By Elana Cohn
We recently read parashat Kedoshim, which gave us a lot of the big pillars of Jewish law, the classics. Honor thy father and mother. Do not worship false gods. Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind, and on and on. It also gives us some more minor laws that teach us how to be holy and righteous in our interactions with one another. It teaches us that we can’t hold on to someone’s wages overnight or gossip behind one another’s back. That we must have true scales and that we may not cheat. That we must respect our elders and leave part of our crop for the needy.
Rule after rule, law after law, the specific guidelines to our lives are laid out. Amidst these clear instructions are some of the most famous biblical words of all time “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha”: love thy neighbor as thyself.
If you learn one lesson from the Torah, it’s supposed to be this one. You learn these words in kindergarten and never let them go. But what do they really mean?
Love is a really big word and artists, musicians, and writers have been trying to define it for as long as people have been around. It’s complicated. As Rabbi Shai Held wrote, love is both an emotion and an action. o matter what, we are commanded to feel this ultra-strong feeling. More than that, the Hebrew actually says ‘l’reicha’, meaning ‘to thy neighbor’, which I interpret as a commandment to act in a way that reflects those feelings.
So we are commanded to love our neighbors, but we don’t even know them? How can we love that which we do not know? Before we can love, we have to get to know each other, and that’s what I’m doing in AVODAH – getting to know my neighbors.
I work in the Project Renewal Medical Van. We are a mobile van that provides primary care to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and people living on the street around new York city, using healthcare as tool to end the cycle of poverty. We’re basically a doctor’s office on wheels. Beyond that, we target homeless adults suffering from mental illness or substance abuse disorders, zeroing in on those that most others ignore.
As a health outreach specialist on the van, I act as a sort of care coordinator for our clients and the shelters we are connected to, bridging the gap between our doctors on board the van and the clients we want to serve. My job stretches from the mundane tasks of calling insurance companies so our clients can see us as their primary care doctor, to the hectic days of teaching health classes, running around ensuring clients make it to their appointments all over town, and juggling a million tasks at once.
But my favorite part of my job is also the simplest. It is when both doctors are busy, and I have registered two people in the waiting area who are patiently sitting until a provider becomes available. Since we don’t have magazines or a television, we get to chatting. I spend a great portion of my day listening to people’s’ stories, hearing what their day-to-day lives are like, and that is where I learn.
That is where I’ve learned what being homeless is really like for the people living right around the corner from me. I talked with one man about where he slept the night of Winter Storm Juno and what happened when all the trains stopped running. I talked to another man about what it’s like to be undocumented and recovering from a traumatic brain injury. One day I heard about what it feels like to be bounced from shelter to shelter, and how you struggle to hold on to things like medical records or birth certificates when you get out of jail. We talk about drug use and their girlfriends and their families and where they are from. And sometimes we just talk about the weather. This is where I branch out of service and just engage in getting to know someone new. Still, never before had I had these conversations with people who were actually living this reality.
All of this getting to know each other is a big a step towards loving your neighbors, and bridging gaps between communities. But it’s not always that easy. When tragedy strikes, those bridges and our love are tested.
Two weeks ago, my organization faced a terrible tragedy when one of our most amazing shelter directors was murdered by a former client. Everything about the situation was hard and tragic, and immediately I saw all those bridges we’d been building start to break. When horrific things like this happen, people start villainizing those that they see as “other.” The schism between staff and client, between neighbors, all of sudden feels very big. We start to feel separate, as the fear creeps in.
But if you go back to the commandment, “love thy neighbor” is followed by “as thyself”. We are not allowed to feel separate. We are commanded to see unity and sameness in those that seem different. When tragedy strikes, the commandment doesn’t go away, we have to push through it. That’s why love is powerful. It forces you to make even the most difficult situations complex, complicated, and multifaceted. To see how our clients are feeling as they get villainized by the media rather than feeling afraid of them.
Now I know not everyone works in a homeless shelter and has easy access to these types of relationships. And I know that there are many many people living with the words “love thy neighbor” stamped on their hearts. But I’m stepping out today to say that being well-intentioned and being oblivious to the actual lives, experiences, and needs of people who are different from you or who are in need are not mutually exclusive—which is why learning to listen to the voices of those so often rendered voiceless is a crucial moral and religious imperative. It is also the first step in learning to love our neighbors.
Elana Cohn is from San Francisco, attended Barnard College, and is a Health Outreach Worker at Project Renewal.