Since October 7th, IDF soldiers have answered the call of duty to sacrifice their hearts and souls for Am Yisrael. Outside the land of Israel, many Jews have pondered, what sacrifices can we make for Am Yisrael? Most Diaspora Jews have no policy-making power. Most diaspora Jews have no combat training. Most diaspora Jews don’t have thousands of dollars to offer for Israel Aid. At the Washington DC rally, this author discovered one sacrifice all diaspora Jews can make for Am Yisrael.
Following a five-and-a-half-hour commute, Ilan Sasson, Rabbi Asher Shannonbrook and I arrived at the rally. At first glance, observers could spot groups from various Jewish communities wearing distinct pro-Israel tee shirts. Several feet away from Ilan, Asher, and I, stood a seventy-year-old man. A baseball cap rested atop the man’s noggin. A satchel-like bag hung around his shoulder. Baize pants and a long-sleeve shirt covered his body. This man’s left arm held up a sign, which read, Cleveland Stands with Israel. His right arm used a cane for balance and mobility.
Within a few seconds, Asher, Ilan, and I approached Mr. Cleveland. “HI. What’s your name?” Suddenly, a Midwestern accent left the man’s yap. “Helloooo. My name’s Wheels.” Observing the Cleveland sign, Ilan asked, “How long was the ride up here?” A smile brighter than the moon leaped from Wheels” face. “We got on the buses around 12:45 AM, and I just got here.”
I jumped in and asked. “This is your first time in DC?”
“I haven’t been here since 1968. I came then to protest about the war.”
After these initial questions, Wheels relayed the history of Cleveland and its Jewish community. Observing no other Cleveland members nearby, Asher inquired, “Is your group close to here?” Wheels looked around the flooded Jewish rally scene and replied, “I’m not sure where they went.”
“Do you wanna give them a call?” I suggested.”
Wheels opened his satchel and pulled out a printed piece of paper. “I didn’t bring a cell phone.”
Suddenly, Wheels handed me the piece of paper. “But maybe you can call one of these numbers. They are my bus captains.”
I picked up the phone and dialed each bus captain. First call, no answer. Second call, no answer. Following nearly twenty minutes of phone tag, one bus captain picked up. However, noise from the rally made it difficult to clearly understand them. For example, one bus captain said, “Meet us near the porta potties.” However, the rally covered miles of space and contained dozens of porta-potty sites. After a brief meeting, Asher decided to visit each porta-potty site on foot in search of any Cleveland groups. Meanwhile, Wheels stayed with Ilan and me. During this stretch, Ilan and I took turns making conversation with Wheels.
At one point, a 70-year-old woman saw Wheels” Cleveland sign and retorted, “Hey. My daughter lives in Cleveland.” This comment springboarded a dialogue between the four of us about Judaism’s values. She discussed the pain of being a widow and offered powerful life advice. “Instead of thinking about whether the glass of life is half full or half empty, focus on trying to fill up other people’s cups. Following this Tikun Olam message, A discussion about the conflict ensued. Wheels, Ilan, and I relayed support for Israel and Netanyahu. Whereas she claimed to be pro-Israel, but not pro-Netanyahu.
Forty minutes later, the Cleveland bus captains found each other. The group asked if we could stay with Wheels until 245:PM. This request prompted a dilemma. On the one hand, Ilan, Asher, and I wanted to explore the rally and all its sights. Maybe walk to the podium and experience center-stage action. Maybe meet up with some out-of-town friends who flew in for the rally. Maybe stroll around the capital area. On the other hand, Wheels did not have a cell phone and could easily get lost. Wheels walked with a cane and could fall. Wheels hadn’t been in DC since ’68. Weighing each option together, Asher, Ilan, and I agreed to hang with Wheels until 2: 45PM.
By 2 o’clock, Wheels started to experience healing pain from prolonged standing. A feeling many elderly people at the rally faced. Upon noticing Wheels’ pain, Ilan and Asher and I approached an occupied bench and asked its current sitters, “ could our friend have a seat?”
Without missing a beat, one man slowly emerged from the bench’s end seat and replied. “Anything for a brother. Am Yisroel Chai.” Interestingly, this man himself walked with a limp. Yet, decided to offer Wheels his seat. Around 250PM, Asher spotted a group wearing a Cleveland Jewish community Tee shirt. Wheels joined their group, offered a quick farewell, and walked off into the distance.
Every day, Hashem grants people opportunities to help others in need. At work, some co-workers need a hand to complete projects. At school, some classmates need a hand studying for an exam. At shul, some congregants or couples may not receive many shabbat meal invitations. It can be easy to notice each scenario, and think, “let me focus on my own work: Let me focus on my own grades. Let me worry about my shabbat meal invitations. Doesn’t the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot State, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me.”
However, rabbis around planet earth have labeled this current time an et-sara—emergency situation. During an et sara, the Rambam advises Jewish people to look inward and ask, how can I improve myself? How can I change and step up my game?” This experience with Wheels taught me, each of us can dig deeper and seek ways to do a little bit more chesed.
Give a 15-minute phone call to a down on their luck friend. Go up to an elderly member of your shul and ask about their grandchildren. Offer to tutor your neighbor in math or Gemara. Babysit someone’s dog for the weekend. Do an extra carpool shift. If IDF soldiers can sacrifice their lives to protect Am Yisrael, we can dedicate more time and effort to improve Am Yisrael.
To quote rabbi Aryeh Levine. “Sometimes, everyone can be a tzaddik.”
To quote YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchack Cohen. “Not everyone has the heart to be a genius, but everyone has the heart to be a good person.”