Jenny and the Forgotten People - Kol Nidre 5776
When I was six, my parents moved into a new development of split-level houses that had been built next to an older neighborhood that had some very small and modest homes. Way at the end of our street, in the older section, there was a tiny house at the top of a steep hill. Normal kids with nothing to do, my new friends and I would climb up the steep, dusty hill and then run down it, trying not to fall and skin our knees and elbows.
One day, one of my friends climbed the hill and didn’t turn around. When he came back a few minutes later, he was breathless: “It’s a haunted house!” he exclaimed. “Scary, dark, cob webs! Old rusty car in the backyard hiding under a boat cover! No one inside! A haunted house! A real haunted house!”
So we all climbed up and verified the report. An abandoned house. We were terrified.
For a few days, we couldn’t think of anything else. If the house was empty, why didn’t somebody move in? We decided that rather than be scared, we could have the coolest clubhouse ever. We did know the word “trespassing,” but we figured that since no one lived there, we weren’t passing anyone’s tress.
So we tried to open the backdoor and it was open. And we went in and there was no one and nothing. We were scared but we looked around at all the dusty furniture. And then we heard a quiet voice say, “Who are you?”
We just about jumped out of our skins. We were frozen in place. The voice asked again, not with anger, not with a threatening tone, just quietly, calmly, “Who are you?” There, sitting in the living room, sitting in a creaky, wooden rocking chair, was an old, white-haired woman, and she didn’t seem surprised or upset that we were there.
One of us said, “We’re sorry, we didn’t know anyone was here.”
She didn’t say anything for a minute and then she asked, again, in the same tone, “Who are you?”
We said we were just kids who lived in the neighborhood and we were sorry and that we would leave and never come back. She said that would be fine.
And so we left. And then we ran for blocks before we stopped.
It took us days to talk about it and process it.
And them something came over us and we remembered that we were supposed to be good people. So we went up to the little community store and bought some milk. And we put it outside her backdoor. And we hid behind the rusty car. And we heard footsteps, and she opened the door and took the milk.
Every day for a week or two, we would bring food of one kind or another, taken from our respective kitchens. I brought three cans of peas so I wouldn’t have to eat them for dinner.
It was all we talked about: “Who was she? Was she starving? How had she eaten before we came? What was her name?”
And then one day, after long discussions, we went to the front door and rang the doorbell but there was no sound. And we knocked and she came to the door.
“Come in,” she said, and she thanked us for the food. I had brought orange juice and I put it in the refrigerator and the only other things there were what we had brought.
“What’s your name?” we asked.
“Jenny,” she said.
“Do you have a family?”
“A daughter; her name is Jenny, too.”
“Where does she live?”
“Does she come here?”
“Are you all alone?”
“How do you eat?”
“You bring me things.”
“What about before us?”
“It’s ok. I don’t eat much anyway.”
“You shouldn’t be here by yourself.”
“Do you ever go anywhere?”
At the community store the next day, they had a special on apple pies. And we bought one, and we brought napkins but we forgot plates or forks, and so we brought it to Jenny and we all ate it with our hands, right out of the box. That was the only time we saw her smile. She said, “I like apple pie.”
I don’t remember much after that. We didn’t know what to do. So one of my friends told his father who was a lawyer and he took over and figured out what to do, but he said he couldn’t tell us anything. All we knew was that there was a moving van and then Jenny didn’t live there any more.
We never heard anything else.
We were six years old. We were the children who didn’t even know what to ask.
Memory is a strange thing. When I was back in my hometown recently, I happened to go by that corner and I got something that felt like an electric shock; I got the rush of memory that I just related to you. The old house is not there. Even the hill is not there. Instead, there is a million dollar home where the hill and the old house used to be.
But even though the old house is no longer there, it still exists as a vivid image in my mind.
Freud taught us that first experiences change us forever. I wasn’t really conscious of it until this recent experience, but all my life, maybe thousands of times, I have seen Jenny sitting in that chair in that dark, quiet house.
I was thinking about Jenny when I read a Scandinavian detective novel called Forgotten Girls about twin mentally challenged girls. Their parents had put them in an institution and never came to visit, for reasons you can figure out and be horrified. And then something happened and the society thought they were dead. The novel is about finding out what happened to them.
Jenny and those girls in the novel haunt me.
In Judaism, we don’t believe in forgetting people.
From earliest times, we were commanded to remember everyone in our society.
“Remember that you were the forgotten people, the slaves in the land of Egypt.”
“Remember the orphan and the widow and the sick and the lame.”
“Remember to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and lift the fallen.”
Remember those whom everyone else has forgotten.
And on the High Holidays, we have an important prayer called Shema Koleynu, before the open ark, praying that we will not be forsaken in our old age.
A good society cares about all people.
A good society should never forget anyone.
It’s not just that we leave them behind; we just forget that they even exist. The archenemy of the Israelites in the desert, the Amalekites, killed the old and the sick.
And the modern Amalekites, the Nazis, who were the antithesis of Jewish people, which is why they murdered millions of us, also murdered all those who had mental or physical challenges because they did not fit the bizarre Aryan myth.
I go to nursing homes a lot, but not as much as I wish I did. And sometimes I talk to people on the staff and ask if a particular resident has received visitors recently. And sometimes I will get these sad, terrible answers, like, “You see that poor woman over there? No one has visited her in a year and that was for ten minutes.”
I see too many Jennys, sitting in a chair all alone.
