Giving Thanks: Beth El Members Express Gratitude Through Chesed
By: Brandon Chiat, Digital Media Manager
The Hebrew word "chesed" does not have a direct English translation. Commonly understood to mean loving-kindness, the Torah presents chesed as an ideal to which the Jewish people might aspire, a blueprint for how to treat one another.
"Chesed is one of the 13 attributes of Hashem and is often associated with rachamim, the attribute of mercy," explained Cantor Melanie Blatt. "The two concepts are closely connected: acts of chesed are motivated by a feeling of mercy for those in need."
Thus, chesed is a fundamental way in which humankind manifests God’s vision for creation.
"Judaism is not a thought experiment," said Rabbi Steve Schwartz. "Judaism is about taking the values of our tradition and applying them in the real world, every single day. Chesed is a prime example of that. We don't use chesed exclusively on Shabbat or the High Holy Days. Rather, chesed should guide our day-to-day actions, behaviors, and decisions."
While a person should strive to embody chesed every day, there are moments throughout the year that heighten acts of loving-kindness. Thanksgiving, with its themes of gratitude and thankfulness, is such a touchstone.
"Chesed is the act of gratitude," said Mrs. Amy Goldberg, Director of the Berman-Lipavsky Religious School. "The thankfulness you feel on Thanksgiving is great, but it's important to carry that momentum throughout the year."
As a board member of Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), Mrs. Goldberg creates opportunities for Jewish families to participate in acts of chesed year-round. Mrs. Goldberg, along with Beth El member Stacy Harvey, co-chair Living With Purpose, a JVC program that organizes monthly Mitzvah Parties.
“The Mitzvah Parties bring Jewish families together around service projects that address a vital community need,” Mrs. Harvey said. “In September the families formed an adorable assembly line with children filling snack bags for kids attending the Living Classrooms camp program.”
Importantly, the Mitzvah Parties are an opportunity for Jewish families to meet and interact with each other around a service mindset.
"We want our kids to grow up with an innate sense of chesed," Mrs. Goldberg said. "We intentionally avoided the phrase 'giving back' because acts of service are not transactional, but rather, an obligation Jewish families feel to our community."
In that sense, chesed is the antidote to selfishness.
"Judaism encourages us to focus beyond the self," Mrs. Harvey said. "Kids today are under so much pressure to achieve. We risk sending them the wrong message that personal advancement is all that matters. Prioritizing chesed from a very young age helps our little ones understand that we're all apart of something bigger than ourselves."
Rena Kates shares Mrs. Harvey's concerns. "The message kids get from society is: it's all about me," she said. "It's essential that we teach the value of community and caring for others to our children from a young age."
In addition to serving on the JVC board, Mrs. Kates runs a "VolunTeam" through the JVC that brings together toddlers and seniors at the Springwell Senior Living Community. Mrs. Kates says the bi-monthly "playdates" are a win-win: the youngsters delight the seniors with their enthusiasm, while also learning the importance of respect, an essential aspect of rachamim.
“Small children have not yet formed opinions of others, which means they’re not uncomfortable around seniors who may be non-verbal or have disabilities,” Mrs. Kates explained. “Exposing children to those who are different from them normalizes those differences and teaches respect for all people.”
The message of communal dignity resonates with Beth El member Jennifer Grossman. Along with her longtime friend Nicole Glick, Mrs. Grossman founded Shalom Tikvah ("Peace and Hope"), a non-profit dedicated to providing the highest standard of care to families struggling with complex mental health issues.
"We combat mental health stigma in the Jewish community," Mrs. Grossman said. "Those who are in a position to help often refuse to do so because they may incorrectly believe that the families in need made poor choices which resulted in their difficult situation. Therefore it's not their responsibility to fix the family's mistake."
Such thinking is the antithesis of chesed and demonstrates why rachamim is essential to the act of loving-kindness. The great sage Rashi explained chesed is not only a willingness to help when called upon but rather, a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity.
"Asking for help is courageous," Mrs. Grossman said. "Giving is so much easier than receiving. When a family is brave enough to ask for help, then it falls on the community to provide that help."
Rashi further reasoned that chesed occurs when a person gives their heart and mind to the well-being of the person in need, which is to say, to emulate the divine attribute of rachamim.
"There is no place for judgment in the world of chesed," Mrs. Grossman said. "Acts of loving-kindness must be given with respect and dignity."
"Chesed occurs when there is an understanding between two people and when the command to 'love your neighbor as yourself' is fulfilled," Cantor Blatt said. "Acts of chesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract."
Human beings are bound together through rachamim, a value passed down to the youngest Jews through chesed.
"Acts of chesed are not contingent on how much we have to give," Mrs. Goldberg said. "Jewish tradition teaches us that we all have a responsibility to support our community. We impart that lesson on our children through the Mitzvah Parties and through Beth El’s Religious School curriculum."
As American-Jewish families gather around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by the abundance of the season, they might share sentiments of gratitude. While this touching tradition has come to define Thanksgiving, Rabbi Schwartz suggests these families remember the true meaning of giving thanks.
"Thanksgiving and chesed both require an active, physical response," Rabbi Schwartz said. "The concept of giving thanks is an action, not merely a kind thought."
Champions of chesed like Amy Goldberg, Stacy Harvey, Rena Kates, and Jennifer Grossman exemplify the idea of rachamim. They proactively create opportunities to help those in need, a trait Rabbi Schwartz compared to another paradigm of loving-kindness.
"Abraham actively sought out opportunities to do chesed. Even on the third day after his circumcision, at 99-years-old, he ran out of his tent to welcome passing guests because chesed was at the core of his character," Rabbi Schwartz illustrated. "Abraham embodies the personality of chesed, an example to which we should all aspire."