BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT CONTRIBUTOR //
When the Pinkus family down the street moved to Israel, we had a chance to do an easy mitzvah – my favorite kind. I know we should joyfully do the hard stuff, like harvesting bamboo for community sukkahs or driving vans of preteens to out-of-town conventions and chaperoning them over the weekend, but we’re only human.
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Personally, I’m more the painless mitzvah type. So, given the chance to gain some serious spiritual points while doing very little, I offered to continue a practice the Pinkus family had started.
They had created a shady rest stop for the many pedestrians on their way home from one of the neighborhood synagogues. This oasis consisted of a wrought iron bench, resting curbside under a tree. Beside the bench was a cooler containing bottled water for thirsty walkers.
A welcoming sign proclaimed, “Shabbat Shalom,” and (increasing the mitzvah component of this setup) a small wire wastebasket for the empties was secured to the bench.
Strolling down our street on a hot Shabbat or a Yom Tov afternoon, people appreciated the Pinkus gift, which had the added benefit of increasing socialization among congregants of many synagogues that stopped at the setup.
Rabbi Pinkus claimed that this mini-retreat was a cinch to manage, once the essential bench and cooler had been obtained.
Friday afternoon before Shabbat, a dozen bottles of water were immersed in ice in the cooler, ready for the Saturday crowd. The “Shabbat Shalom” sign was added to the mix, the wastebasket was secured, and a potential community center was born.
When we learned that the Pinkus family was making aliyah, we offered to buy the bench. We were told that if we continued the Shabbat ritual, they’d give us the bench and its accessories. They moved the heavy bench curbside under our trees.
Over the course of a month, my husband bought bottled water and we filled the cooler with ice we’d collected and bagged in the freezer all week. Setting up the “Shabbat Rest Stop” became a natural part of Friday afternoon, just like putting candles in the candlesticks and setting the table with a challah board and kiddish cups.
It was great seeing people sitting on the bench or picking up a drink. We were especially delighted when we cleaned the ice chest Sunday morning and found it empty with discarded water bottles in the wastebasket.
One particularly hot Saturday morning, around 9:30 a.m., I checked the cooler to see if anyone had taken water on their way to synagogue. There was no water because there was no cooler. Good grief!
Would people, now deprived of liquid refreshment, stop using the bench? I considered the possibility that a misguided, very thirsty individual, (perhaps just returning from years in Afghanistan with a dozen water-deprived comrades), happened by our little setup and had no choice but to filch the bottles.
But the cooler? Unforgivable! Would the day’s pedestrians think that we had abandoned our community service? Would they shun us after this single mishap?
We borrowed a cooler, and the next week we were back in business. The cooler was smaller, holding only six bottles, but the weather was changing. Unbelievably, it happened again. There was a cooler-water bottle thief afoot. A family council was convened (my husband, one daughter, one grandchild and I), and it was unanimous. Why invite criminality? We would keep only the bench and the sign.
Two weeks later, the sign was decimated by a Friday night storm. The only thing left was the bench.
Tuesday is a trash pickup day in our area. There are giant piles of garbage out there, among which many good things are conveniently placed for someone with a pickup truck and muscles. That’s the reason that just such trucks and drivers are seen roaming the streets early Tuesday morning. I’ve learned that the most valuable items are those made of metal.
You guessed it: two Tuesdays ago, my husband and I, setting out for a walk, saw that our bench was gone, along with the attached wastebasket. It was too much, and I wasn’t going to take it anymore.
This week, I got up early and positioned myself at the head of the block, poised to spot pickup trucks. Sure enough, at eight o’clock, a white truck, with no logo on its sides, turned onto our street.
With the bravery of the fellow who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, I stepped squarely in front of him, making it impossible to pass. As the driver pulled over, I wrote down his license number.
“Do you pick up metal things left in the garbage?” I asked. Probably thinking that I had old lawn furniture waiting for him, he answered in the affirmative.
“And are you in the habit of driving down this street on Tuesday mornings, looking for those things?” I asked, in a Perry Mason tone.
Another positive response, but with hesitation. What was I up to?
“I live on this street,” I gestured forward. “You may have mistakenly removed a bench we had near the curb in front of our house.”
The man made a move to pull away, but he knew I had his plate number.
“If you took the bench, I assume it was a mistake,” I cooed. “We need that bench. I hope you won’t have to buy us a new one.”
He and I both knew that the purloined bench, whoever pinched it, was now scrap metal. We also knew that I was never going to receive a replacement.
I moved away from his truck. The driver, out there to make a few bucks from other people’s discards, may or may not have taken something that was not garbage. But he’d definitely tell the story to other metal gatherers he knew, and he’d be careful in the future. The rest doesn’t matter.
Chana happily reports that an intact Shabbat setup, with cooler, drinks and sign (but no bench) is hosted by the Paley family. She notes that her bench was close to the street, yet far away from the garbage. She assures her readers that the Shapiros remain resolute: they’ll try again in the spring. A bench donation will be gladly accepted.