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The Secret Place (a Sukkoth story)

Jo leaned back against the fallen log. Nathan edged over closer to her. He was a nice guy but really shy. She wondered if he would finally get up the nerve to hold her hand or put his arm around her. Although she had sort of known him for years, she only had been attracted to Nathan since the spring when he had been paired with her on a really dumb USY community service project–all synagogue mitzvah projects seemed stupid to Jo because they never seemed to do anything that really helped people. It all seemed so fake, so phony, like they were just playing at helping people.

Maybe it actually was kind of like play. Nathan clowned around a little and turned a project that involved painting fences at a community garden into a lot of fun. Of course they got more paint on themselves than on the fence, but who cares. And, on those few occasions when she drives by that community garden, she sees the fence they painted, and still looks better than it did before they got there. So maybe some mitzvah projects aren’t so bad.

Anyway, Nathan was funny and sweet and pretty good looking with short hair and a silver stud in his left ear. She had been dropping hints about her interest for weeks, and it was already mid August. The summer would be over soon. If he didn’t do something tonight, she’d have to do something, although she wasn’t sure what.

All around Jo was her group of friends, both girls and guys from high school. They all lived in the same neighborhood of single-family houses with two-car garages, small yards, and neat front lawns. Nearby was a small wooded area with a little creek running through it. Officially it was called the Memorial Woods, but everybody in the neighborhood just called it the dingle. Tonight already eight kids had gathered: Jo and Nathan, Emily, Rina, Dave, Steve, Ben, and Sharon. More would probably show up. As little kids, they had been afraid of the dingle. They thought it had ghosts or was haunted because the trees were big and twisted and looked scary if you were a little kid.

As Jo and her friends from the neighborhood grew older, they realized the dingle was just a little wooded area that for some reason the developers never touched, maybe it was a protected wetland or something. Now they thought of it as their secret place, a private spot where they could get together, make noise, just hang around, and have fun without having their parents looking over their shoulders. Many of the kids had known each other since they were children. Most of Jo’s friends were Jewish and their families went to the same synagogue.

Steve and Ben started a small campfire inside a circle of stones they had arranged. Rina brought some popcorn, the kind that came in an aluminum pan with a foil covering that could be popped over the fire. Jo had brought marshmallows. Sometimes kids sneaked into the dingle to drink beer or do some drugs, but Jo and her friends weren’t usually interested in that. Occasionally someone might bring some beer or something. Jo didn’t even like the taste of liquor. Once, a couple of the guys got drunk and threw up all over themselves. It was gross.

As Steve popped the popcorn, the tin foil over the top expanded into a big ball, like a balloon. When the popping sounds stopped, they slit the tin foil and the kids dug in. “Here are some sticks,” shouted Ben, who had sharpened a few twigs to use for roasting the marshmallows. Everyone took a stick. A couple of other kids arrived with soda. Another had a portable boombox and popped in a CD. The kids were all talking and laughing. Emily knew all the lyrics and liked to sing along.

“Let me make you a marshmallow,” Jo offered Nathan, who had been talking to her about sports. The local baseball team was about to choke again; she didn’t much care. Jo played soccer for the high school team, but she didn’t really follow sports as a fan. Nathan was a big sports fan. He was on the track team at school although he really wanted to play basketball. He tried out for the team but he got cut pretty early. She totally burned the first marshmallow; the next came out golden brown. She slid it off the stick with her fingers, leaned into him, and gently put it to his mouth. He gulped it down in two bites.

“Thanks,” he whispered. Jo’s finger had some gobs of marshmallow stuck to it.

“You’re not finished. Here. Lick,” she commanded. She slid her sticky finger into Nathan’s mouth. He licked her finger, and she saw his eyes light up. She nestled up against him as he slipped his arm around her. Finally, she thought, he gets it.

Suddenly a large shaggy figure jumped into the middle of the fire and started stamping it out. “What do you damn kids think you’re doing! You’re gonna fuckin’ burn us all down,” the figure shouted. It was a man, and he was jumping around like a nut, ranting and stamping on the burning sticks. It was a warm August night, but he was bundled in an overcoat. His hair was long and shaggy and he needed a shave. On top of his head was a misshapen cowboy hat. The boys jumped up and started pushing him away. He grabbed a burning stick and thrust it at them, forcing them back. Jo and the other girls quickly started collecting the stuff.

“Let’s get out of here. We don’t want trouble,” Sharon called out. Others agreed.

The boys started shouting at him, calling him a drunken bum. After their initial surprise, they all recognized him as the wino that hung around near the shopping center. But the boys backed off. They could still hear him raging even as they hurried out of the woods and back into the neighborhood.

