By Yonoson Rosenblum | JUNE 21, 2022
That human goodness is all around us, if we just sensitize ourselves to look for it
One of the most important messages that we can give our kids and ourselves, beginning each morning with Modeh Ani, is that Hashem's world is a good place — or, at least, filled with the potential for immense good. And the clearest manifestation of that goodness is that to be found in our fellow human beings.
While that human goodness is all around us, if we just sensitize ourselves to look for it, for many of us it is easier to recognize while traveling, when our antennae are sharper with respect to the new people we meet. That was certainly true for me on my recent trip to the States. During the first week of my trip, I met a series of remarkable people — each remarkable in a different way.
Seated next to me on the first leg of my journey, from Tel Aviv to Vienna, was a very pleasant religious woman, from a moshav near Tzefas, named Laya Saul Jackson.
I inquired as to the purpose of her trip, and she told me that she was raising money for the creation of an interactive children's museum in the Galilee. She explained that about six years ago, on Leil Yom Kippur, she experienced a powerful vision that Hashem wanted her to create such a place. And she has been at work on it ever since. In that time, she has assembled a distinguished board, hired a CEO with lots of experience in the nonprofit education sector, and entered into negotiations with various municipalities and local councils in the North about funding and location.
The projected Children's Museum of the Galilee (CMG) will serve children ages 0-14 based on a STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). The founders recognize that for children, play is essential to learning: It lights up the brain and the imagination. (CMG's motto is: "A place of curiosity, exploration, and discovery — because everything is more than it seems.")
Through play, children learn to read social signals and develop trust. The hands-on aspect of the museum is crucial to the development of problem-solving skills. NASA, for instance, will not hire engineers, even those with PhDs from MIT or Cal Tech, unless they have experience tinkering under the hood of a car.
The scope of Mrs. Saul Jackson's ambition is breathtaking. The projected final cost of all stages of CMG will be well in excess of $20 million dollars. And here she was, setting off on her first major fundraising tour, without any list of uber-rich contacts or fundraising experience. She also mentioned to me in passing, as I eyed the variety of carefully prepared foods she had brought aboard, that she suffers from MS. I could not help but be awed by her determination. (I contacted her after her return to Israel, and, happily, the trip had gone very well, generating both significant gifts and new contacts.)
EARLY IN MY FIRST WEEK in America, I met with a friend who runs a chain of stores in the Tristate area. At one point, he entered into negotiations to open a new store in a large mall. Walking around the mall, however, he noticed a toy store. Later, he and his chief buyer entered the toy store and quickly realized that their store would significantly undercut the toy store's prices.
At that point, my friend informed the mall owner that he could not open in his mall: "We don't open stores if it will put people out of business."
The mall owner, in desperation, asked whether there was not some way to work around the issue. My friend told him to find out what the toy store's five largest classes of sales items were.
The mall owner called the toy store owner at a trade show, and reported back to my friend his largest selling item. But my friend told him that he would have to call back, as he wanted to know not just the toy store's best-selling item, but its five best-selling classes of toys, to avoid competing in those areas.
Even then, my friend was still not done. He inserted into his contract with the mall owner a provision that if the toy store owner was unable to make his monthly rental payment, then his company and the mall owner would make up the difference between them. And he added a second provision, that if the toy store failed for any reason, the mall owner would have no recourse against the toy store owner.
The mall owner later told my friend that their agreement was "the nicest document I've ever signed," and that the lawyers in his law firm had passed it around in disbelief. And when the mall owner told the toy store owner, who had been totally oblivious to all these negotiations, of my friend's commitment not to undermine his store, the toy store owner's only comment was, "It's nice to know that there are people like that in the world." I agree.
The highlight of the middle of my week was the meeting with a major Jewish philanthropist that my friend Richard Stone a"h had arranged. The timing could hardly have been less propitious. The philanthropist is one of the major supporters of the Jewish communities in the FSU, and the needs of those communities suddenly skyrocketed with the Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, world events cast a dark cloud over his own business.
Yet despite his not knowing me from Adam, apart from whatever kind words Richard had said about me, or much about the organization for which I was collecting, I left with a generous check and, I hope, a new friend.
My final visit of the week was with someone of whom I had never heard previously, but should have, as he is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Our nearly three-hour meeting was far too short to get his entire story, but from what I gathered, he has made and lost numerous fortunes, starting from an early age. (He married the proverbial girl next door when he was 19 and she was 17.)
Money-making itself was never the prime goal, but rather the necessary means of supporting his habit of problem-solving for the Torah community. At one point, he was building himself a magnificent home, when it occurred to him that with the same money, he could completely refurbish the shul and beis medrash of one of Boro Park's most revered Torah figures. He sold the home and refurbished the shul.
One of the messages that Rabbi Moshe Sherer always sought to instill in even the youngest campers on his visits to Agudah camps in the mountains was: If you see a problem, whether it's an unhappy fellow student, or something affecting the larger community, you own it and should try to do something about it.
My new acquaintance embodies that directive as much as anyone I have met. He must have mentioned close to a dozen initiatives he has started in the course of our conversation — everything from a support group for parents of off-the-derech children to a cheder with 700 students today, which emphasizes training for rebbeim. As he once told a gathering of chassidic rebbes, "A hamburger flipper in Burger King has to attend 72 hours of training at Burger King University before starting to work. How do we put rebbis in the classroom without any prior training whatsoever?"
ALL THOSE MENTIONED THUS FAR have accomplished great things, or seek to do so. But this account would be incomplete without mention of the driver who picked me up at the airport and took me to two other appointments in the early days of my trip. He spends his day driving clients who are, by and large, much richer than he is, and some of whom he grew up with. But I did not hear one word from him in all our conversations to suggest that he was in any way jealous or impressed by the wealth to which he is exposed .
Just the opposite. His talk was all of nachas from the kids — the daughter in Israel whose husband is a rebbi in a yeshivah; another daughter who attended seminary on loans and scholarships, and rather than stop in Europe on the way home with friends, came back to work to pay off the loans, which she did in short order. Appreciation of his wife, who "reads everything." Satisfaction with his life and its routines: knowing where to find a minyan after predawn rides to the airport; the ability to make a regular donation to Tomchei Shabbos every month.
From all those whom I met, I learned and was inspired, and no less from my driver's quality of being sameiach b'chelko.