Meeting Ranya Kelly for the first time you would never guess that this quiet petite woman once brought a major corporation to its knees in the city of Denver. She never intended to be a controversial celebrity but, when you get to know her you will find that Ranya never backs away from a fight when she is in the right.
Several years ago she found herself in need of a good sized box to send out a gift. She went in back of a strip mall store that sold shoes to find such a box but, when she opened the dumpster, found 500 pair of brand new shoes instead. The store, and its parent company, had a policy to discard merchandise that did not sell after a certain amount of time.
Ranya took the shoes home and invited her family and friends to take what they wanted. But she still had hundreds of pairs of shoes left – and would not throw them out. She ended up driving to a homeless shelter to donate the shoes. There, she had an epiphany. As she put it, “I never knew about the shelters or the people who really needed anything. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I was never involved with poor people. There was a pregnant woman standing in the doorway, her pants dragging on the floor. She had a two or three year old in tow and had not shoes. It was the middle of January. I just couldn’t comprehend that somebody didn’t have a pair of shoes when I had just found 500 pair.”
Ranya went back to that dumpster and began collecting discarded shoes. She was caught, almost arrested for theft and almost sued. When they could not stop her the store began shredding the shoes to stop her.
Finally, after the press got involved and both sides began talking Ranya was allowed to continue. Today, over one million shoes later, she has created an organization that brings stores which habitually discard unsold merchandise together with people who are in need. Ranya’s organization, the Redistribution Center, channels millions of dollar’s worth of materials every year.
I have known Ranya for more than twenty years and have facilitated redistribution programs in New Jersey, Mississippi and Kentucky. Opening the trucks and watching our “clients” see what is inside brings tears to our volunteer eyes. I remember one director of a program in Newark, New Jersey blessing us all – reminding us again and again how much life we were spreading around.
And sometimes I cry as well. In part I cry because I don’t realize how much a brand new pair of jeans means to a Mississippi teen who has to wear torn sweatpants because even now, years after Hurricane Katrina, the family can’t afford clothing. I cry because a Kentucky schoolchild will have a new backpack instead of a plastic garbage bag for her school supplies.
And I cry because as sensitized as I have become to the needs around us, I still live in an upper class community known for its wealth and high educational standards. I remember quite clearly when I approached a local minister to co-sponsor Ranya where we would be able to bring thousands of dollars of new clothing and household goods for those in need. He said, “There are no poor people in our town.”
For those of you who live in north/central Jersey: Ranya will be here in May – come and find out about a truly saintly woman, and help fix the world.
Yesterday, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu posted a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer by our colleague, Rabbi Aaron Weininger in response to the attack at the Boston Marathon. I appreciate the words, and those of other colleagues who have created and shared words of prayer these past 24 hours. I will, no doubt, share some of those words with my own congregation this coming Shabbat. But, I must be quite honest, today I don’t feel much like praying. Today I feel angry.
Yesterday was my first time being up close to the proceedings of a marathon in this country. A number of years ago, while I still lived in the UK, I spent several years volunteering with a first aid organization, the St. John’s Ambulance, and had the opportunity to assist at the London Marathon. But this year, with my step-daughter volunteering as a guide to a participant with cerebral palsy, racing in a chair, we took advantage of the fact that we live just 5 miles from the starting line to cheer them on for the earlier parts of the race.
We arrived in Hopkinton early enough to spend some time with the Achilles team as they warmed up and prepared. It was nothing short of inspiring to see racers in chairs make sure that the custom-made works of art that they race in were reading for action; others have the use of prosthetic legs. Many are war veterans. I, whose crowning physical achievement was to build up to a 5km run for charity a couple of years ago, was humbled by the determination and dedication of the men and women racing, and their volunteer guides who enable those who need additional support to participate as equals.