In America today, we have established important safety nets for people, and no matter what anyone says, programs like Social Security and Medicaid are crucial for millions of lives. But lots of people are forgotten and I am not just speaking about older people. I can’t talk about all of the people we’ve forgotten but I can talk about one important group.
We're flooded with television ads and YouTube videos thanking veterans for their service. It's become an obligatory thing to say: "Thank you for your service."
It's time to stop saying thank you, and start doing more.
Our society teaches us to thank veterans for their service, but in reality, the thanks is like a big slap in the face.
There are nearly 23 million surviving veterans in the United States.
They served in ways that dramatically changed their lives, and then we forgot about them when they came home from the battlefields.
Just since 2012, Congress has blocked no fewer than seven major pieces of legislation that would have helped veterans.
Congress blocked the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act, which would have provided job security for veterans who are receiving medical treatment for injuries suffered.
They blocked yet another bill that would have expanded health-care and education programs for veterans.
They blocked a $21 billion plan to build new VA clinics, because they said it was "too expensive."
And last year, Congress blocked legislation that would have expanded mental health screening for veterans.
They have also refused to support legislation aimed at curbing homelessness in the US, something that at least 49,333 veterans experience on any given night.
Did you hear me? 50,000 homeless veterans on any given night!
I never got over that movie First Blood, where Sly Stallone in his first role of Rambo is treated so horribly after he has served his country so well. His former commander comes and tries to tell him that the war is over and he has to get along with everyone, no matter how they treat him. And he says:
“Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't my war! You asked me, I didn't ask you!”
His commander says: “It was a bad time for everyone, Rambo. It's all in the past now.”
Rambo shouts: “For you! For me, civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there's nothing! Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job parking cars! Nothing is over! “
This country does a terrible job at taking care of the men and women who have risked their lives to save others.
Instead, we thank them for their service and feel like we've fulfilled our obligation.
On the battlefield, our veterans went to hell and back. On the home front, they're often still struggling to survive.
Why is this not a high priority?
I know I’m not the brightest bulb, but how can this be?
I know it’s about money. But I thought our government’s money is supposed to be used to do what is right.
Why did it take a controversial radio talk show host named Don Imus to expose the wretched conditions at Walter Reed in Washington?
Why have there been so many scandals at Veterans’ Hospitals?
Every day, I see these touching commercials for Wounded Warriors. The commercials get to me.
And I have sent money. But then it hit me: Why do we need these commercials?
Why has the government forgotten about the soldiers so that our donations are so necessary?
We send our kids to trouble spots around the world to fulfill our responsibilities as one of the few nations with the strength and the will to help beleaguered people against tyranny.
We should grieve for those who have fallen, or who, surviving with dire injuries or broken hearts, have been deprived of normal futures. And many veterans seem visibly whole after their service, but bear inward changes that no one sees and carry memories that no one shares.
As citizens of the United States, we bear the responsibility for sending them to those battlegrounds.
Of all people, how can veterans be forgotten?
Somehow there’s no money for these forgotten people.
I guess the veterans are not a power block.
I guess those of us who have the most physical and mental challenges don’t have a billion dollar political action committee.
You know what we are? We are users.
We take people, use them, and spit them out.
We do this as a country and we do this as individuals.
Do you know what the excuse is? We are told that since many veterans served in wars that were not declared wars, like Afghanistan or Iraq, the government is not legally obligated to provide even basic services.
Are you kidding me? We hide behind technical legal obligations, because our government plays games with semantics? What about moral obligations?
This is Kol Nidre, when we think about the things we have not done.
Doesn’t our country have a moral obligation to help our veterans?
And so I have two concrete suggestions.
We have been doing very well with social action in this shul. We should all be proud, but especially those of you who have helped with the Mitzvah Committee, the Isaiah Fund for food for the poor, the Downtown Soup Kitchen, Mitzvah Day, Bikes not Bombs, and so many other great projects. We have wonderful individuals who you don’t hear about, who do quiet mitzvahs like knitting hats and gloves for babies and for the poor.
And we have supported Israel at all times.
But we’ve rarely done anything about domestic issues in our country.
If you agree with me that Veterans deserve our support, I would welcome a group to join me in exploring what we can do to support efforts to get the government to pass legislation that would help in so many ways. My idea is this: We form a group to hone in on one piece of legislation, one bill that deserves grass-roots support. And then we go to work: we use our contacts from other synagogues and our Facebook friends and Twitter followers and we try to rally support and increase the pressure on Congress to do what is right. And we look for projects here in this area to help the local Veterans. Our Men’s Club has already agreed to sponsor a program for local Veterans in November. At 9:30 this Sunday morning, after minyan, I will meet and brainstorm with those interested in learning how we can help our Veterans.
I would really welcome your help and advice. I know we can’t change the world. But we can do our part by trying.
My other offer is more modest.
How are we doing as individuals?
I want you to think about the people in your life and those whom you’re related to.
Who have you forgotten?
Who have you neglected? Is there a Jenny in your life?
We forget nothing.
We forget nobody.
Everybody else might forget but we are commanded by G-d to remember.
No one should be forgotten
I remember Jenny asking us, “Who are you?”
And I want to be able to say, “Someone who is here to help.”
If every person sitting here would start visiting one forgotten person, there would be hundreds of people who are no longer forgotten.
And if in the next year, you will visit someone who is forgotten or whom you’ve forgotten, I will buy you an apple pie to take with you on your visit. I’ll even throw in forks and plates.
Why am I making this offer?
Because while we never learned what happened to Jenny, my friends and I used to sit and think about her in a place called Amherst with her daughter and grandchildren, eating apple pie.
I hope that’s what happened.