Jo and Rina worked that summer as counselors at a local day camp on a nearby lake. A bus picked them up along with some other counselors and a large group of children every morning at the shopping center. As she waited for the bus the next morning, Jo and Rina kept looking around for signs of the wino. Jo wondered if he was crazy or dangerous. He had to be crazy, she concluded. Who else would jump into their fire like that? She couldn’t decide if he was really dangerous or maybe just pathetic, but she didn’t want to find out. Anyway, she didn’t see any sign of him by the time the bus pulled up. They herded the children on board.

That afternoon Jo again found herself looking for the wino as the bus pulled into the shopping center to drop everyone off. “See ya later,” she said to Rina, who had to run off on some errand with her mother. But Jo lingered, even after the last of the kids rushed up to their waiting moms. She wanted to see if that wino was around. She didn’t know what she’d do if she saw him. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to see him, but she couldn’t resist looking around. She wished Rina had stayed with her.

Jo aimlessly wandered around the shopping center, looking in windows. This was not a fancy mall; those were out on the highway. This was a shopping center built around a central green. It had some decent local stores but none of the cool national chains. She admired some of the clothing styles, but she was short, with a solid frame, flat stomach and a large chest. Her legs and thighs were muscular from her soccer training. Still, she knew she wasn’t going to slip into one of those skimpy tank tops with thin spaghetti straps that many of the kids liked. She’d look too chunky, she thought.

Some nearby shouts yanked her thoughts away from of fashion. She turned around to see what all the commotion was about. A few stores way from her she saw him, the wino. She should have recognized his shouts, the same angry, nasty voice. He was standing outside the liquor store facing some guys she recognized from school. They thought they were part of the cool crowd. Jo and her friends considered them loud, obnoxious, and stuck up.

The wino threw something at the boys. “Take your fuckin’ money. I ain’t buying you no fuckin’ beer. Beer is shit! Liquor is shit! How old are you little shits?” he screamed. One of the boys grabbed the money off the ground as the others started to backpedal away from the wino. Some adults began to pay attention to the commotion. The boys turned and ran away as fast as they could. Jo couldn’t help but laugh. So much for being cool, she thought. She couldn’t wait to tell Nathan about this.

Now the wino turned and started walking toward her. Jo pressed herself against the store window, leaving a wide sidewalk for him to pass. He was muttering loudly: “Fuckin’ liquor, fuckin’ liquor, nothin’ but shit, fuckin’ liquor…” He looked at her, and Jo almost thought he recognized her from the night before. He hesitated a moment but then kept walking and swearing about liquor. His clothes were dirty and tattered, and he smelled like he hadn’t washed for a long time.

After he passed, Jo watched him as he wandered through the rest of the shopping center. Now she was really curious. He obviously wasn’t a wino. He clearly didn’t like liquor; that much was certain. They all had been wrong about that. She sort of followed him, stopping to window shop as she stayed a few stores away from him. Once he calmed down and stopped muttering, he stopped at every trash bin and rummaged around. He would pull out soda bottles and cans–the state had bottle deposit law so each bottle and can was worth a nickel. He pulled a plastic trash bag out of the pocket of his ratty, oversized coat, and shoved the bottles into the bag. A couple of times he turned and caught Jo staring at him; she would quickly turn back to the store window or look for something in her camp backpack.

A shopping center security guard stood near Jo and watched the guy too. “Hi,” she said, cheerfully.

“Is he bothering you?” he asked.

“Not me. I think he scared some boys though,” she said.

“Those assholes. Serves them right. He’s not going to buy them beer. He’s not like that,” the guard continued.

“What is he like?” Jo asked.

“I don’t really know, except he doesn’t drink liquor that I can tell. He comes around here a lot, mainly looking for returnable bottles. As long as he keeps moving, doesn’t bother anybody, and doesn’t sleep here, I don’t care,” the guard said, starting to leave.

“Where does he sleep? Where does he live?” Jo asked.

“Beats me. That’s not my concern,” said the guard as he walked away.

That evening Nathan came by and invited her out for ice cream. They went back to the shopping center, which had an ice cream place. Jo kept looking around, wondering if the guy from the dingle, she couldn’t think of him as a wino anymore, was still there.

“What are you doing? Are you looking for something?” asked Nathan.

“No, nothing. I’m just curious if that guy is here. You know, that guy who jumped into the fire when we were in the dingle.”

“I hope not. He gives me the creeps. I’m surprised they don’t arrest him. He’s nothing but a drunken bum,” said Nathan with a meanness that surprised Jo.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say. You don’t know he’s a drunk.”

“Not drunk? Who else but a drunk would jump into a fire like that? You gotta be nuts.”

By this time, they had reached the ice cream shop. It had a walk-up window right in front. Nathan got a chocolate chip cone. Jo ordered a dish of Heath bar crunch. They left the window and went to sit a nearby bench. A trash container nearly overflowing with empty ice cream dishes stood nearby.

Jo resumed the conversation right where they left off. “He’s not a drunk. I know. I saw him here when we got back from camp.” She told Nathan about the encounter with the drunk outside the liquor store and what the security guard told her.

“Yeah, well he acts like a drunk. Maybe he’s just a crazy,” Nathan concluded. He slipped his arm around Jo’s shoulder and pulled he closer. She squished up close to him, their bare legs touching, sending a tingle through her. She fed a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. He offered her a lick of his ice cream cone, holding it up to her mouth. She teasingly dabbed at it with her tongue. They gazed into each other’s eyes. If the ice cream wasn’t in the way, he might kiss me, Jo thought. Nathan must have read her mind and lowered the ice cream cone.

Just then they heard a racket coming from around the trash container. Startled, they saw the guy from the woods madly digging through the trash containing, wildly throwing ice cream cups aside. Some of the trash landed at the bench beside Nathan and Jo. Then he reached in and pulled out some soda cans.

“Hey, whaddaya think you’re doing,” shouted Nathan, who had jumped up. Other people stopped and looked too.

“Fuck you! Fuck you!” shouted the guy, who stared a Nathan and then turned his gaze on Jo. She wondered if he would recognize her.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jo said, tugging a Nathan’s arm.

Jo was swinging gently on a hammock her father had strung between two trees in their yard. It was a lazy August Sunday afternoon. Earlier she had gone swimming at the community beach with Rina and Sharon. There they met most of the other kids, at least those that hadn’t gone away for the weekend. Nathan had some family thing he had to attend so he wasn’t around. Jo was a little disappointed. Although as romances go, this wasn’t heating up very much; it was more like a low level simmer. She had little questions about Nathan and what kind of guy he was. She didn’t exactly like the way he put down that poor pathetic man from the dingle.

She was reading and didn’t notice Nathan walk into the yard. “Hey, how ya doing?” he called out.

“I thought you were with your family,” Jo replied.

“Everyone finished and left, so I decided to take a walk. Wanna join me?”

“Sure,” Jo agreed. She slipped into her sandals, called to her mom that she was going for a walk and they left together. They held hands and wandered aimlessly, chatting about their summer jobs–Nathan worked in his father’s warehouse loading trucks. And they talked about the other kids and what the new school year would bring. It was coming up soon. They also talked about the synagogue. Nathan’s father was a vice president, next in line to be president, and sometimes forced Nathan to go to services on Saturday, even when there weren’t holidays, even in the summer. The synagogue had hired a new, young assistant rabbi who wore an earring in one ear and played in a rock band, Nathan told her. He thought he might like the guy. Maybe, he hoped, synagogue wouldn’t be so bad this year. It didn’t take long before they found themselves at the dingle and started down one of the paths.

“I haven’t been here in the daylight for a long time,” said Jo after they had gone a considerable distance down a path. It was getting to be late afternoon and the sun was slanting through the trees, casting strange shadows.

“Look at the long shadows,” Nathan pointed out. “Remember when we used to be so scared of this place?” Arm in arm they ambled aimlessly through the woods. Nathan kissed her along her hairline and pulled her closer to him. “Let’s find a comfortable spot to sit down,” he suggested.

Jo looked around and suddenly stopped. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to what looked like a lean-to, something she hadn’t remembered ever seeing before in the dingle.

“I dunno. I’ve never seen it,” said Nathan. “Let’s check it out.”

It was a shelter of some sort, made of scrap lumber and fallen tree limbs and pieces of plastic and metal. Within its shelter she saw a rickety old folding table and what looked like personal possessions: a few books, a flashlight, a beat up old pot, a rusting charcoal grill, some dirty blankets, a water bottle, and some empty cans of food. “Do you think somebody actually lives here?” Nathan asked.

Then Jo noticed a plastic trash bag with empty returnable bottles spilling out. “I bet that guy lives here, the one who broke up our campfire last week, the one we saw at the shopping center the other day,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They cut through some brush and quickly found themselves at their usual place in the dingle. “You know, he isn’t very far from here, just over there,” said Nathan. They turned and left the dingle by another path.

The Friday night after school started the dingle was packed with kids. Everybody who could get out of the house came down to hang out, talk with friends, compare notes about school and teachers and classes, and just have a good time. Jo was there, of course, along with most of her friends. Nathan quickly made his way through the pack and found her. He threw his arm around her and gave her a kiss.

The kids started a couple of campfires after it got dark. Not surprisingly, somebody brought marshmallows and popcorn. Boomboxes began blaring. It was turning into quite a party, and very loud. A couple of boys left to try to get beer. It made Jo think about the guy who lived just a little further over in the dingle. Nathan almost read her mind: “Do you think that bum is going to barge in here like he did that other time?” he asked with a mocking tone.

“I hope not. He’s scary, kinda creepy,” said Jo.

“You mean the wino,” said Steve, who was standing next to Jo and Nathan. “If he tries to pull that shit again, he’ll be in for a shock. He caught us by surprise last time. That won’t happen again,” he vowed.

“He’s not a wino, I know that for sure,” said Jo. “I think he lives in the dingle, just over there in a lean-to sort of thing.”

“He better stay there and not bother us if he knows what’s good for him,” said another boy.

“I don’t think he is bad. I think the whole thing–living in a lean-to and picking through the trash to find returnable bottles–is kinda sad,” said Jo.

“It’s really pathetic. Why doesn’t he get help?” added Rina.

A couple of other kids joined them, and the conversation quickly shifted to the latest bands and movies. Everybody forgot about the guy living in the woods. Then suddenly, someone noticed lights coming through the trees. “That’s him!” shouted Steve.

But it was more than one light. In an instant police burst into the clearing. “OK, party’s over. These woods are closed after dark. Let’s clear out of here,” shouted one officer. Other policemen started stamping out the fires. “These are conservation grounds. You’re not supposed to have fires.”

The kids grumbled and protested, but more police poured into the clearing and started herding the kids out. “It’s not fair,” one kid wailed, but no one paid attention.

Out on the street alongside the woods, Jo stood with Nathan, Rina, Steve, and a bunch of others. A dozen police cars were parked with their lights flashing. Police officers and neighbors milled around. Standing near a police car and looking back toward to woods, Jo noticed the guy from the shopping center escorted out of the woods by two police officers, each holding one of his arms. His head sagged. They pushed right past Jo. “That’s him,” whispered Nathan.

The guy, who had seemed out of it, unexpectedly lifted his head and stared right at Jo, the way he had at the shopping center. “I’m sorry,” she said very softly.

“Why did you say that?” asked Nathan. “This isn’t our fault.”

“I don’t know,” Jo replied. “I guess he doesn’t have any place to go.”

The policemen pushed the guy into a police car and drove off.

Jo turned to a policeman standing nearby. “What’s going to happen to him? Is he under arrest?”

“Nah, they’ll take him to a homeless shelter,” he said, and then turned to address the larger group. “OK, you kids move along home. And don’t come back here after dark,” he ordered. “And no fires!”

Jo didn’t see Nathan the next day. He had to go to services in the morning. It was Shabbat. She was babysitting that evening. On Sunday Nathan called wanting to do something. “Let’s go over to the shopping center,” suggested Jo.

“What for?” asked Nathan. He sounded leery.

“Maybe we’ll see that guy from the woods. I want to help him,” said Jo.

“You can’t help him. He’s in jail or a homeless shelter. You heard the cop.”

“He might be out. He might be there. I mean, it wasn’t like he committed some crime.

“You don’t know if he committed a crime or not. Anyway, how are you gonna help him?”

“I dunno. I hadn’t thought it through. That’s why I want you to help me. I mean, I have money from my job this summer. I could give him some or buy him something he needs.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to the shopping center. And I certainly don’t want to waste time with that guy. This is the last weekend before the homework really starts. Some kids are going up to the beach. Do you want to go with me?”

Jo had spent just about every day all summer at the beach. That’s where the camp was. Of course it would be different with her friends, but she was mad. “No,” she said curtly and hung up.

She really wanted Nathan to be as concerned about the guy from the woods as she was. Now she was mad at him. Maybe it was unreasonable, but she couldn’t help it. She went to the shopping center by herself. It was crowded with moms and kids doing school shopping. She wasn’t interested in shopping. She wanted to see if that guy was there. She wandered around for about two hours and didn’t see him. A security guard told her that he hadn’t seen the guy–he referred to him as a bum–for a couple of days.

The High Holidays began a few weeks later. The synagogue was packed. All the kids, the teenagers at least, would congregate in the corridors of the synagogue as soon as they could slip out of services. If the weather were nice they would gather on the steps of the Hebrew School next door. The kids still buzzed about the police raid at the dingle, which now had signs plastered all over it warning people not to be there after dark and not to light any fires.

The first day of Rosh Hashanah was a beautiful fall day with clear dry air, a bright blue cloudless sky, and warm temperatures. Jo, wearing a sleeveless spring dress, couldn’t wait to escape from the stuffy sanctuary and join her friends on the steps. The old rabbi and cantor stood on the bimah and droned through the service. Services were so boring, and she didn’t feel any sense of God in the synagogue anyway, with its dark, stained glass windows and plastic seats. Why couldn’t they have services in the dingle, she thought. It would be like the Jewish overnight camp she went to when she was younger. There they had services in a beautiful grove. The sunlight and the pine needles and the fresh air made her feel that God could actually be there.

The end of the Torah reading was the unspoken cue for the kids to leave. But when Jo, Nathan, and their friends arrived at the Hebrew School steps, they found the new assistant rabbi waiting for them.

The new rabbi was a young man fresh from rabbinical school. He had an athletic build like he worked out and wore stylish clothes, unlike the main rabbi, a kindly old guy who had worn the same rumbled gray suit, it seemed, since creation, or the cantor, a plump guy with a girl’s voice who acted like a prima donna and whose pants were too short, not even reaching the top of his shoes. And sure enough, the new rabbi wore a diamond stud in his ear. Maybe he really did play in a rock band, Jo wondered.

“Are you going to make us go back into the service?” one kid asked.

“Not me. If you don’t want to be in services, I’m not going to force you. What do I look like, your mother?” the rabbi replied. The kids laughed.

The rabbi sat down on the steps and began to hold services right there. Not the usual service, but more of a discussion. He talked about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, about how it provided an opportunity for introspection, for looking at yourself and your life. And how it presented an opportunity to make your life better.

But he didn’t lecture. Instead, he asked questions about lots of different things. He asked how they felt about preferential treatment for minorities at the expense of people like themselves who had a lot of other advantages. He asked about saving the environment even if it meant that good people lost their jobs. And he didn’t let the kids get away with pat, easy answers. By kidding with them and probing, he forced the kids to confront his questions, and he listened, really listened, to their answers and took them seriously.

When he asked how the kids felt about seeing poor and downtrodden people walking around the streets, Jo couldn’t help but wince. She had been thinking about the guy from the dingle since the police took him away that night. Nathan said that poor people rummaging through trashcans at that sort of thing was a real problem and made the town seem trashy and unsafe. Jo could have killed Nathan for saying that. To her surprise, a lot of kids agreed with him. “Maybe you don’t really know them? Maybe you haven’t ever been close enough to see how they have to live?” suggested the rabbi. Jo didn’t really know any poor people or understand them. And she was confused. Why couldn’t they just get a job? She and her friends all got jobs. She felt sorry for them. She also felt guilty.

“We ought to do something about some of these things,” the rabbi suddenly declared.

The kids were flabbergasted. “What do you, like, mean?” one stammered.

“Let’s take on one of these issues and do something meaningful, something that will have an impact,” he said urgently. “You know, the environment or racism, anything you want. Let’s do something about it.”

“Now?” another asked.

“As soon as Rosh Hashanah is over. Let’s pick an issue right now and do something starting the day after tomorrow. What issue should we focus on?” the rabbi continued.

The kids were quiet, caught off guard. “How about poor people? We could volunteer in a homeless shelter and do something for really poor people,” Jo blurted out, surprising even herself.

The kids were dumbfounded. Jo elbowed Nathan. “Yeah,” Nathan agreed, although he didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic.

“OK, that’s a great idea! We were just talking about poor people. We can do something to help and get to know about them,” said the rabbi with what seemed like genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll make a few phone calls right after Rosh Hashanah and see what we can do. Are you guys with me?” The kids seemed confused, a little shell-shocked and not quite sure of what they were getting into, but they agreed. “Cool. Get back to me with your name right after the holiday. L’shana tova,” he called as he turned and headed back into the synagogue.

Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to fit another activity into her hectic schedule alongside soccer and music and some other school activities, but she knew she’d figure it out. She called the assistant rabbi the day after Rosh Hashanah and volunteered to participate. She made sure Nathan called although he wasn’t thrilled. Rina, Steve and most of her other friends–the Jewish kids from the dingle–joined too.

At Yom Kippur, a huge crowd of kids waited for the assistant rabbi on the steps. Even kids who did everything they could to avoid synagogue were there. The word was out: this rabbi was different, kind of cool. Besides, many wanted to find out what they had actually volunteered for. The rabbi, wearing a white robe over his suit, a sign of the special nature of Yom Kippur, bounded up to the kids. “Whaddaya think about God?” he asked, not even introducing himself. No one answered. “C’mon. It’s Yom Kippur. Surely one of you has at least one teeny weensy thought about God.” Silence.

