Irene Rabinowitz
New Englander by birth, Israeli by choice.

The Non-Terrorist Homeless Man

Today, at shul for Shabbat, for the second time in the past few weeks, I stood at the locked door, davening with one eye on the closed circuit screen to see who was knocking to come in. Today at shul, I was a sixty-seven year old security person armed with pepper spray in my skirt pocket and a wariness that comes with entering Shabbat with the vision in my brain of a dead father and son, killed by terrorists near Hevron just before Shabbat came in.

A woman entered and told me about Paris. Our rabbi had also been told about it. If we had not been told, we would not have known until Shabbat had ended. My eyes filled with tears for the Israeli family that lost a father and son, and for those in Paris who died and were injured, in the type of attacks so familiar to Israelis.

I shook myself out of it when there was a knock on the door. He was unfamiliar. Longish hair, looking as if the streets were his home. I opened the door and he was struggling to pull something our of a dirty plastic bag.  I put my hand in my pocket, finger on the trigger of the pepper spray removing it quickly from my pocket, as I had practiced for the past few weeks. He pulled out a dirty baseball cap and placed it on his head. Around his neck he wore a cross and a star of David. My mind raced. Terrorists have been ravaging our city and our country. Here was a stranger asking to enter our beit knesset. If he was dangerous, the onus was on me.  If he was a lost soul, looking for a few minutes of peace and a smile, the onus was also on me.

And then I stepped aside, and said “Shabbat shalom”.  He took a seat and I saw people watching him.  As did I throughout the service.  I showed him the pages in the siddur and showed him how to follow the Torah and Haftarah reading.  At one time, he was digging in the plastic bag; my finger on the pepper spray trigger, I left my post at the door and watched him. He pulled out a dirty tissue to blow his nose. I brought him paper towels from the bathroom. He stood when everyone stood, often mumbling to himself.

At the end, he stepped outside for the kiddush and ate some food. He looked hungry and confused. He said he was from Sweden and was looking for a man whom he thought might be teaching at the yeshiva next door. As people left, he stood around looking lost. With a friend, who is a rabbi, we encouraged him to leave so the shul could be locked up as everyone else had left. He asked to use the bathroom and three of us waited, listening to the paper towels being pulled from the holder; maybe he was trying to wash a little.  One person waiting with us said that she might not have let him in and that this was not right. I commented that, in urban areas in the United States, sometimes there are homeless people sitting in the pews at the back in Catholic churches, a moment of respite for those homeless or in mental distress. I said that this is who we are as Jews also, not turning away a person seeking a few minutes of peace and sanctuary.

My friend, wiser than me, Rabbi Aviel, agreed with me saying, “Yes, this is who we are.”  The non-terrorist homeless man with the Swedish accent came out of the bathroom and we walked him outside. We walked one way, he wandered up the street. I finally relaxed my left hand that had spent more than two hours ready to pull the trigger on the pepper spray in my pocket.

About the Author
Irene Rabinowitz made aliyah in November 2014 and lives in Jerusalem. Prior to making aliyah, she lived in a small odd town at the tip of Cape Cod for 28 years. She lived in New York City for 16 years as a young adult (or old child), but is a Rhode Islander by birth. Irene has served as a local elected official and retired from a long career in non-profit management at the end of 2013, after serving as the Executive Director of Helping Our Women for 18 years. While still consulting with NGOs in both Israel and abroad, she has most recently been the Director of Development at Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance.