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Turning Tides: Something from Nothing

As told to Leah Gebber

When I get older, I promised myself, I’m going to be a person who has her eyes open to people who need help. Here’s what happened

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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GIFT OF DIGNITY People might say that I go over the top; that I’m feeding into today’s extravagant standards. But I’m not out there to change society, just to make kids feel like human beings within that society. And I know firsthand how one good outfit can be a hatzalas nefashos — it saves a girl’s dignity. It makes her feel like a human being

D on’t think that growing up on a farm is about wide,open spaces and cattle lowing in the fields. It’s not. It’s about money.

My great-grandfather thought he would give his descendants security when he took his hard-earned money and bought a plot of farmland down in Georgia. Maybe it worked for a while, but by the time my parents took on the farm, it was all about applying for government grants and taking out loans, selling off first cattle, then fields, then negotiating desperately with the bank, which wanted to foreclose.

It wasn’t just that I grew up with no money. I grew up with parents who were so desperately fighting this financial battle that they had no headspace to think about our needs. There was no point in asking for things — there was no money to buy anything; I knew that too well.

I looked a mess. My clothing started off cheap and ill-fitting, and soon grew worn and ill-fitting. My shoes had holes. I was heavy and socially awkward, and an undiagnosed learning disability meant that I flunked my way through each grade.

But I cared about Yiddishkeit and decided that I wanted to go to a Bais Yaakov high school, which meant dorming away from home. Take a farm girl and put her in Brooklyn, where all the girls have just the right bag and shoes, the right haircut, and a uniform that fit them just so.

I’d look at girls who had trendy earrings or high-quality tights or designer shoes and think, So nice. I didn’t even want them; I knew there was no way. But it was more than just the stuff. Those girls had lives. They went places. They had cousins, went to simchahs.

They were carefree. Happy.

Every evening I returned to the family where I boarded; sometimes I spoke to them, sometimes I didn’t. I was lonely, desperate to be noticed, but whenever a teacher showed some warmth — “I’m here for you if you want to talk” — I had no clue how to react, so I just gave them attitude. Once, a teacher called me to the side: “You shouldn’t wear ripped tights,” she said. I was a kid. I didn’t have it in me to say, “I don’t have money to buy tights.”

At times, I’d make up questions, ridiculous questions, just to get a teacher to pay attention to me. I had no friends, and I failed every test. But I was still a good girl. I listened to the rules, and I davened a lot.

For the last few years, we’ve been able to give out hundreds of thousands of dollars before Yamim Tovim. Where does it come from? Who knows?

In 11th grade, we read a story about a homeless lady who went to the store. She filled up a shopping cart, and as she walked through the aisles, she would nibble on the bunch of grapes, and chew on the loaf of bread she’d put in there. When she came to the checkout, she exclaimed, “Oh, my wallet! I forgot my wallet!”

I remember the reactions: “Geneivah!” “She stole!” “How devious!”

And I remember my own reaction: “That woman is so smart. She figured out a way to take care of herself, to get some food.”

It made me realize the vast gulf between me and my classmates. No one around me had any concept of what it meant to survive. They had no idea what it was like to have to find a babysitting job to be able to buy a bottle of shampoo.

I wanted to speak to my mom once a day, and I used the phone of the family where I stayed. At the end of the month, they confronted me with the bill. “Could you ask your parents to send an extra $40?” they asked. I knew I couldn’t ask my parents. My dad never liked it when he saw my mom on the phone. Asking them for money would make him lay down a rule that I could only call home once a week. So instead, I offered to babysit for the family, just to be able to call my mom.

High school ended, and I continued in Brooklyn, this time in seminary. Things didn’t get easier. Once, a girl left a $20 bill on my night table. “In case you need it,” she said. I wasn’t a fun person to help; I didn’t know how to respond, I wasn’t socially “with it.” But the question gnawed at me: Doesn’t anyone see me? Doesn’t anyone realize I need help? Doesn’t anyone notice me at all? When I get older, I promised myself, I’m going to be a person who has her eyes open to people who need help.

Winter arrived on a blast of cold wind and snow. I had no money to buy a sweater. I got great at putting on a big smile and saying, “I’m not the type who feels the cold.”

One February morning, a well-respected teacher looked around the classroom and her eyes rested on me. “Shuli, where’s your sweater?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Shuli, go back to the dorm and don’t come back without a sweater.”

I went back to the dorm and sat down on the floor. I put my head in my arms and cried. “I don’t know how to continue living like this,” I prayed. “Please help me. If You help me, I’ll become a person who sees people and helps people.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 536)

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