“There is no God. Not the kind that rabbis talk about anyway,” one boy finally said. Kids giggled nervously.

“OK. That’s a start. What kind of God is it that us rabbis talk about?”

“You know, some old guy with a white beard who sits on big throne in the sky and judges you,” the kid continued.

“Or maybe he listens to your prayers and grants your wishes,” another chimed in.

“You mean like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? That ain’t my kind of God,” the rabbi replied. He spun around to the rest of the kids. “Do any of your wishes get granted by God? Do any of you get judged by God? How do you even know?”

More kids giggled. But pretty soon kids were talking about whether and how God responded to prayers or whether there was a personal God at all. Again, the rabbi didn’t lecture the kids or put down anyone’s ideas. In fact, he did very little talking at all, just throwing out a question here and there to fuel the discussion. Then the discussion turned to the Holocaust and why God didn’t save all those people sent to concentration camps.

“Every discussion of God always comes down to this, doesn’t it, the Holocaust,” said the rabbi sadly. “Maybe God thinks he did save Jews by sending the Allied armies to beat Germany; they just didn’t get there fast enough for some of us. But the people who were still alive when those camps were liberated thought the soldiers were the answer to their prayers. Or maybe those millions of lives were some terrible price that had to be paid for something wonderful in the future, maybe 100 or 1000 years from now, but we can’t see it today.” He paused and looked around. Every kid was listening to every word. “I don’t know the answer. Nobody does. And if any rabbi tells you he knows for sure, he’s bullshitting you. Personally, I like to think that God created a world with free will, which is a wonderful thing. Free will is why each of us can be who we are. But because human beings have free will, they also are free to do terrible things, and they do. God gave us the Torah along with free will so we would know the right things to do, but it isn’t easy to follow the Torah, is it?” he continued.

Jo liked that idea about free will. She had never heard anything like it, not in Hebrew School or from her parents. Nobody ever really talks about God. The rabbi took some more comments from kids and then started to head back into the synagogue. “Oh, we start at the homeless shelter on Union Street. We’re helping in the kitchen with the dinner meal starting the day after tomorrow. Check the synagogue website tomorrow for the schedule and details. We’ll have a party to kick this off later, but they have a staffing emergency and need us to get started real quick.”

Nathan, Jo, Steve, and Rina drew the first night at the homeless shelter. The assistant rabbi brought them over and filled them in on the program along the way. Jo was thrilled. It wasn’t some silly made-up mitzvah project but real, meaningful work. The homeless shelter had a sudden financial problem and had to let go most of its paid kitchen staff. They needed all the volunteers they could get, at least until they straightened out the financial mess.

The kids went right to work in the kitchen. They spent the first hour filling serving bowls and platters. This night’s menu included mashed potatoes, corn, and pork. Most of the kids, whose families kept kosher at home, had never even seen pork. At six o’clock, the dining room doors opened and the homeless people, who had been waiting outside filed in. Jo looked through a window in the kitchen door trying to see if the guy from the woods was there. There weren’t that many homeless shelters in their town, but she didn’t see him.

The homeless shelter seemed depressing to Jo. The walls were painted a dull, faded green. The linoleum floor was gray and cracked. The furniture in the dining room consisted of beat-up folding chairs and long tables tattooed with cigarette burns. The homeless people smoked heavily as they waited for the food. The smoke looked like smog hovering over the tables.

Once everyone was seated, the kids started to wheel wobbly carts loaded with food platters around the room. They would place the platters on the tables. Jo started near the kitchen door and worked toward the back of the large room. She smiled a lot and tried to be friendly, as they were instructed to do. Some of the people were friendly, others were silent, a few seemed mean, and some were just really weird, mumbling and bobbing their heads and drooling. Even though the shelter insisted everybody wash up before eating, the homeless people still were a pretty ragged, disheveled bunch. Most of them smelled of dirt and sweat and God-knows-what. She kept looking for the guy from the woods.

Jo finally saw him as she got near the far corner of the room. At first she didn’t recognize him because he was cleaner than when he lived in the woods, but he was still pretty grungy with a stubble beard and dirty clothes. She tried not to stare at him. Instead she concentrated on putting out the food. As she got closer, however, she could feel him glaring at her. She knew he recognized her, and she knew she had to say something. She just didn’t know what.

She rolled the cart up to the table and stopped at an empty seat opposite him. “Hi,” said Jo as cheerily as she could. The man just glared at her. She started putting the food on the table. “I’m sorry you had to leave the woods. They don’t let us go there either, and we’d been going since we were little kids. We miss it,” she said. She thought she saw him smile just for a second.

Then, he picked up the platter of roast pork menacingly. Jo gasped; he was going to throw it at her. He reached across the table and slammed it onto her cart. The whole room became silent for a moment. “I don’t eat treyf shit,” he said with disgust.

“I don’t eat it either,” Jo said quickly as she moved on to the next table.

Many of the homeless people ate their dinners fast and left. A few seemed to be friendly with each other but most stayed pretty much to themselves. She even heard angry shouts occasionally and wondered if a fight might break out. A policeman stood alongside one wall. But Jo was so busy with serving chores she couldn’t focus on what was going on elsewhere in the dining room. When most of the people had left, the kids started around with their carts again, clearing the serving platters. The homeless people had to clear their own plates. Jo saw the homeless guy still sitting at the table. He was watching her.

When Jo got to his table, he reached over and gently placed the remaining bowls on her cart. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, nervously. “Our synagogue teens are working here as a mitzvah project.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen.” She sensed him doing a fast calculation in his head.

“My daughter would be sixteen,” he said, his eyes seemingly focused on something only he could see.

“Where is she?” asked Jo, who immediately realized from his painful expression she had asked the wrong question.

He was silent for a moment, and then drew a deep breath. “She died. In an auto accident. My wife was driving. They were both killed by a drunk driver,” he said flatly.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jo mumbled. She started clearing up the last platters. “I have to finish up. They’re waiting for me,” she said hurrying away.

Jo, Nathan, Rina, and Steven weren’t scheduled to work at the shelter again until a week later, in the middle of Sukkoth. In the meantime, Jo had asked around and learned that the guy from the woods was named David Kahn. He had lived with his family in another state when the drunk driver killed his wife and daughter. He was Jewish, but their deaths, it seemed, had killed any feeling he had for Judaism and anything else. In his grief, he refused all help from his Jewish community. Instead, he became a drifter and one day drifted into Jo’s city. The Jewish community here tried to reach out to him, Nathan’s father told her, but he ignored them too. “You can’t force yourself on somebody,” he added defensively.

Jo kept thinking about him. “He doesn’t like the food. He’s Jewish, and they served him pork,” Jo said to Nathan as she hatched a wild plan to help Kahn.

“I don’t think every meal is pork,” Nathan pointed out.

“I want to invite him to dinner in a Sukkah this week. We can serve him kosher food from home,” Jo continued, ignoring his last comment.

“But he has plenty of food there. You’re not going to bring him home for dinner, not like he is now. Your folks would have a fit,” Nathan insisted.

“No, not home. Let’s set up a Sukkah at his old camp in the dingle and bring the food there. It will be a secret Sukkah, just a bunch of us and him. We won’t tell any of our parents about it,” she said, the idea suddenly taking shape in Jo’s mind. She quickly began to explain the plan she was just starting to pull together. “Help me,” she pleaded.

“But they’ve posted the area,” Nathan protested. “My father will kill me. He’s a synagogue officer. I can’t get in trouble with the police, and that’s what will happen.”

“It’s posted for after dark. We’ll be out of there by dark,” Jo insisted.

“Look, I don’t know what you see in this guy, but I don’t want anything to do with him. You talked me into doing the homeless shelter thing but that’s it. Besides, I’m too busy. Don’t you have a ton of homework?”

“Well pardon me. Forget I ever asked. I will do it myself,” snapped Jo.

A few days later, Jo, Nathan, Rina, and Steve were back at the homeless shelter. It was the middle of Sukkoth. Jo watched for Kahn and saw him take the same seat in the far corner of the room. She loaded up her cart with food and started right toward him. Nathan grabbed her arm. “Are you going through with this crazy idea?”

“I think so,” she said, hesitating.

“Just don’t count on me,” he said.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she hissed.

Kahn watched her coming toward him. She wanted to go right to him before her courage failed, but the other tables called to her. She had to stop and follow the same route as before. He didn’t take his eyes from her.

“Hi!” she called as she finally pulled up. “Chicken. No treyf tonight,” she said cheerily as she plunked some bowls and platters down on the table.

“You think this is kosher chicken?” he said sullenly.

“Well, no, but at least it’s not pork. Does it really matter to you?” she asked.

“No, I guess not. God sucks. It all sucks,” he said without much feeling.

“I hope you don’t really believe that,” she responded.

“God let my wife and daughter die. God put a drunk behind the wheel of a car. That sucks. It worse than sucks,” he said loudly, with sudden vehemence. Everyone in the room turned to look at them. Nathan started edging closer to her.

