April 20, 2024
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Chesed and the City: Stamford Launches Kindness Project

Rabbi Daniel Cohen, Rev. Mark Lingle and Talay Hafiz at the Stamford Kindness Project kickoff.

There is a lot of talk these days about hope. With the world’s attention on Israel and with fears of rising antisemitism in the Diaspora, many are seeking ways to quell anxiety and stay positive.

What better time for an entire community to take purposeful action? Over the last two weeks, the City of Stamford, Connecticut has been focused on acts of chesed as part of the Stamford Kindness Project, a partnership between the city government and Congregation Agudath Sholom that engages hundreds of participants and dozens of organizations.

Perhaps what best defines the motivation behind the project can be found in a clarification by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, who compared hope and optimism. The two similar-seeming concepts, often confused, are actually quite different. “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better; hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things better,” he said. “It needs no courage, just a certain naivete to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope.”

This rings true for Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom, known locally and nationally for his passionate teachings on active chesed. “Everything I talk about is trying to lead our best life, lead a life of legacy, anticipating opportunities for kindness, and not underestimating the power of one act to ignite a lot of light in the world,” he said. In Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, Cohen found a kindred spirit seeking to engage her community in active kindness. The two longtime friends had discussed the idea of launching a campaign, which finally got some traction over the summer when Simmons discussed the idea with Carmen Hughes, the city’s diversity, inclusion and equity officer.

“It was somewhat serendipitous or some type of law of attraction,” Hughes said. “One day over the summer, Mayor Simmons suggested we launch a Random Acts of Kindness campaign. We brainstormed a little about what this campaign would look like, and we agreed to do some more research and regroup in a couple of weeks. Shortly after our initial meeting, Mayor Simmons learned that Rabbi Cohen had successfully launched ‘Mitzvah Moments’ during COVID and suggested I connect with him to explore doing something similar with the City. After just a couple of meetings, the Stamford Kindness Project was in the works.”

Stamford Kindness Project kickoff.

The Stamford Kindness Project—Sparking Citywide Random Acts of Kindness kicked off on November 3. In a show of unity with fellow religious leaders, “Rabbi Cohen had the brilliant idea to call for a group hug amongst him, Rev. Mark Lingle of St. Francis Episcopal Church, and Talay Hafiz, president of the Stamford Islamic Center,” Hughes recalled. All members of the community, organizations, and local businesses were invited to perform acts of kindness and inspire others to follow suit. Participants have been using the #StamfordKindnessProject hashtag on social media to spread the word.

Hughes is pleased with the response so far. More than 30 community partners have joined the effort, with hundreds of examples already on record. During the city’s Veterans Day parade, 40 people received a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card that read “#BeKind” or “#KindnessProject.” The windows of Stamford’s Government Center are filled with colorful hearts, donated by a teacher who learned of the project and had her faculty, staff and students create the artwork. Another school printed out tiny business cards with the Stamford Kindness Project logo and asked their students to think of ways to spread kindness with a gesture of goodwill, and to leave a card behind. “The students have been performing secret acts of kindness, grand gestures and anonymous donations all around town,” Hughes said. “One child donated a ton of books to a school, another brought coffee to a crossing guard leaving only the card. Just last week, there was a fire and the family lost everything. The amount of kindness that is being shared to help and support this family is heartwarming. The list goes on.”

Rabbi Cohen sees the project not only as a way to change the local climate, but also as a tool to help bring about a fundamental shift on a much broader scale. “One of the front lines for us as the Jewish people during this period is infusing the world with kind deeds to elevate God and the Jewish people,” he said. “We can’t underestimate that when we do something that makes people pause and say, ‘Wow, the Jewish people are so kind; they’re bringing godliness into the world,’ we help God’s presence in the world. And when we’re doing acts of kindness for people—regardless of their background, regardless of their faith, and seeing the face of God in every human being—we are actually shaking the spiritual foundations of the world. This is what Jewish philosophy believes and that’s why this Kindness Project is more timely than ever. If we can do something kind here and inspire the city and maybe other cities not to look for the dirt in people but to mine for the gold, not to judge people by their political affiliation or their faith, but to truly see the divine, we are becoming the conduits to hasten a much better world.”

Stamford Government Center festooned with kindness.

Hughes would like to see the project continue far past the planned end date of December 25. “It would be a beautiful thing if we could keep the random acts of kindness flowing into the new year,” she said. “If someone does something kind or leaves you a special gift of kindness, please pay it forward. That is the most important thing and will help us to keep this going indefinitely.”

Participants can share their stories on social media using the hashtags #StamfordProjectKindness and #BeKind. Photos and stories are welcome at [email protected]


Cynthia Mindell is a staff writer at The Jewish Link.

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