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Love Your Neighbor

May 8, 2009 | by Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW

A tragic fire brings together a disparate community.

For Soraya Stevens, the children who lived above the laundromat in North Lawrence added a few smiles to the chore of washing and drying clothes.

She and her 7 year-old daughter, Saniah, sometimes passed the time by playing with the youngsters in the Vanegas family. "They just seemed happy," she said.

Then she heard about the fire in the building on Thursday. "Are the children okay?" she asked.

It took her a half-hour to compose herself after hearing sisters Andrea, 13, and Susanna, 9, had died. The girls were killed in their apartment along with their brother, Saul Preza, 19, and their mother, Morena Vanegas, 46. Nearly two dozen people displaced by the fire remained homeless.

Three children and a young mother from a local Latino family suddenly perish in a raging fire. The shocking news hit the Five Towns/Far Rockaway, NY area hard this past Thursday. How would the surrounding Jewish communities react to the tragedy?

Among the core, basic characteristics that define the Jewish People are "rachmanim" and "gomlei chassadim," feeling and acting compassionate and benevolent (Tractate Yevamot, 79A). In the aftermath of the fatal fire, local community activists were deluged with calls, texts and emails inquiring about how to help.

An e-mail from a busy mother on Sabbath eve highlights the expressions of empathy and kindness that were generated:

My heart goes out to this family. I'd like to lend my talents to help ease their load.
I can share my time, knowledge and support, I can cook for them and collect clothing. I speak Spanish, so I can hopefully help them navigate the system.
My cell # is (---) --- - ----- . Please feel free to pass it on to the family. They can call me anytime after Shabbat ends tmrw nite.
Shabbat Shalom and keep up the great work! DSB

Offers of donations (money, clothes and food) came pouring in from across the broad spectrum of the Jewish community. Individuals, young and old. Families of every size. Jewish day schools and synagogues. All stepped up to help somehow, some way.

"Our love of humanity should not exclude any nation or individual."

Dr. Annette Szafranski, a psychologist in the local school district, asked me to participate in a joint crisis training at the elementary school where the two younger girls had attended school. Teachers, administrators and mental health staff gathered together, seeking ways to give vent to their feelings. They were all eager to gain knowledge of how to best help their young students cope with the brutal loss. The ripple effects of tragedy can trigger so many physical, emotional and cognitive issues in classmates.

What do you say when your students ask: How could such a thing happen? Are they in Heaven now? Can they still come visit us? Who will make lunches for the siblings that survived? Who would prepare meals if it happened to my Mom? I had a really scary dream last night - will it come true? Should we keep the now-empty desk in the room? If I have money to donate, who do I give it to? Can I meet with the guidance counselor today instead of waiting for my regular appointment on Wednesday?

Of course, everyone thanked us as the session ended. That's the professional thing to do. But it was the private remarks as we exited that made me take note. Staff of various ethnicities and cultures all expressed similar sentiments: "Thank you so much for coming. It's heartening to know that the community cares."

What constitutes a community? Is it geographical boundaries? Zip codes? Shared lineage? Common beliefs and behaviors? Mutual goals?

While everyone may have their own opinion in how to define "community," I'll let the 200 year-old insights of Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna, commenting on the global village of humankind, speak for themselves: "The mitzvah to 'love your neighbor' means that we should love all people, no matter which nation they belong to or what language they speak. For all men are created in the Divine Image.... Our love of humanity should not exclude any nation or individual. For man was not created for his own sake exclusively, rather, all men exist for the sake of one another" (Sefer HaBrit, Section 2, Discourse 13).

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