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Last Pesah We Had a Visit from Eliyahu

On Pesah 2023, we had an unexpected visitor. A middle aged man who appeared scared and lost was pacing up and down our suburban street in West Los Angeles. He stopped in front of my parents’ home and asked us for help. He was having a mental health crisis.

Luckily a family member who was trained in social work was able to get on the phone with a hospital and have the man talk to someone. I overheard him tell the hospital that he had schizophrenia and needed more medication.

For someone who was going through a mental health crisis, he was surprisingly calm.

As we waited for an ambulance, I invited the man to sit down on the front porch and asked if it was okay for me to sit with him while he waited. His name was Jim. He was homeless and had been walking through different neighborhoods all day asking for help. Beneath his calm demeanor, he seemed scared. I offered to bring him out some food. I was hesitant to invite him inside—he was a stranger after all—but I couldn’t ignore the text that we were going to read in only an hour: Let all who are hungry come and eat.

But I didn’t invite him inside. Instead, I went and got some food for both of us and ate with him. I learned about his kids, about his past, about his mental illness. I asked him, “In moments like these, do you ever pray?”

And he said “yes, I pray to Allah and sometimes I feel better.”

We created a bond with each other in that moment. As someone who also struggles with mental health challenges, I related to the relief in looking to God. I felt like I had a camaraderie with Jim. But I couldn’t ignore the gaping difference that for me, a mental health crisis would be met with support, therapy, and friends, and—because of my race and class—I would be held by society. But this was not the case for Jim. A Black man struggling with homelessness is far less protected. All I wanted to do was hug him and tell him things would be okay. But they weren’t okay. The systems he was born into are unfair. The rates of homelessness—especially among those with mental illness—are preposterous. Even at the start of my week away from New York City—where we come face-to-face with homelessness everywhere, where we are taught to be numbed—I couldn’t be numb. In our conversation, I noticed Jim’s guard went down. He was more relaxed.

Then police arrived, along with the ambulance. As they approached, it was as if our camaraderie dissipated. His guard went back up, as did mine. Before the police got to us, I asked Jim if he wanted me there; that if he did, I would be happy to sit beside him the whole time. At least I could use my privilege in that moment to try and protect him with my presence. He said yes.

It soon became a scene. Our block was lined with police cars, ambulances, and firetrucks; and I was still there, sitting next to Jim. In this situation, I was safe. It was my parents’ house, they were watching me to make sure I was okay, they had my back. But Jim was completely vulnerable. After the police and emergency response team arrived, and I saw that they treated him well, he left in the ambulance.

I still can’t stop thinking about Jim to this day. It was only a year ago where he brought alive for me the verse: May all those who are hungry come and eat. And although I didn’t welcome him into the walls of my parents’ home, we had food together, in the Los Angeles sunlight, talking about God. He was our Eliyahu. He reminded me that Jews are supposed to be hospitable, to be welcoming to everyone, even if they are a stranger. And reflecting back in reality, we’re not able to do this because we live in a world where we can’t always afford to be vulnerable. We take precautions to protect ourselves from strangers. God forbid something terrible might happen. So how are we supposed to live in a world where we try to protect ourselves yet try to allow the space for the basics of human rights and human dignity? How do we see people as people? How do we see each person as having a spark of God inside of them? Of course we are all saying right now that we believe in the dignity of all human life, especially with our eyes on Israel and Gaza. But we also don’t. There is a wall, perpetuated by fear that doesn’t allow us to see everyone as human.

That Pesah, my perception of who was really the vulnerable one shifted. At first I thought it was me—but then I realized that Jim was actually the one who was extremely exposed and vulnerable. Perhaps this is why he acted so calmly—in an effort to protect himself from being treated with hostility.

As we enter this Shabbat of Pesah, let us each take a deeper look into the words: let all who are hungry come and eat; and consider if and how we might truly live out this value.