Jo tried to think how she could turn the conversation back to something where she could drop in the invitation to her impromptu Sukkah in the dingle. But she couldn’t think of anything to say. Then she remembered what the assistant rabbi had said on Yom Kippur. “God didn’t have anything to do with it. God created free will. That drunk chose to drink and chose to get behind the wheel, and when people choose to do the wrong things bad stuff happens. You should be mad at drunks,” she blurted out.

“I despise drunks,” he said quietly. “Most of the people here are drunks.”

Jo didn’t know what to say. And she had to finish her work. “We’re having a Sukkoth dinner in the dingle, right by your old campsite. Tomorrow night. Come and join us. We’ll start an hour before sundown,” she said quickly. “We’ll have good kosher food, parve and dairy. Will you come? Please,” she pleaded. He looked at her. He didn’t say anything but she thought he nodded.

An hour before sundown didn’t give the kids much time to prepare. Sundown was arriving earlier every day, and Jo and her friends had sports practice, soccer or football or field hockey, after school. The kids converged on the dingle, everyone but Nathan. Steve and a few other boys started dragging over fallen tree limbs and assembling the Sukkah using string, rope, and duck tape to hold it together. Other kids began arriving with food and soda: hummus, pita, chips, dip, salad, tuna fish, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, cheese–whatever they could scavenge from home on short notice and without telling their parents. They propped up the rickety old folding table to set the food on. The decorations, consisting of some crepe paper streamers and gourds dangling by strings, looked more meager than the food.

The sun was setting. One boy lit a Coleman lantern. The kids stood around. Everything was ready, but Kahn was nowhere in sight. “Maybe he isn’t coming,” suggested Steve.

Then they heard someone moving quickly through the woods. “That will be him,” said Jo, feeling vindicated. But it was Nathan who stepped into the clearing. “What brings you here? I thought you were too damn busy,” said Jo.

“I am busy. And my father wouldn’t let me go anyway. So I snuck out.”

“You told your father? But this was supposed to be our thing, our secret Sukkah,” said Jo angrily.

“I had to. He knew something was up. Boy, this better be worth it. My father will kill me if he finds out I’m here.”

“I’m getting hungry,” said another boy.

“We might as well eat,” said Jo dejectedly. “I guess he isn’t coming.” She turned to Nathan: “Thanks for coming.”

“Maybe we should at least say Kiddush and Sukkoth blessings,” suggested Steve. He pulled out a small prayer book from his jacket pocket. The others followed along. Then the kids dug into the food. Only after they began to eat did someone notice the figure standing at the far edge of the lantern light. Darkness was coming on fast. Everyone stopped.

“Hi,” stammered Jo. “C’mon. You better eat something before it’s all gone.” She handed him a paper plate.

He filled his plate with a selection of foods. But before he started to eat, he turned to Jo. He seemed shaken, maybe sick or distraught, she couldn’t tell. Jo thought she saw tears forming in his eyes. His mouth was moving, silently counting. “We have enough people here to say Kaddish. I’d like to say Kaddish,” he said, referring to the mourner’s prayer.

“Sure, whatever you want, ” Jo agreed.

As they were about to start the prayer police with flashlights rushed into the setting. “We’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not sundown yet. We don’t have any fires,” Jo protested. All the kids started shouting to let Kahn finish eating at least. A few started pushing. The table got knocked over. Some policeman yanked down the decorations. Things were about to get out of hand.

“Stop! All of you,” shouted Nathan’s father above the tumult as he burst into the middle of the scene. He turned to the officer in charge and started to explain the situation. The police finally agreed that the kids could finish eating quickly and then clear out. It was already dark.

“What about Kaddish?” said Jo. “We need to say Kaddish for his family.”

Nathan’s father looked toward Kahn and then stepped forward. Steve handed him the prayer book: “Yiskadol v’yiskadash…” he began, with solemn dignity. Kahn stepped up beside him and joined in “sh’meh rabba…”

Jo watched the scene and began to sob. She couldn’t believe that their little project, a real mitzvah project, actually helped somebody. She shuddered, almost as if she were witnessing a miracle.

After the Sukkah in the dingle, the Jewish community renewed its efforts to reach out to Kahn and this time he responded, although he remained a troubled, sad man. At one point, he returned to his hometown, where he still had family, and someone offered him a job. Jo never heard about him after that.

The kids continued to gather in the dingle, but they were more careful not to get caught there after dark. The police never came back. So, the dingle again became their secret place, although obviously not so secret. But somehow, Jo felt, it was better. The other kids who had been there that night felt it too. It had been sort of sanctified. As children, they thought of the place as haunted. But now Jo saw it differently: by building a Sukkah and doing a mitzvah here–a mitzvah of their own, straight from their heart–this ordinary little place and the kids who were here that night had been touched by God.