Stop, Look Around, Do Something
One of the unexpected benefits of my recent visit to Baltimore was the chance to learn about Sister to Sister (S2S), an organization devoted to creating a supportive community for divorced single mothers, and to meet with its founder, Mrs. Chani Neuberger. In less than a decade, S2S has established chapters in 86 communities, from the Chassidische to the modern, serving 1149 women and 3,400 children under 18.
I'm writing about S2S not just because of the considerable merits of the organization itself. But also because it serves as a classic example of how a determined group of women (or men for that matter) that decides to "own" a particular communal challenge can dramatically improve the lives of their fellow Jews. S2S is based on a network of 535 volunteers and only four paid staff members.
The genesis of S2S was a phone call to Mrs. Neuberger from a friend seeking a donation for a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Just hearing about the situation of that one mother set Mrs. Neuberger to thinking that there must be many others in the same situation. She convened a group of her friends to brainstorm about what they could do for the growing demographic of single divorced mothers. S2S is the result.
One of the greatest challenges faced by divorced mothers is the feeling of being stigmatized and judged. When a woman is widowed, the immediate response is, "How tragic!"; when she is divorced, too often it is, "What did she do wrong?" The answer was to connect single divorced women to others in the same situation.
The community of divorced mothers is created through in-person gatherings – e.g., Purim and Chanukah parties, education classes ranging from job training to the challenges of single parenting – and the annual Sister to Sister retreat that brings together 450 women from across North America.
In addition, the S2S website creates a virtual community. Divorced mothers can discuss with one another everything from common child-raising issues to how to perform the technical tasks in the house that were once their husbands' domain. Teleconferences cover topics from the challenges of remarriage to mothers learning Gemara with a son to the role of family members and friends of divorced single mothers. The website also allows mothers to chat with designated professionals at set times.
Since self-image is so tenuous for many single, divorced women, it is crucial that they not feel like charity cases. The entire thrust of Sister to Sister is that everything provided is just what one sister would do to help her own sister, and which the beneficiary will someday do for another sister. In that spirit, "sisters" and their children receive personalized gifts on birthdays, before Yom Tov, and sometimes just as surprises. And each Erev Shabbos, each sister receives a taped five-minute Torah message of chizuk from a S2S staff member that ends "Gut Shabbos with love from your sisters." The S2S hotline also includes weekly recordings ranging from the inspirational (Rabbi Yaakov Bender) to a question-and-answer session on raising resilient children (Dr. David Pelcovitz, Dr. Meir Wikler, and Reb Moshe Rotberg.)
Ideally, each new sister is matched one-on-one with an "advocate," whose primary task is to provide an empathetic ear and encouragement at least once a week. A "group leader" also calls once every three months or so to find out what the single mother needs and to apprise her of all the S2S services available. Those services range from advocating with school tuition committees, Shabbos and Yom Tov placements, one-on-one career counseling, referrals to mental health counselors, and specially trained volunteers to accompany women to beis din or court. Local "captains" match the sisters and the advocates and oversee the relationship. They are also responsible for arranging local gatherings both for mothers alone and for mothers and children.
Each volunteer is trained in person and via recorded sessions on topics from the Beis Din process (Rabbi Mordechai Willig of the RCA) to healthy boundaries in the mentoring relationship. A monthly newsletter goes out to each volunteer.
Much of what S2S does, Mrs. Neuberger points out, is just what any neighbor or friend who placed themselves in the divorced mother's footsteps would do on their own. Particularly in need are adult men to undertake some of the tasks that boys' fathers may no longer do – e.g., taking them to shul, learning with them, dancing with them on Simchas Torah.
Fathers with their own young sons cannot always perform these tasks. But those of us whose children are already out of the house could be rejuvenated by once again going to Avos U'Banim and learning Mishnayos Berachos or perek Elu Metzios. By providing some sort of father figure to a boy suffering from the loss of ongoing contact with his own father, we could well have as great an impact on that boy's life as we had in the lives of our own sons.
The more we think about the needs of those around us in difficult situations, the more ways we will come up with to be of assistance. Mrs. Neuberger provided an example of something that could make a big difference for the male children of divorce, who typically suffer more from the absence of a father: Each rebbe should be provided at the beginning of the school year with a list of any boys in the class who do not have a father at home. Such a list would alert the rebbe to show more sensitivity and understanding, perhaps to offer some extra outside learning time, and to not address the weekly notes home to "the Tatte."
SISTER TO SISTER impresses by virtue of the attention to detail and the multiplicity of ways large and small it has found to make life just a little bit easier and more joyful for divorced mothers and their children.
But there are two points of general applicability I'd like to note. First, S2S is not a charity organization. The volunteers who make it run are receiving as much as they are giving. The knowledge that one has been able to help a fellow Jew or an entire family in concrete ways is very precious.
The second point has to do with how Mrs. Neuberger and her friends took the initiative. It would have been easy and perfectly natural for Mrs. Neuberger to have contented herself with a generous donation to the single mother for whom she was initially solicited. Her day job as a senior official at the National Security Agency and her own family do not exactly leave her with abundant time to relax in a hammock.
Yet her reaction was that if a communal problem came to her attention she should try to do something about it. In a similar fashion, Yosef Rosenberger devoted his life to bringing awareness of the prohibition against wearing shatnez to America and developing low-cost testing, after a fellow refugee asked him soon after his arrival in America how to protect against wearing shatnez and he discovered that no one he consulted knew the answer.
During his first bout with cancer, Rabbi Moshe Sherer did not appear in public for many months due to the effects of chemotherapy and his weakened immune system. Then one day, he called his son Rabbi Shimshon Sherer out of the blue, and told him he must go up to the Agudah camps to deliver his annual summer talk.
What was the urgent message that he had to deliver to nine-year olds girls? "We have to live for the next person and not just ourselves." And for any of his listeners tempted to say, "What can I do, I'm just a kid?" Rabbi Sherer had plenty of vignettes with which to answer. For instance, imagine that one day you see a girl in your class who looks unhappy. Don't say, 'She has better friends than me; they'll take care of it. And if they aren't saying anything to her, perhaps I'm making something out of nothing.'" No, if you see problem or a fellow Jew in need, it becomes your responsibility to figure out what you can do to help.
How much happier would our community be if each of us took that message to heart. The women of Sister to Sister did.
Why the Laughter?
I want to share an insight from Rabbi Moshe Shapira that I am sure will enrich our understanding of Purim and increase our joy. Tzchok – laughter, Rav Moshe notes, is listed as one of the twelve powers of the soul in Sefer Yetzira. Only man among the created beings laughs. That power is specifically associated with the month of Adar.
If we think about what makes us laugh, some element of reversal is almost always involved. The most successful witticisms depend upon a punch line that was completely unpredicted. But why, Rav Moshe asks, should such reversals makes us happy and cause us to express that happiness through laughter? Because they hint at something for which every soul yearns, some knowingly and some not: That great day when all the veils are removed and Hashem is fully revealed to the World. In every great reversal comes an indication that our hopes will be realized.
Yitzchak is the harbinger of that day. His birth to Sarah well past the age for childbearing was something completely unexpected, an occasion of laughter. Sarah proclaims that all who hear of it will "laugh for me" (Bereishis 21:6). His name – Yitzchak – is in the future tense as a remez (hint) to that great day when "az yimalei sechok pinu – when our mouths will be filled with laughter. "
The essence of Purim is nafoch hu, a reversal so rapid and so unexpected that no one could have predicted it. In the space of hours, based on a concatenation of seemingly unrelated events, Haman goes from the viceroy of the most powerful king in the world to hanging from a scaffold fifty cubits high that he had constructed to hang Mordechai.
Haman built that scaffold to remove the last diminution of his power – Mordechai, the Jew, who refused to bow. And he turned out to be building it for himself and paving the way for his archenemy Mordechai to succeed him as second to the king. Our laughter on Purim is an expression of love for the nes that above all others brings us complete clarity that this world is not the ultimate reality and will one day be replaced by one in which all sorrows and travails are removed.