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Stories From the Heart

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HeartA young man wanted to be a blacksmith. So he became an apprentice to a blacksmith, and learned all the necessary techniques of the trade: how to hold the tongs, how to lift the sledge, how to smite the anvil, even how to blow the fire with bellows. Having finished his apprenticeship, he was chosen to work at the smithery of the Royal Palace. However, the young man's delight soon ended when he discovered that he had failed to learn how to kindle a spark. All his skill and knowledge in handling the tools were of no avail, without a spark he could not proceed.

— Recounted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Insecurity of Freedom

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According to Rabbi Yona, the glory of life is doing the mitzvah of tzedakah. It is what makes us human. Whatever the burdens and trials of being a Jewish leader, if we remember that this is one of the greatest treasures, the opportunity to spend our days fixing the things broken in life (broken people and broken hearts among them) then the labors of leadership will become a source of great meaning, joy and peace.

— Danny Siegel, Jewish Leadership

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I always ask people why they give to federation. The best response I ever heard came from a 30-something woman, frantically trying to divide her time and resources among her responsibilities at work, at home, in the Jewish community and in the community at large. "There came a point I was asked to do so many things, I had to say "no." The reason my contribution to federation is so important is that it lets me say yes ... yes to a lot of people and a lot of agencies who depend on our help."

— Frank Hagelberg, Rochester

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Rabbi Naftali of Ropchitz was known for his persistence ­ and his wit. One day, after a long D'var Torah on the importance of tzedakah, he remained in the synagogue an entire morning, praying that the rich would give more of their money to the poor. When he returned home, his wife asked him, "Were you successful with your prayer?"

Rabbi Nautili answered with a smile, "I am half-way there!"

His wife looked puzzled.

"Oh, yes," he assured her. "The poor have agreed to accept!"

— Chasidic Tale

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A long-time federation volunteer recently returned from Israel. While she was there, she visited a well baby clinic in Be'ersheva, a town with a sizable Ethiopian community. The clinic is a two-year-old project funded by our campaign dollars. And every Ethiopian child in Be'ersheva under the age of three was being cared for or followed by one of the clinic staff.

Well, this veteran campaign solicitor held one of the babies at that clinic.

She said it was the first time she really knew why she did what she did.

She said, "I held the reason in my arms."

— Bonnie Marks, Cleveland

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I recently had the privilege to visit Mikhail Stepanova, a retired doctor living in Ukraine with her developmentally disabled son. Mikhaila's husband died last year. I remember walking to her apartment. Across a muddy courtyard through a loose fitting door right into her kitchen ­ a small

stove and refrigerator. The sink and toilet were just off to the side. It was so small. So cold. Yet, Mikhaila never leaves her apartment. She, in fact, can barely even move around in her apartment without a cane and crutch. Mikhaila lives on a pension of $20 per month. But, because she is Jewish, and because of the UJA Federation Campaign Mikhaila now has food

packages delivered, medical services when she needs them, hot meals and home care visits for both her and her son. She wanted me to "go back to America and say thank you" on her behalf. So, on behalf of Mikhaila Stepanova, thank you.

— Vivien Marion, Washington DC

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It is a custom of the world that when one takes a bunch of reeds tied together, can one possibly break them all at once? But when one takes one by one, even an infant can break them. And so you find, that the people of Israel are not complete until they become "one bunch."

— Midrash Yalkut Shimoni

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A father and son were walking down the road. They came upon a large stone in their path and the father turned to his son and said, in a challenging voice, "I bet you can move that large stone if you utilize everything that you have, everything that you possess."

The son looked proudly at his father, and accepted the challenge. He got a grip on the stone and began to lift. The stone budged up and started to move, but was so heavy, it dropped. The son, not wanting to disappoint his father, took a deep breath, and with all his strength, he grabbed the stone and lifted again. The stone began to move but it is too much for him to handle.

He looked up disappointed and said, "I tried and I couldn't do it."

The father said, "Son, I know you can move that stone if you utilize everything you possess."

The son looked at his father with confusion and said, "I used every ounce of strength that I had. I used everything within me. I used everything I had and I couldn't move the stone, father."

The father looked at his son and said, "No, not everything. You didn't ask me to help."

— Author Unknown

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I was seventeen when I first went to Israel. Full of Zionist passion and determined never to return home, I was going to single-handedly change the world. The day came. My parents, brothers, cousins and friends assembled at the train station to say goodbye. The start of a great adventure. My first experience with independence. I was impatient; my parents were still hoping I'd change my mind.

At the sound of the whistle, my father folded me into his arms, hugged me, kissed my head and whispered in my ear, "I want you to remember one thing, son. Wherever you go, wherever you end up, if there's a Jewish family in town you need never be alone or hungry."

I never forgot his words. Or my responsibility to them.

— Jonathan Miller, Toronto

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This past year I celebrated the 21st anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. When I think about it, I always think about my great-grandfather, Papa Willie.

For my bar mitzvah, Papa Willie made a donation to the federation in my honor. It was the first time I remember learning about the "federation." I responded with something to the affect that I appreciate your making a donation in my honor, but if you're looking for a good Jewish cause ... Here I Am!

I will always remember what he said. "When a person makes a gift to the federation, it's not only helping Jewish people in Charleston, in Israel and around the world, but it is an investment in our Jewish future."

I believed his words then. I believe them now.

— Mark Wright, Tampa

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In 1998, I visited a JAFI summer camp in Kiev. As we drove up to the camp, it was as if we were arriving at parent's day at any American sleep-away camp -- except all the kids spoke Russian! We spent almost six hours with them. They divided us into groups. They took us to camp activities and put on skits. It was great fun. But what moved me most was getting the chance

to watch these young Jewish boys and girls enjoy being Jewish -- after so many years, to really express their joy about being Jewish. As we all know, so much of our Jewishness is passed down from parent to child. In the former Soviet Union, it is being passed up from child to parent. What excitement to be a part of this!

— Jon Harris, Minneapolis

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A little boy was on the beach one day as the tide was going out. Little starfish were being stranded on the sand because they couldn't get back into the water. The little boy ran up and down the beach throwing the little fish back into the water, one by one.

A man witnessed this and went up to the little boy. He asked, "What are you doing?"

The little boy breathlessly replied, "I'm saving these starfish!"

The man said, "Little boy, don't you realize that there are many miles of beach and hundreds of starfish. What possible difference can what you are doing make?"

The little boy looked into his hand at a starfish and replied, "It makes a difference to this one," as he threw it back into the water.

— Loren Eisley

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I had the opportunity to travel to the FSU. The one part of the trip I will never forget is my meeting with Sophie. She lived in a bleak four-story, Russian-style, cement block walk-up. Sophie was in her late 60's. She looked much older. She had a heart condition and couldn't get out very much anymore. A few times a week she would go to the park across the street, but that was it. We had come to Sophie's apartment to deliver a JDC (www.jdc.org) food package.

We walked up the four flights of stairs and found her sitting in a very small two-room apartment, where she spends nearly every minute of her life. She had pictures of herself and her family covering the walls. I looked at one picture of her ­ it must have been taken 15 or 20 years earlier ­ and she looked just like my grandfather's sister, my Aunt Mary. My Aunt Mary was my definition of unconditional love. She never had any children of her own, but loved us like you wouldn't believe.

I always think that if my grandfather and his little sister Mary had turned left instead of right, they could have been in that cement walk-up in Kiev waiting for a food package from the JDC. I'd heard it so many times before, but meeting Sophie made me understand what the UJA Federation Campaign means.

— Connie Kanter, Seattle

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A container is defined by its contents. A pitcher of water is water. A crate of apples is apples. A house too, is defined by what it contains. Fill your house with books of Torah and your house becomes Torah. Affix tzedakah boxes to its walls and your house becomes a wellspring of charity. Bring those who need a warm home to your table, and your house becomes a lamp in the darkness.

— Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson From Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe. 1995

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Helen had recently lost her husband. He was not only her best friend and partner, but the only one who drove, the one who took care of all their shopping. Her children lived out-of-town; most of her friends were either gone or housebound. Isolated and frail, Helen fell in to a deep depression. Her daughter was worried about her mom's physical and mental health, so she

called one of the federation's adult day care centers to see if her mom was eligible to participate. Helen reluctantly agreed to be picked up and taken to the center three times a week. A month later, Helen told us that the center "was a gift from God."

— Bonnie Marks, Cleveland

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I'd like to introduce you to some children that you didn't even know that you had. But they are your children. ­ They are all our children.

I'd like you to meet a group of children from Israel's Mevasseret Zion absorption center. The day I met them they had big smiles on their faces because they knew they had arrived in the Promised Land. Our campaign dollars brought these beautiful children out of the nightmare that is called Gondar, Ethiopia, to a place where they will have a secure future. They'll have food to eat, shelter over their heads. They'll get an education. They will become citizens of Israel, participate in a democracy, and become leaders. In fact, our guide in the absorption center that day was the grown-up result of the first wave of Ethiopians to make it to Israel -- and of the UJA Federation Campaign.

I'd also like to introduce you to some adorable children I met in the municipal kindergarten in Kiryat Shaman. I had arrived two days after a katyusha attack had killed two fathers in a barrage that forced residents into bomb shelters for four full days. The attack was particularly hard on

the children, who just wanted to go out and play. Your gifts sent the children to a special camp staffed by child psychologists who worked with them to help them put their lives back together. You showed them that, in times of great stress and fear, they could rely on not only their immediate families but also on a larger Jewish family that deeply cares about them and their safety.

