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Dec 22 / Koby

Thru my child’s eyes: Empty chairs full of meaning

When winter hits, ten homeless women spend the night at a synagogue in my neighborhood.  Shuttled there in the evening by a city service, these women receive a hot meal, a bed, a shower, breakfast and then return to the city system in East New York in the morning.  One night this fall, my daughter (8 yo), son (5 yo) and I prepared dinner for this group.  I know that poverty and homelessness scares them; I guess it scares all of us.  I figured that bringing a meal and preparing the shelter for the women’s visit would be a safe way to approach the scariness.

When we arrived, my kids quickly busied themselves with table setting.  And then we walked into the sleeping room which doubled as a preschool classroom by day.  Other volunteers had already opened the cots, set out the linen and opened a folding chair for each guest.  We’d done our job, I thought, I was ready to go.  But my five year old asked “what’s the chair for?”  And I stopped short.  I explained that many of these women had no place to sit- literally.  They were out all day, looking for shelter, looking for health care, looking for a safe life.  And the folding chair was a special effort to offer them rest, not just a place of sleep. 

By asking about the chair, my son took the experience to another level. I came to see how that empty chair characterized homelessness’ fatigue so profoundly, something that without the chair would have been very abstract. I am so grateful for the insight that comes through how my children see the world, the questions that they ask, and the challenge it offers me as I reach for meaningful answers. 

I’d love to hear what have been some of your “empty chair” moments. How have the children in your lives helped you to see the reality around you differently and understand things more deeply? To see things beyond how you’ve become adjusted to relating to them?

Here’s to moving together as a community toward increasing awakeness and supporting the children in our lives to be fully awake as well. 

With warm regards,



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  1. Julie S / Feb 6 2012

    Thanks for sharing this, Jenny. I’m excited for this blog and for this opportunity to have an ongoing conversation with other thoughtful Dorot parents, educators, etc.

    Your blog post reminded me that my 3yo’s preschool director tells a related story – the preschool is in a temple with a men’s homeless shelter. When the Pre-K kids went there last year, one of the things that struck them the most was that the sheets were white – not with colors and designs like the kids’ sheets at home. The class then did a project of tie-dying sheets that the shelter now uses which, apparently, the men in the shelter really enjoyed.

    My kids have pushed me to see things differently in many ways – tzedakah-related and not. I see people on the street asking for money differently now, wondering what my kids (5 and 3yo) are thinking, and sometimes engaging them in talking about it. I see the seasons changing differently now – I never paid so much attention to buds on trees and flowers just pushing up out of the ground as I do now when I look each day in the spring w/ my daughters to see what new is there and how things have changed from the day before.

    I look forward to hearing and learning from others!

  2. Rebecca B. / Feb 21 2012

    Pre-schoolers definitely love jobs and helping (or, the idea of doing these things!) so I can see how volunteering at a shelter would appeal to my children. At the same time, I have to admit that I worry about introducing unnecessary fear and sadness in them – that I might be pushing pictures of our broken world in their innocent faces too young. Is it okay at any point for kids not to know about the world’s problems – for us to shield them from this misery? I guess I’m waiting for some organic moment where my son asks me, Why is that person sitting on the sidewalk? And then we might start to talk about volunteering and giving tzedakah to help people on the sidewalk.

  3. Jenny B / Feb 26 2012

    We definitely need to filter the world for our children; developmental stage and personality need to be respected in our presentation. But I worry that if we wait until our children voice concerns about poverty, they will already have internalized the message that it’s not related to their life. Children seem to think about so much without voicing concerns and could benefit from some anticipatory guidance. But taking the threat out of the misery is the tough task I hope we can share/discuss.

  4. Koby / Feb 29 2012

    Rebecca’s question on what age is appropriate made me think, what age do they start to notice? I wonder whether pre-schoolers already connect cause and effect – not just that pushing the block tower means they’ll spill onto the floor, but also if these people sleep here… then where is their home? So visiting a homeless shelter and later doing an arts and crafts project might be mainly about the paint, sheets and fun colors, and less about the struggles of finding a place to sleep indoors. If that’s true (and let me know if you don’t think it is!), then perhaps trips to the homeless shelter and the like are more for us, the adults. Maybe it’s also a reason, or excuse, for us to go. We might not make time or room in our lives for this sort of engagement, but kids force us to do things with our hands and feet, taking us to places and pushing us to explore things that we wouldn’t otherwise. And if we get into the routine of going to them with the children in our lives, then we’ll perhaps take them there again when their older and more likely to understand the connection.

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