Large Enough to Serve You
Small Enough to Know You

Rabbi Elana Zelony

Ordinary People Taking Responsibility

Life seems to be full of connected events. I’d like to share a series of connections that speaks to love triumphing over hatred. It happened once that Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel, born in Lithuania and imprisoned in Stutthof, had dinner with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This happened because, after the Shoah, Mrs. Meisel rebuilt her life in Philadelphia. While out walking she met a neighbor and they began chatting. Her neighbor was Raymond Pace Alexander, the first black judge appointed to the Court of Common Pleas. He invited her to dinner in his home and among the guests was Dr. King. To her embarrassment, Mrs. Meisel couldn’t partake of much of the food at the table. It was Dr. King who graciously explained the dietary laws of Judaism on her behalf to their fellow guests.  This breaking of bread was the beginning of a connection. It led Mrs. Meisel to organize the Philadelphia contingent that attended the March on Washington.

Two days after hearing Dr. King preach “I Have a Dream,” Mrs. Meisel found herself on the porch of a terrified black family with a plate of homemade cookies. The Baker family was the first black family to move into the working class development of Folcroft near Mrs. Meisel’s home. The family had spent their first night in their new home huddled in their basement as an angry mob destroyed the windows and doors of their house. State troopers had to stand guard to prevent further violence. When Mrs. Meisel heard this story on the news she baked cookies and brought them to the Baker family. She introduced herself by saying, “I am a Holocaust survivor. What can I do for you?” You can read more about the extraordinary person at http://www.judymeisel.com.

The ways in which these lives intersected is not coincidence. Small acts of kindness are not random and one act leads to the next. Pirkei Avot teaches, “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on service of God, and on acts of loving kindness.” Raymond Pace Alexander, Dr. King, Mrs. Meisel, and the Bakers met because they believed in doing acts of loving kindness despite the traumas they’d endured. They continued to reach out to their fellow human beings as acts of faith in the goodness of humanity. Through their acts of loving kindness the world continues to stand.

April 11 and 12 will find people around the world memorializing the Shoah. April 4 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When faced with the enormous evil of a world that allows genocide, racism or cutting down a visionary in his prime it is easy to despair that the Messiah will never come to redeem us. When we face the unending list of names that we read to honor the victims of the Shoah, or contemplate all the things Dr. King never had the opportunity to accomplish, we may feel powerless to make the world better. But, when we tell stories about ordinary people taking responsibility to act decently toward one another, we realize the redemption of humanity is not impossible.