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8/19/15 - Chesed Begins at Home

By Meira (Reinstein) Mintz

On a summer morning in June 2012, my mother, Gila Reinstein, suffered a stroke that rendered her left side practically paralyzed, her speech temporarily absent, and her brilliant mind muddled and confused. Shocked and terrified, our entire family mobilized. My father spent every spare moment at the hospital by Mommy’s side, and when he could not be there, someone else always was. We sang to her and whispered to her and encouraged her. We took her for walks and fed her and begged her to get better. We filed her nails and told her funny stories and shlepped her to her therapies. It’s at times like these, I remember thinking, that family really counts.

One morning not long after I had come in from Israel, the drive from Long Island to the city took longer than usual and it took forever to park the car. As I rushed into the hospital, I hoped that Mommy wasn’t too lonely, that the nurses were looking out for her, that she didn’t feel abandoned. I anxiously hurried to her room – and there, sitting next to the bed and holding my mother’s hand in her own, was Yael.

Yael holds a unique distinction in our family. Twenty-six years ago, when both she and I were eight years old, Mommy and Abba opened their home to her for over three years, beginning a decade long career in loving and raising other people’s children. It was Mommy who taught Yael how to read, who went to all her parent-teacher conferences, and who tamed her stubborn hair. It was Mommy who bandaged her knees, patched up her dresses, and made her special vegetarian food. It was Mommy who drove her to Brooklyn when the cab didn’t come to take her to visit her parents, and it was Mommy who arranged her Bat Mitzvah. As the firstborn, I was the one who made my parents into parents – but Yael made my parents into foster parents. 

And there she was, by Mommy’s side – a grown woman with a family of her own, a woman who had been through a lot since she left our home, but who had developed into a lovely person in large part thanks due to my mother’s convictions and self-sacrifice.

“It’s so kind of you to come,” I said. Yael looked at me like I was crazy. As we sat there, side by side next to my mother’s hospital bed, I realized that while family counts, “family” means a lot more than biology and blood lines – and that my mother has a very large family indeed.

* * *

When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that there was anything the least bit strange about the fact that I shared my home with children who were not my biological siblings. In fact, it seemed only natural. We had the room and the resources, and my mother had the love, the drive, and the commitment required. Of course, the fact that we considered this a normal state of affairs owes much to the education that we received from our parents –education of the experiential sort. Lecturing about the importance of ahavat Yisrael and the value of chesed has its place, I suppose, as do school imposed community service requirements. But if a parent really, truly wants to transmit to his children the value of giving to others, the best way to do so is to compel them to experience that value themselves – to live, breathe, eat, and sleep chesed. If a parent wants his children to serve Hashem by helping His children, the best way to do so is to make their home into a sanctuary dedicated to that purpose.

When parents decide to become foster parents, they don’t do it for the sake of their own children. But their children become junior partners in the enterprise – the little people who make it possible, even if all they do is put up with the idea. Sometimes, welcoming a foster sibling takes little more effort than welcoming an additional natural one; there is less attention, of course, perhaps sibling rivalry, but in a community in which large families are the norm, it is no real hardship. Other times, of course, welcoming a foster sibling takes a whole lot more than that, especially when children are younger. And that is why, at least in my experience, foster parents have a unique opportunity to convey an important message to their own children: When Hashem said, “Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” He really meant it.

In addition to training us in the value of chesed, our experience as foster siblings also prevented us from contracting the highly contagious and dreaded “entitlement disorder” that so many contemporary parents and educators lament. We were certainly a susceptible population – yet it never hit us. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think the primary one is that when you are exposed at an early age to the suffering of others, when you realize from your youth that you have been abundantly blessed and that not everyone else has been, it is much more difficult to fall into the trap of expecting things to go your way. The only thing you are “entitled” to, we were taught, is to make your life meaningful by giving to others.

This training simultaneously made us more sensitive than usual to the suffering of others and less expectant than usual that we would never personally suffer. I learned as a child not to take anything for granted, even when I have everything I need. I learned that life may not turn out to be a rose garden after all and that but for the grace of God go I. I learned that I may not be able to help every person in need whom I encounter, but I should at the very least respond to their pain with compassion and not with condescension. I learned that people come in all shapes and forms and that they shouldn’t be judged by externals or circumstances, but by the choices they make – and while I may disapprove of those, they remain Hashem’s children.

My siblings and I understood that what my parents were doing was special, although we had no concept at the time of just how much they had to do. Now that we are parents ourselves, we look back with more than a touch of awe. Even at the time, however, we were proud of them – and that generated an uncommon degree of respect towards them that endures to this day.

