do so constantly surround us; it is just a matter of whether we choose to capture the moment to make the life of someone else a little bit brighter.
Simon Stratford is a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR who works as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati rabbinic fellow at Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati.