By Miriam Porter

This article first appeared in Boston’s The Jewish Advocate in December 2014

Noah's sandwiches

There is a saying in Judaism I remember when I feel I am not doing enough to help others. It’s from The Talmud and it teaches, “He [or she] who saves a single life, saves the entire world”. I have taught my son Noah the importance of Tikkun Olam (healing the world) and that no act of kindness or compassion is too small.

Since I was a teenager I have had a special place in my heart for those that society labels as “homeless”. I am not a fan of labels of any kind and this is no exception. The label blinds us to their true personalities. After all, if they are homeless, are the rest of us “homefull”? The dozens of people I have met living on the street over the years have distinctive stories. They have fallen on hard times, but this should not define them. I believe that bringing food and clothing is important, but talking to people and treating them as individuals is even more so. Food keeps you alive, but being acknowledged as a fellow human being feeds the soul. And when the soul is happy, a life can be saved.

The first time Noah understood “homelessness” in his own way was at age three. We got a dozen bagels from a local bakery to distribute on a cold wintery day. The owners of the bakery, who happen to be from Israel, have inspired me by their own acts of charity – they regularly donate dozens of bagels to hungry people on the street or in shelters. As Noah and I handed out food that day I remember him curiously asking me:

“Why doesn’t someone build that man a house?”

“Why can’t he sleep at his mommy’s home?”

“Why is he living in a cardboard box and I live in a building?”

I did my best to answer Noah’s questions. Over the years his queries became more complicated as he understood that many people face difficult life challenges. But the more Noah learned, the more he wanted to help. For Noah’s fourth birthday I wrote him a picture book and used photographs to illustrate how a young boy meets a man living on the street and the friendship that develops between them, in the hopes that it would answer some of his questions about how people end up on the street.

I believe humane education, kindness and compassion are vital if we are to change the world. If we give children the information, tools, and empower them to help others, amazing things can happen. As a single mom struggling to pay bills, I often don’t have money to take Noah to expensive attractions or events. So even though I would have loved to give every person living on the street an entire bag of food, I settled for one sandwich each.

At the grocery store, Noah was running up and down the aisles choosing bread and toppings for our mission. Back home, the peanut butter and chocolate spread was flying in all directions and the sandwiches started piling up. For a finishing touch, Noah put stickers on each little baggie. The end result was a colorful collection of delicious vegan sandwiches made with love.

Toronto’s population is over two and a half million people, and like many busy cities, there are people who, for whatever reason, have fallen on hard times and lost their home. Within minutes of exiting the subway, Noah spots someone sitting on the sidewalk with an empty cup collecting change. We smile and wave. Noah shyly says, “ We have sandwiches.” We are greeted by smiles and gratitude and take the time to chitchat with everyone: Phil (all names are changed), in his twenties, left his parents’ home for an undisclosed reason. Charles is staying at a downtown shelter but slept on the street last night. Tom and his dog have nowhere to sleep because the shelter he wanted to go to doesn’t accept animals. Derek is attempting to hitchhike up North and has two bags with him. Tina lost her job and her apartment, and has been on the street for quite some time. Jeffrey is dealing with an abusive situation. Each person has their own story.

That day we met dozens of men, one woman, several youth, four friendly street dogs and one adorable street cat. They were all happy to see us and grateful for the visit. I write about our sandwich adventures not for accolades, but so others can see how easy it is to “save a life”. We all have greatness in us, and the ability to change someone’s life for the better. Noah experienced firsthand that he really can make a difference – one sandwich at a time.

Photo: Miriam Porter

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