— Eve Cohen, San Francisco

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When v'ntnu -- which means "and you will give" in Hebrew ­-- is written backwards, it is still v'ntnu. It is said to remind people who give tzedakah that it will return to them and they will not lack anything because of it.

— Baal Haturim

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One cold November day in 1989 I was with a Jewish group visiting Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz. We were standing on the railroad platform where, in 1943 and 1944, the human cargo was being off-loaded from boxcars.

Our Polish guide, who was not Jewish but who knew I was a physician, took me to one particular area of the platform and said, "Stand here."

I asked him what was special about that particular spot.

He told me, "That is the spot where, in those terrible days, another physician stood. Only this one was wearing black boots and a uniform with SS on the collars. With a motion of his thumb he determined which Jews lived and which Jews died."

I've thought about that experience many times since that day. Today, I know that it's you and me, not a Nazi doctor with black boots and SS on his collar, who determine which Jews live and which Jews die.

— Dr. Julius L. Levy, Jr.; New Orleans

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I was sitting in the middle of the subway car when the car door opened and in walked a beggar on crutches holding a tin cup. I didn't want to have to deal with this beggar. Is he really poor or just crazy?

Unconsciously, I, like most of the passengers, tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible.

Sure enough, the beggar was very unsuccessful.

Then the weirdest thing happened. From the other side of the car came in another beggar and he too was on crutches. Somehow this made me feel better because I thought this is a beggar-on-crutches scam team.

As they met in front of my seat, they stared at each other. One said to the other, "Rough day, huh?"

"Yeah, rough day," the other replied.

Then the first beggar took a coin out of his cup and put it into the cup of the other beggar and he continued through the car.

Many people think that the opposite of believing in God is atheism but Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that the opposite of believing in God is being a miser. This means there is nothing further from God and spirituality than the inability or unwillingness to give.

— Rabbi Yehoshua Rubin, Israel

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On a visit to Israel a few years back, I visited a sheltered workshop for developmentally disabled Israelis. The assistant director, a woman in her late 60's, explained how the residents fold and package paper tablecloths and napkins for wages, and how that gives their lives some dignity. As we walked around the workshop, we came upon a small woman with a severely misshapen head and an equally disfigured face. She broke into a big smile and rushed over to give the assistant director a hug. The hug was returned, and it was then that we saw the assistant director's left forearm and the tattooed number.

Here was a woman who had been subjected to some of the cruelest treatment man has ever been able to devise and who was clearly entitled to take it easy. Yet she approached her job with such great love and understanding. It moved us all; it reminded each of us how much difference one person can make in this world.

— Frank Hagelberg, Rochester

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Rabbi Levi said, whoever thinks to himself or herself before going to sleep at night, "When I wake up tomorrow, I will do good for so-and-so." That person will ultimately share great joy with the good people in the future and in the next world, as the verse states: "For those who plan good, there is joy."

— Midrash Mishlay (Proverbs) 12:1, Visotzky edition

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As a child I was never very happy with my name, the way it sounded or how it was spelled. I ignored the fact that it had been in my father's family for generations. It wasn't until I was an adult and had the chance to travel to Eastern Europe that I became comfortable with it.

I was a bus captain on a three-day pre-mission to Prague and the Czech Republic. Our tour guide, Lida, looked at my nametag and said that she, too, was given the name Lili. I asked why she called herself Lida. Even though she seemed embarrassed, she said that ‘Lili' sounded too Jewish.

Lida was a Jewish teenager when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. She and her mother survived the war in Terezeinstadt. After the war, they chose to return to Prague and took "more acceptable," non-Jewish sounding names. So, she became Lida. She married, had two sons, and was widowed. And never told anyone about her real roots or her real name.

As our guide, Lida met more than a hundred proud Jewish women. For the first time in her adult life, she felt connected to Judaism and felt the ruach of a group of free-spirited federation women. During the trip, she shared many of her feelings and frustrations about no longer being a Jew.

And, as we were leaving, Lili told us that she had finally told her family of her past. She thanked me for giving her the courage and pride to once again be Lili.

— Lili Kaufman, Tampa

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A blind beggar accosted two men walking on the road. One of the travelers gave him a coin, but the other gave him nothing.

The Angel of Death approached them and said: "He who gave to the beggar need have no fear of me for 50 years, but the other shall speedily die."

"May I not return and give charity to the beggar?" asked the condemned man.

"No," replied the Angel of Death. "A boat is examined for holes and cracks before departure, not when it is already at sea."

— Midrash in Me'il Zedakah