D’var Torah: Serving God by serving others

Cantor Sharon Hordes

Praised are you Adonai our God, who rules the universe…clothing the naked
raising the downtrodden providing for all my needs.

— from the Birkhot HaShachar (morning blessings), Siddur Sim Shalom.

These are among the many morning blessings we are to recite each morning upon waking up. Because we say these words so often, we may run the risk of going on autopilot, not really thinking about how these words could inspire us as we go about our day.
On the surface, the wording of these blessings apparently recognizes God’s hand in all of these simple, but miraculous, gifts. However, if we consider that the Hebrew word meaning “to pray”, l’hitpalleil, is reflexive, by reciting these blessings, we are reminding ourselves that we, too, can do God’s work here on earth.
This message has become progressively clearer to me each month as I have joined with other members of the Keneseth Israel family to collect and deliver basic items to Louisvillians living in the various homeless encampments around the city. We are led each month by Eric Yussman, a congregant and long-time Forgotten Louisville volunteer. He provides us with maps detailing where the encampments are that we visit, and he heads the caravans.
We made our first delivery shortly after the High Holy Days this year. Each car was packed with a different category of helpful donations…food, clothing and blankets, or toiletries. Then, at each stop, we would open our trunks and call out to the people we met, asking them what they needed. Our first stop that evening was an open patch of grass and trees where various people had set up tents. At first glance, it appeared to be a regular campsite, a place where families would go for a recreational weekend away from home. Sadly, for the residents of this campsite, this was home.
I was shocked at the number of elderly and physically disabled folks, eking out an existence in this challenging situation. At the same time, it was heartening to see the younger, stronger members of this community looking out for these more vulnerable folks. As we distributed our donations, we struck up conversations with some of the people who wanted to share their stories. One was a veteran who told us he could probably afford his own place, but he was concerned about abandoning some of the ones who needed his help. Others told us they had jobs, but their incomes weren’t enough to pay for even the most modest rent.
This model of literally meeting people where they are is a departure from the traditional non-profits that set up a brick and mortar shelter or food pantry. Volunteers not only meet face-to-face with those they are helping, but they physically deliver the needed supplies directly to the recipients. In the words of Forgotten Louisville’s creator, Christen “Tiny” Herron:
“We are not an organization that asks them to come to us. We don’t require forms to be filled out or proof of a need. If they ask for something and we have it, we just give it…. We have seen a few success stories of those who actually make it off the streets, get housing, a job, and gain custody of their children. These are the stories that make it all worth it!”

(Cantor Sharon Hordes is a spiritual leader of Keneseth Israel Congregation.)

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