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A Beautiful Soul

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Shaindel is schizophrenic and homeless -- and a beloved fellow Jew.

She comes to our door for breakfast or dinner or for an afternoon snack. On blustery nights she sleeps in our playroom. She comes with shoes and dresses to sell while she waits for a Hollywood director to pick up her screenplay. She sings to my children and warns them of the monsters loose in the neighborhood. Her name is Shaindel. She's schizophrenic and homeless -- and a fellow Jew.

I can't say I always welcome her knock on the door -- we had to tell her that midnight is a little late to ring our bell! And sometimes I get annoyed when she disdains our orange juice because it isn't fresh enough. But I owe her a debt of gratitude for opening up the hearts of our whole family.

While we can't cure schizophrenia, we can make her feel loved.

While we can't cure schizophrenia, we can make her feel loved. She knows just what families to go to for food or showers and sometimes calls to make a "reservation" for our back room. She's a testimony to the power of community. I don't think that there were many psychiatric hospitals in pre-war Poland but I believe every shtetl took responsibility to feed, clothe and shelter the mentally ill in their midst.

Shaindel doesn't want the risks to her physical health and the numbing of her psyche that come with most pharmaceutical interventions for the schizophrenic. She runs away and doesn't come back for months if we mention the "d" word – doctor. She'd rather be out on the street. -- laughing and dancing.

And laugh she does. Frequently at herself. If you poke gentle fun at some of her strange stories, she can see the humor. Sometimes contact with reality helps bring her back also.

Late on a Friday night, Shaindel knocked on our door. We didn't have any room for her to stay over. After a few minutes we heard our car door slam and my husband and I Iooked at each other. "I guess she's gone to sleep in the car. Leave her be."

A while later, she left the car briefly and our neighbors' dog began to bark. They called the police and our sleep was interrupted yet again. The police had dragged the hapless Shaindel out of the car and were standing at our front door.

"Did you give this woman permission to sleep in your car?" they asked.

Not wanting her to get in trouble with the law, my husband said yes. "Well then give her a blanket. It's cold!" admonished the officer. Shaindel doubled over with laughter.

There have also been poignant moments. Shaindel scratched herself on a rusty nail and was concerned it may have broken the skin. We went to a private room in my house and I examined her. Thank God, she was fine. But I wasn't. I realized to my embarrassment, that previously she had not been quite real to me. She had been an interesting phenomenon, like the way some of our Shabbos guests look at us, but not quite a full human being. Until that moment -- when I saw her tremendous fear and felt her palpable relief. When I saw my own shallowness.

She can still frustrate me at times, like when she gives a very specific lunch order. I don't always have the patience to listen to her stories -- she has intimate knowledge of suspicious FBI workings on our block. But I'm always grateful to her for teaching my children and me about true love for your fellow Jew.

Tradition has it that Elijah the Prophet disguises himself and goes from door to door helping us refine our character and providing opportunities for genuine giving. When I first I helped out Shaindel I thought to myself, "What if she's really Elijah? I better not turn her away." Now I help her out just because she's someone I care about. Just because she's in need. Just because my kids love her. Just because I know I'm blessed to have the opportunity.

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