As the snow blankets the streets and we don a zillion layers to keep warm, I'm reminded of a girl named Taylor.
A few years back, I mentored Taylor, an 8-year-old at the time, who had been living in the poor, former Cabrini Green neighborhood. It was just before Christmas on a bone-chilling Chicago day, and I wanted to give her a holiday gift that seemed appropriate for the season-a brightly colored hat, scarf, and mittens.
"Merry Christmas!" I said, handing my young friend the small token. But when Taylor opened the package, her reaction wasn't what I was expecting. "Thank you, but I can't wear these," she told me. "My brothers will be jealous of me." As she divulged her heartbreaking reason for not taking the gift, I hoped she wouldn't notice the tears welling up in my eyes.
It was an "aha" moment for me. After all, I'd read in books and watched on TV and in movies about "poverty" countless times over the course of my life. Yet I still had only a simplistic, un-nuanced, and removed understanding of what it means to be poor. It was in that moment, standing there in the freezing cold with Taylor, that I started to get it. She crystalized for me how different her life experience was from many of ours. This beautiful little girl and her family went without the things we take for granted--something as basic as warm outerwear to endure a brutal Chicago winter.
Ever since I was a kid, I've known how lucky I am--to be raised in a loving home with heat, shelter, clothing, a decent education, and plenty to eat so I'd never know what it was like to go to bed hungry. And I'd like to think I was also raised in that same home to never take for granted all the good things in my life.
We all get wrapped up in the daily, crazy whirlwind of our routines, where we're sucked into the narrow focus of our lives, and the players starring in our worlds, like our family, friends, and colleagues. But I made a pledge way back as a teenager--and have kept my promise to this day--to regularly get outside of myself and take time to focus on someone else, someone outside my demographic with a completely different story, someone who isn't as fortunate as I am.
Currently, I have that opportunity through JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network "Working in the Schools" literacy program, where professionals spend a lunch weekly or biweekly paired up with a child at a Chicago elementary school.
My buddy for the year is Jasmine, a sweet, perceptive, and creative second grader who loves reading books like the Pigeon and Madeline series. In between books, we chat about life in the second grade and answer questions presented to us on the chalkboard like who inspires us most--Jasmine chose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every time I'm with Jasmine, I get this surge of happiness; our friendship is as beneficial to me as it is to her.
I believe all of us--no matter how rich or poor we are and how jam-packed our schedules appear to be--should seek opportunities to get outside of ourselves to do mitzvahs-good deeds commanded to us by the Torah--in some way, shape, or form. Even if mentoring isn't your thing, you can find all kinds of ways to give back--through JUF--by feeding the hungry at the Uptown Cafe, by visiting with seniors through CJE SeniorLife, or by donating necessities to The ARK, and so much more. For ideas, visit JUF's website at www.juf.org and TOV's website at
And don't forget, you can always give through JUF. The 2013 JUF Annual Campaign closes on Wednesday, Jan. 15, and the 2014 JUF Annual Campaign is already underway. To make a gift through the JUF Annual Campaign, call (312) 357-4805 or visit www.juf.org/donate.