Lost and Found: Midwestern Kindness

I’ve been on the road a lot lately. In addition to traveling to Israel for the Rabbinical Assembly convention in late June, I’ve spent at few days at the Jersey shore, and as I write this late on Thursday night, I’m actually in Buenos Aires for the second time this year, participating in an international conference of the Masorti/Conservative movement. And while I’m here– the conference was scheduled around this other event– it was my great privilege this evening to participate in the Tekkes Hasmachah, the rabbinical ordination ceremony, of the graduating rabbis at the Seminario Rabbinico Latino Americano, the Conservative Movement’s sister seminary in Argentina.

I hope to write this experience at a later date, but for now, another travel-related tale…

Right before leaving for Buenos Aires, I flew to Conover, Wisconsin with my wife to spend a few days teaching at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the “mother camp” (first one, as they’ll proudly tell you!) of the now many Ramah camps around North America and the world. The new director, the son of close friends of ours for many years, is a talented young man whom we’ve known since his birth. No sooner did I assume the presidency of the RA last year than he wrote and invited me to come to camp this summer for a few days, to talk with the staff about matters related to the Conservative movement.

Actually, the story that precipitated this article began before Robin and I ever got to camp. We flew from LaGuardia to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and from there we caught a connecting flight into Wassau, Wisconsin, which was still a solid hour-and-a-half to camp– a long trip indeed.

When we got to the airport in Minneapolis, which is huge, we had a bit of a layover before our connecting flight, and we stopped into one of the restaurants there for some much-needed coffee (our first flight had left at 6:10 a.m.) and a light breakfast. All was prefectly fine, and when the bill came, I took out my credit card and paid. No big deal.

It was no big deal until we went out of Camp on Saturday night and I went to pay that bill, when I discovered that my Visa card was not in my wallet. Some of you have, I’m sure, experienced that sinking feeling, something between being really angry and frustrated and wondering exactly how you allowed the card to get lost. Mine was particularly unpleasant because I was about to leave the country for Buenos Aires and that was the card that I wanted for that trip, not to mention that stopping the card also meant stopping it for me, my wife, and a few of our children. Who needs this, right?

When we got back to camp, my wife suggested that I look up the restaurant where we had eaten, and see if, by some chance, I had left the card there and they had it. Well, that sounded to me like just about the silliest idea I had ever heard. I, the veteran New Yorker, could not even contemplate the idea that, had someone found my credit card lying on a table, or maybe on the floor of a restaurant, he/she would even consider the possibility of handing it in to the manager of the store, on the off chance that someone would come to claim it. Truth to tell, I was sure that, by this this time, someone would have ordered a few flat screen TV’s, or maybe made a few calls to Kuala Lumpur on my account, as someone did a few years back when he hacked my daughter’s cellphone number.

You would think that after all these years of being married, I would know enough by now to never thing that something that my wife suggests is silly…

So, I go where any human would go these days on a wild goose chase like this- Google, of course- and I actually find the number of the restaurant in the Minneapolis airport. It was already too late to call on Saturday night, so I got up early on Sunday morning and called, expecting that absolutely nothing useful would emerge from my effort. When the phone was answered and I said why I was calling, the person asked my name, and then to hold, which I did. Just a few minutes later a different person got on the phone– the morning manager– and asked me to describe the card. Slowly coming to terms with the fact that I was about to be proven a heartless cynic, I said that it was a Visa, had a blue face, and I gave him the last four digits of the card’s number. “Well,” he said, “that just about nails it. This is your card.”

He was so perfectly innocent and unassuming when he said it that I was tempted to say something like “Golly gee,” but thankfully, my better angels kicked in, and I blurted out some kind of appropriate thank you. He asked if we would be passing by on our return trip, and indeed, we were flying back to Minneapolis on Monday, after the weekend. “Well,” he said, “just stop in and ask for Tara, the afternoon manager, and tell her to look in the safe.” And that was exactly what happened. Card lost, card found, faith in human nature had a good day…

Without drawing broad sweeping generalizations about Midwesterners and New Yorkers, I will dare to say that our experience with the restaurant in Minneapolis was not unique. Mixing with the campers and staff in Ramah Wisconsin, both educational and service, and also with people whom we encountered outside of camp, in stores and in all manner of casual encounters, people seemed to be just a little kinder and gentler– enough that I certainly noticed it.

I am, to my very core, a city mouse, having lived in and around New York for more than forty years. I know myself too well to think that I would flourish for too very long in an environment that wasn’t fast-paced and hard-driving.

But I am obliged to admit that… I liked it. It wasn’t just about the credit card, which was a much more than pleasant surprise. It was just about the general feeling that you didn’t have to walk around with your elbows up all the time, fearful that someone would– either literally or figuratively– take something that was yours.

Maybe– just maybe– this city mouse has a little country mouse in him.


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.