We watched the first few waves of starts take off from Hopkinton, cheering on our team and many of the other mobility-impaired early starters. Then we made our way to Natick and were lucky enough to get another moment of cheering in as my step-daughter’s athlete and his team came by at around the 9 mile mark. We didn’t progress any further down the track, knowing that it would be challenging to get into Boston. I was in my car listening to NPR when I got the first news of the attack close to the finishing line.
I cannot stop thinking about the family waiting to cheer on a father, whose 8 year old son is never coming home. Mother and daughter are still contending with serious injuries. I cannot stop thinking about the spectators who were cheering on these inspirational runners one moment – many of whom have dedicated hundreds of hours as volunteers to support teams that raise thousands and thousands of dollars for charity – who today are dealing with the trauma of a lost limb. In a split second the world has changed for these people. Yes, the world changes for many others too – the ones who were close by, the ones who waited with baited breath to hear from loved ones who might have been there. We are shaken too. But we are the lucky ones.
I am angry. I am incensed that someone or some group has caused such devastating harm. Is this different from any other act of terror, or violent attack that kills and injures innocent bystanders? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is on the heels of watching Senators play politics in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting that I find myself in a different mood this time around. I’m not interested in gentle words or prayers. I remain inspired by those who helped in the moment of need, just as I was inspired by the athletes I met at the start of the day. But I don’t simply wish to express my thanks for those who made a difference in the face of terror. I wish to express radical indignation that such random acts of callousness are committed by those who have the gall to believe they can justify turning the lives of others upside down.
I’m noticing these feelings arise, and I am not trying to keep them down today. From what place do we garner strength and energy to act? Sometimes from prayer. But perhaps sometimes we need to get in touch with the anger, and we need to be willing to turn toward the images of torn limbs and bloodied bodies because this, too, can re-energize us to act differently. To truly treasure each day, to treasure each human interaction, to foster more caring and do even more in all the ways we live and act, because we have to counter hate with as much lovingkindness as we can.
And I pray, deeply I pray, that the authorities catch those responsible and bring the full weight of justice upon their heads.
On Sunday I read a very moving Op Ed in the New York Times by Larkin Warren entitled, “I Was a Welfare Mother.” I was brought to tears by her story about being a single mother trying to complete college and get back on her feet. During those difficult years, she needed government aid to help her get basic supplies and food for herself and her young son. She describes how without food stamps and a monthly check rom the government she never would have made ends meet. After graduating college she got a job in her college’s English Department and went off welfare. She went on to be a writer and editor.
She concludes by saying, “Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.”
Judge and punish the poor in not an American value, and not a Jewish one either. Jews are required to give tzadaka, charity to help the poor. Time and again the Bible admonishes us to take care of the poor, widowed and orphaned in our midst. Many laws were created to ensure the poor got communal support. Farmers were instructed to leave the corners of their fields unplowed so that the poor could come and harvest the grain for themselves. Everyone was expected to give one tenth of their income to support of the poor.
The highest level of giving to the poor according to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, is to help a person help themselves. In the story Larkin relates, the American government serves this purpose. The money she received from welfare helped her to help herself. There is no greater mitzvah than this, and no better use of our tax dollars. I found this story to be particularly poignant this week of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur liturgy clearly states that “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will avert Gods severe decree. “ Charity, supporting those in need, is just as important as personal repentance and prayer. Think about the import of that for a moment.
According to Jewish law, we have a responsibility to take care of one another. And as Larkin’s story demonstrates, you never know when just a little bit of help will allow someone to survive and then flourish later on. We all need help of some kind at some point in our lives. For some it may be financial, for others emotional, or physical. We do not live in isolation. We cannot always lift ourselves sup by the bootstraps and be independent. We need people around us to support us in our lives.
This week of Yom Kippur, while you are reflecting on your year and the things you want to repent for; Think too of the future and the way you can support someone else. Make plans to give of your time, money, or expertise to help another. You can have a profound impact. As the Talmud teaches, “To save one life is to have saved the world.”