None of this is to say, of course, that there were not negative elements to our reality as foster siblings or that the inherent risks were minimal and easily overcome. As children, we were exposed to problems and concepts that few of our peers had ever encountered, certainly not in such close proximity. As the oldest, I often understood things that my younger siblings did not – and I often wondered why my parents felt it necessary to infiltrate my insular, perfect world with words like abuse and mental illness and suicide. In retrospect, I realize that my parents felt that the entire point of our blessed insularity is to toughen us up so that we can reach out to those who have not been so blessed. We can pretend that problems don’t exist, but that is not going to make them go away. 

Somewhat paradoxically, my exposure to the problems out there in the “real world” – the “acts of God” and the human failures, the sins and the pain – left me with an optimistic worldview. Mommy and Abba had no patience for people who spend their time cursing the darkness but have no energy or will to add light. Yes, we learned, there are terrible problems out there, right beyond the front door. We can spend all day bemoaning them, belaboring them, and kvetching about them – or we can actually do something about them. My parents taught us that when we choose the latter option, we may make only a small dent in the overwhelming quest to heal society, but that attempt is worth more than all the finger-pointing in the world.

Ironically, living in a house with an open door also taught me that sometimes the door has to close. My mother never shirked from a challenge, but when it became clear that a boy who was placed with us was going to wreak havoc in the family, she recognized her limitations, and ours; a different placement would have to be found. I think she may have viewed this as a failure at the time, but it actually perfectly illustrates that the chesed she embraced was neither self-serving nor built on pity. It taught me, at least, that helping others has to be done with sechel. 

When my parents decided that they were no longer able to accept foster children into their home, they were not abandoning their commitment to giving to others; they were recognizing that not every person in every situation is cut out for every chesed at every time in their lives. When they put the needs of their own children first, they taught us another valuable lesson – that while loving others is a value of immense proportions, no matter how difficult it may be, it is only possible if you first love your own. Perhaps, in fact, that is why they were so good at it. Foster parenting – or any chesed, for that matter – is not a “project” in which points are awarded for martyrdom. It is a mission of love that is essentially an extension of the most basic love of all – the love of parents for their children.

When I was a young adult, I often dreamed that when I had a family of my own, I would open up my home just like my parents opened up theirs, that I would bravely follow in their footsteps and freely distribute love to any child in need. And then…life happened. One of my own beautiful children is developmentally disabled and has demanding special needs. I suppose I could try to be a hero anyway, but my parents taught me that that is not what this is all about. They taught me that loving other people’s children takes more than just love and the desire to do good; it takes energy, commitment, resilience, and more love. They taught me that it is better to focus your energies on the good that you can do well than on the good that you can do poorly, and that loving your own children through thick and thin is also a form of chesed. 

Foster-siblinghood also taught me about loss. By definition, foster care is temporary. There is no illusion that the child in whom you invest time and energy and sweat and tears will ever be “yours,” that the connection you build with such care and effort will last longer than the time, short or long, that he or she remains in your home. At some point, you have to say goodbye, and often forever – and when that moment comes, it can be very, very painful, even when you know that that was the whole point.

When I was 17, a baby boy came to live with us. I was utterly smitten by him, gleefully taking on the role as second mother. (Mommy, of course, was the one who woke up with him at night.) When I went off to study in Israel, there were pictures of him on my wall next to the pictures of my siblings. And when he went back to his mother while I was still six thousand miles away, I cried for days. There was no issue of fairness or justice at play here; I knew that the little guy was where he belonged. But I suddenly confronted the fact that one of the tragedies of humanity is that no one whom we love – no one – is ours forever. If we were to go through life with that on our minds all the time, we would probably all cease to function, or at least cease to love. But in retrospect, my experience loving my erstwhile brothers and sisters taught me that it is indeed better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all.

* * *

On a late-summer morning in September 2014, my siblings and I shuffled out of the shul and prepared to give my mother her final honor. A week earlier, Mommy had suffered a second stroke, more devastating than the first and one that no one had anticipated. All of her amazing accomplishments over the past two years, all of her hard work and persistence, had been swiftly erased by a neurological incident that the doctors couldn’t quite explain. As we slowly followed the hearse down the block and around the corner, I had the oppressive feeling that so much of what we do in life makes no lasting impression.  

And then we stopped in front of 282 Maple Street, a large brick colonial with a lovely garden on the lawn. This was my mother’s fortress, her castle – the divine sanctuary that she had consecrated simply by opening the door again and again and again. Was that also all for naught?

The rabbi gestured, and suddenly Yael was there, humbly approaching the hearse. She opened the back and stood by the side, teary-eyed, as we began to recite a chapter of Tehillim. And it was then that my mother taught me one final lesson – that no ounce of good that we invest in this world is wasted, even when it seems that all is lost, that a home is more than a physical structure, and that when chesed begins at home, it doesn’t end there. 

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