Stitches of lovingkindness

Karie Charlton helps a colleague create a Jewish prayer shawl and reflects on interfaith friendship and lessons of kindness.

Photo by menachem weinreb on Unsplash

“Can I stop by and use your sewing machine?” asked my colleague and friend, Rabbi Mark Goodman.  It isn’t that unusual of a request. Friends who have participated in my Days for Girls sewing events know that I regularly gather with a group of skilled sewists to make washable menstrual pads. Sometimes, this group will help people troubleshoot their sewing projects. What was a little unusual about this request is that he wanted help to make a special item for his son Iggy — a tallit.

A tallit is a prayer shawl worn by Jewish men during religious ceremonies. Many Jewish families choose to purchase tallit or tefflin (a similar prayer shawl worn by women) for their children when they turn 13 and participate in their benei mitzvah (the gender-inclusive term for a bar or bat mitzvah), but some choose to make them. Mark wanted to make the tallit with Iggy and use the same sewing machines that they had used to make washable menstrual pads with us. This would help Iggy to remember the gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness/volunteering) that they had done together in preparing for his bar mitsvah.

One of Mark’s responsibilities as a rabbi at Beth Shalom is to help parents and children prepare for their benei mitzvah. In this role, Mark helps families identify local charities and community service opportunities (like Days for Girls) saying, “Your family’s celebration is a great opportunity to demonstrate your values.”

If you had asked me a few years ago to describe Mark’s values, I would have started with social justice, good-natured teasing of his friends, and soccer. Over years of cups of coffee and a Shabbat dinner, I’ve learned that Mark values honesty, hospitality, and kindness — in other words, the steadfast mercy and lovingkindness of God.

We were created to be kind. Sometimes humans forget that. … We always, inevitably, come back to it.

Mark’s values (and humor) permeate his social media posts and his more formal writing. In an article Mark wrote about the importance of kindness, he addresses his son in light of his coming bar mitzvah:

“How are you, Iggy, and the rest of us, supposed to hang on to our kindness as our base norm of what is expected of us as our purpose in life, when the world seems bent on belittling the importance of kindness as naive or unmanly?

Parshat Bereshit comes to tell us that God created the universe as a totally selfless act — out of an abundance of love. Olam hesed yibaneh — the world is founded on kindness. We exist on the kindness we grant to others and the kindness they show us in return, because we are builders out of the destruction, and we are organizers amidst the chaos.

We were created to be kind. Sometimes humans forget that. Sometimes we lose our way. Sometimes we lose our way for a long time on this concept. We always, inevitably, come back to it. When we destroy, we inevitably rebuild. Cruelty will eventually make way for compassion, and chaos is dispelled in favor of order.

When you become a parent, you have lots of hopes and dreams for your children — that they be smart or wealthy or successful or good looking or, in my case, that they play fullback for the U.S. National Soccer Team. Rabbi Abraham Joshua once said ‘When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.’ I am not that old, Iggy. All your mother and I ask of you, and all that God and Torah ask of us all, is that you continue to be kind.”

I’m amazed by Mark’s ability to make the ordinary sacred and the sacred ordinary through his acts of kindness and humility. He made it seem like I was doing him a kindness as I ripped out some of his accidental stitching on Iggy’s tallit and guided him on starting again, but he was the one extending a kindness to me by letting me experience part of his tradition in a special way.

When he came to the sewing room and handed me swatches of blue and yellow fabric squares, he let me hold them as if they were ordinary (and they are). Later, after reading his article, I searched his synagogue’s website for more information on benei mitzvahs. I read about the sacredness of the tallit and the centrality of hessed (steadfast love), which put the act of sewing the tallit into a new light.

This ordinary material sewn in a multi-faith friendship has become a tallit through the kindness Mark and Iggy showed to me and the kindness I showed in return.

Iggy’s tallit was sewn in a place he volunteered as an expression of his values, on a sewing machine where I often pray. Now it will rest on his shoulders as he prays. This ordinary material sewn in a multi-faith friendship has become a tallit through the kindness Mark and Iggy showed to me and the kindness I showed in return. I am grateful for this new experience of God’s lovingkindness.

Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader for Brith Sholom Jewish Center of Erie, PA and the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, PA. Rabbi Goodman tweets on Torah @rabbimarkasherg. He tweets about soccer at @soccer_rabbi.

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