When he was a pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, zt”l, began engaging in a very simple but meaningful practice. Every Friday afternoon, he would telephone all of the elderly widows in his community, asking them how their week was and wishing them a Good Shabbos.
Later, when he became the President of Yeshiva University he continued this practice, religiously dialing up elderly friends and donors of the school to wish them a Good Shabbos.
He maintained this weekly tradition for more than 50 years, and those who are still alive and who were the recipients of his phone calls remember to this day about how meaningful and important his small gesture was to them.
I mention this story because when COVID-19 turned the world upside down last year, I decided to also engage in a similar practice. I identified several individuals and married couples in their 80’s living in our community, and I began making regular phone calls to them.
The calls were short. I’d ask them about whether they had seen family members … how they were feeling … and whether there was anything I could do to help them. No one ever asked me for anything, even though a couple of them were basically homebound. But boy, did they appreciate someone calling them!
This gesture pales in comparison to some of the true acts of chesed that I have witnessed this past year — individuals and organizations have provided free food for many poor and hungry Jews who could not afford their next meal, and financial assistance to those who may have lost jobs during the pandemic and who needed to support their families. Many of our community rabbis have organized chesed programs, and engaged their members to participate in these important charitable functions. Sometimes, though, even a small act of kindness like a phone call (which you can accomplish from the comfort of your own home) can go a long way in making people feel that they are not alone and not being forgotten.
And it’s not only elderly or homebound individuals who might appreciate a call. Many of us are used to connecting with our friends and acquaintances in the community each week at shul … schmoozing with them at kiddush or seeing them at classes and other programs. With the pandemic forcing many of us to skip attending shul, there are dozens and dozens of people who we had been used to interacting with regularly, but who we now may not have seen in person for many months. Why not give them a call and say hello … tell them how much you miss seeing them … find out about their health, their jobs, their families, and their lives during this difficult year. You’ll be surprised how a simple phone call can go such a long way in making people feel wanted and appreciated.
I was at shul this past Yom Tov, and I saw the daughter of one of the recipients of my regular calls, who was spending the chag with her family. After davening, she came over to me — and told me how my simple two-minute phone call to her elderly parents was one of the highlights of their week. Little things can indeed make a big difference in people’s lives.
It’s old school, but the telephone is still a very powerful medium to connect with others. I know that the twenty- and thirty-somethings all prefer text messages, or an Instagram photo, when they need to communicate with their “friends.” And I think we have all been programmed to draft an email when we have something important to say to someone — it can be delivered instantaneously, and you don’t even have to deal with an immediate reply. But in terms of capturing emotion and nuance when you can’t speak to someone in person, the telephone is second to none. It’s a shame that fewer and fewer individuals use the phone to actually speak to other individuals, opting for texts, social media, and other newfangled ways to communicate.
In 1979, AT&T created one of the most iconic commercials ever to air on television, with the tag line “Reach out and touch someone.” I’m sure most of you my age remember it. Although the company was in the business of selling phones and phone service, they smartly realized that in order to win the hearts of their existing customers and create new ones, they were better off bonding with their audience on an emotional level rather than promoting the quality of their physical products and services. Customers weren’t buying phone lines and wires … they were buying the ability to connect with their loved ones and their friends, and the good feeling these calls created. People make a purchase because of emotion … and then justify their purchase with logic. AT&T realized that when they came out with its famous ad campaign. Smart marketers do the same thing with whatever else they might be selling.
This past year, Rabbi Lamm passed away — and it was a huge loss to the Jewish community. Fortunately, he left us with a wealth of Torah in the books and sermons that he wrote, and his messages still ring true today. However, the most important lesson he may have left me personally was the simple gesture he regularly practiced — and which I have now adopted. You can do it, too!