On Tuesday, I had a unique opportunity to participate in an event that could not have been scripted to better relate Jewish values to the universal ideas of caring for others and the importance of Thanksgiving. Even better, the experience had a perfect sports twist.
The Cesar Presbott Foundation, founded by Yankee Scout and his wife, Dr. Angelica Presbott (a neightborhood pediatrician) continued an annual tradition: a Turkey Giveaway, where they distributed 1,100 turkeys and other Thanksgiving dinner basics to needy Bronx families. Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances and General Manager Brian Cashman were on hand, along with volunteers from Hank’s Yanks, to help distribute the turkeys. According to Cesar this event has two purposes, to help in a practical way by putting food on the tables of deserving people so that they can celebrate this American tradition and to remind everyone that we are all equal. As Americans, regardless of our original roots, we having the same rights and we all have an equal responsibility to care for others in whatever way we can.
Although people from around the world may be reading this, Americans, those in the United States and many in Israel, are gathering with friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner over turkey and cranberry sauce. This tradition of taking time to remember how lucky we Americans are for the rights and opportunities we have is something so many people often don’t think about and can therefore take for granted. This might happen because they live in places that deny them the freedom of expression and chances to succeed that we luckily can experience living in America and Israel. Other people may not think about what Thanksgiving is about because the poverty they experience makes affording special meals a difficult task.
Even though we have so many great opportunities in America and Israel, poverty is an important issue in these terrific democracies, and it impacts Jews in both countries just as it hurts people of other faiths. I am a third generation American who has never had to worry about whether he will have food on his plate, and although my grandparents have roots in the Bronx, they never experienced lack of money for basics such as food. In fact, my great-grandfather, Sol, for whom I have my Hebrew name (Shlomo Shpak Siegel) ran a food market in the Bronx with my great-grandmother, Sonia. This sense that food will be there is not the case for many of the participants at the Turkey Giveaway, most of whom are Latino and live a fast subway ride from Yankee Stadium.
Cesar and the Yankees want their neighbors to feel supported and to learn from that experience that they also have an obligation to help others whenever they can. For Cesar, that happens throughout the year, whether he is providing special wheelchairs for children, purchasing an ambulance for his hometown which is hours away from a hospital, or motivating kids to achieve high school diplomas just in case their dreams of playing in the majors don’t happen as planned. But Cesar, Dellin and Brian’s examples this week hit home to me and the crowd of people who left the Grand Slam Batting Cages, blue Turkey Giveaway bags in hand. Every family deserves to enjoy Thanksgiving even if they are not in the best financial situation, but even people who have just a bit can still find ways to make other people’s lives easier or happier.
Cesar spoke here and also at my school’s recent Sabermetrics Club event about his life experience, what it is like to be a Yankees scout and how his faith in God led him to help others. On Tuesday night, I was especially reminded to the Talmud Shavuot (39a) principle, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh.” This means that all of Israel is responsible for one another, whether our being responsible for one another’s sins or for caring for one another in times of need. If we see someone struggling, we cannot assume that the person will be able to fix the problem on his own. We must assist others in getting to a better state so that we can all advance to enjoy the same things our rights as Americans call for. If America guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, then all Americans must be responsible for one another and find a way to help others reach their goals. How can we truly celebrate Thanksgiving if we know there are still people out there without much to be thankful for? We must help ensure that America can remain free, just as the founders intended, but that happens when people keep their responsibilities for others in mind every day, as the quote from Talmud Shavuot suggests.
Presbott certainly has a lot to be thankful for. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and struggled to find a full-time job when he moved to the city in 1977. He worked shifts as a cab driver and then at Macy’s before landing a job with the Yankees. Soon after, he became a well-known and respected scout throughout the major leagues. He was inducted into the Scout Hall Of Fame in 2005 and continues to impact the game by finding amazing talent such as Betances, whom he scouted for the Yankees. Betances and Cashman, both native New Yorkers but with very different backgrounds, also have a great deal to be thankful for. Each essentially started at the bottom of the Yankees organization, and worked his way to the top. Now they help make New York one of the strongest teams in baseball. When I interviewed Cashman and Betances at Turkey Giveaway, they each emphasized the importance of giving back to the community.
Cashman spoke to me about how he tries to continue the example of community service that his parents set. “I was taught that growing up, and any time the Yankees allow me to shine the light on what good people in the world are doing for others, we are all better for it.”
Betances spoke about the appreciation he has for New York as his hometown and how great it feels to be able to express that appreciation by helping others in turn. “As an athlete, growing up here in New York, I think this is what it’s all about….it shows appreciation for where we came from.”
Cesar often puts it well when he speaks with kids about how a good baseball scout uses both his cabeza (his mind) and his corazon (his heart). The Turkey Giveaway shows that he brings this approach to helping people in so many important ways. Mark Wilson, another Yankees Scout and GM of Hank’s Yanks put it well when he said sports is one way but that each person can find his or her own path to help others all through the year. Mark told me that “baseball is the vehicle” through which he and the Yankees can do good in the world, but helping others doesn’t have to happen “with Yankees pinstripes on it” and can happen any day of the year because “everybody can pitch in and make a difference if we all do our part.”
This trip to the Bronx, the encounter both with Yankee heroes and die-hard local Yankee fans hit home, with a reminder of an important message for me as an American and as a Jew. This American holiday reminds us of important lessons: This country was settled by people were determined to find greater freedom and opportunity. We must be thankful that in America, we can all aspire to become great even if we don’t grow up in the best circumstances. For Americans of all faiths and for Jews who aim to live the words of the Talmud each day and in so many countries, our having the opportunities we have also give us constant chances to grow as we act on our responsibilities for others near and far.