Marty knew he should be thinking about his father and his family, but all he could think about were himself and hockey camp. His father had been hurt last summer in an accident and hadn’t been able to work since then. He could barely move around the house, and then only with the help of crutches. Marty’s mom worked hard, but she couldn’t make enough money for the family all by herself.
Things hadn’t been too bad until this week when his dad’s disability payments ran out. Marty wasn’t exactly sure what that was, but his mom said it meant there would be even less money. Already, they had to cancel their cable TV to save money.
Hockey camp was out of the question now. It was too expensive, Marty’s mom told him. His little brother and sister also had to give up activities, but they were just little kids. It didn’t matter that much to them, he felt. His hockey, however, was a different story altogether. It was all so unfair.
Marty was 10 years old, and loved sports, all sports. He played sports and read about sports and star athletes whenever he could. Big, strong, and unusually well coordinated for his age, Marty was especially good at hockey, which his dad had taught him. He loved hockey and worked hard at it. He finally qualified for a special summer hockey camp taught by real NHL hockey stars, including one of his favorite players of all time. Every kid he knew wanted to go to this camp but only he and another boy among his friends qualified. Now, he wouldn’t be able to go. “I know how important it is to you, but we just don’t have the money, darling,” his mom had told him this morning.
If he could only get a job after school, Marty thought. He would earn money and pay for hockey camp himself, but he knew that was just dreaming. Who would hire a ten-year old? How much could he make? Sometimes he took care of neighbors’ pets when the people went away. The money was nice, but it didn’t amount to very much, a few dollars at best. For hockey camp, he needed over $1000–more money than he could imagine earning.
As he walked into Hebrew school, Marty was thinking about buying a lottery ticket and winning millions of dollars like he’d seen people do on TV. Of course, he knew that he was too young to buy a lottery ticket. It seemed to Marty that they didn’t have money for anything except Hebrew school. Why couldn’t he give that up instead?
Marty entered the old Hebrew school building behind the little synagogue in their community. The people at the synagogue had been nice, bringing meals over and driving his dad to therapy sessions, but they couldn’t do anything about hockey camp. That would take a miracle, and Marty didn’t think miracles happened anymore.
“Hi, Marty. How’s your dad?” asked the rabbi as Marty walked slowly down the hall.
“The same,” mumbled Marty, walking past the rabbi.
“Then why so sad today?” asked the rabbi, pulling Marty aside. “Has something happened?”
Marty didn’t really want to talk about it, but the rabbi persisted and Marty told him about hockey camp and how things were getting really bad for the family. “Thanks for telling me, Marty. I hadn’t heard these latest developments. Maybe there is something I can do to help,” he said.
“About hockey camp?” Marty asked hopefully.
“I wasn’t thinking of hockey camp exactly, but you never know,” the rabbi replied.
Marty didn’t hold out much hope for help from the rabbi. He seemed nice enough, but he never seemed to do much except stand around talking to people. Besides, his mother and father were dead set against accepting charity. They might accept a few meals and rides from members of the congregation, but they would never take money. Marty quickly forgot about the rabbi. Instead, he worried about his dad and his family. But he couldn’t stop thinking about hockey camp.
A few days later, the rabbi called Marty into his office. Walking down the hallway, Marty remembered that the rabbi had promised to help. Maybe he had found a way for him to go to hockey camp. For the first time in a week, his hopes rose.
The rabbi did have a way to help, but it wasn’t anything Marty ever would have guessed. “One of our older members is living in a nearby nursing home,” the rabbi explained. “His family lives far from here and would like someone to visit him a few days a week, maybe read the newspaper to him and push him around in his wheelchair. It won’t be for very long, just until they get him transferred to a place near where they live.” Marty showed no hint of interest. “It would really be a mitzvah, gemitlut chesed, an act of loving kindness,” the rabbi continued, trying to be as persuasive as he could. Probably they would give Marty a little reward for his efforts, he added.
Marty was terribly disappointed. Then the expression on Marty’s face shifted from disappointment to confusion. This was the last thing he wanted. It was enough having to deal with his father, who hobbled around the house on crutches. Now he would have to help some old guy he didn’t even know. Heck, he couldn’t help himself, let alone anybody else.
“Sometimes when we ourselves need help the most, God offers us an opportunity to help others,” the rabbi quickly went on, as if reading Marty’s mind. “Maybe that’s why the Torah says gemitlut chesed is so important. By doing mitzvot, we make the world better for ourselves too.” Marty didn’t care much about the world lately and certainly didn’t want to visit some old guy, but he told the rabbi that he would talk about it with his mother.
At home that evening, Marty’s mother insisted that he do it. The community had been so kind to them in their time of need, how could he not help, she reasoned.
The rabbi came with Marty to the nursing home the first day and introduced him to Mr. Greenblatt. Mr. Greenblatt was sitting in a wheelchair listening to the radio. He could no longer see or walk, but he sounded cheery. “Call me Fred,” he told Marty.
It turned out to be an easy job. Marty would stop by after school two days a week. He would wheel Fred to the day room, a lounge where a bunch of other old guys sat around. Then, he would read stories from the newspaper’s sports section. Marty loved sports, so he was glad to read sports stories. Fred seemed to know a lot about sports. The other old guys often came over and listened. Before long they would be talking and arguing about teams and players. Marty would stop reading and just sit back and listen. Half the time he didn’t understand exactly what they were arguing about because they were talking about teams and players and games from many, many years ago. Still, he found it fascinating.
Once they were discussing basketball. One of today’s star players had punched and kicked his coach. The old guys complained that players were too rich and too disrespectful. “If I did something like that when I was playing ball, they would have booted me off the team and out of the league immediately,” said Fred.
“You played basketball? For a professional team?” asked Marty, incredulous.
“Ain’t you ever heard of Fred Green? He used the name Green, not Greenblatt, back then,” said one of the old guys. “He had a couple of decent seasons, but that was long before we had the leagues we have today.”
Fred, it turned out, had been a professional basketball player. He gave it up to have a family and live a Jewish life. “It wasn’t the kind of money that it is today, and I never liked all the traveling and having to play on Friday night and Saturday. I’ve always enjoyed Shabbat,” Fred told Marty.
Marty couldn’t believe he had been reading sports news and talking about sports with a real basketball player. Over the next few weeks, Fred gladly answered Marty’s eager questions. He also asked Marty about his own interest in sports. Marty told him about hockey and hockey camp and his dad. “You seem like you’d be good at hockey. Maybe things will work out for you,” Fred said, “but there are more important things than playing sports.”
In the visits that followed, Marty still read the sports news and they talked about sports, but they also talked about other things, like family. “The love of your family is the most important thing,” Fred said often. Fred wanted to be near his children. And, he really missed his grandchildren; one of them was Marty’s age. They also talked about Marty’s family. Marty’s father had the chance for some special rehabilitation, but he would have to go to a hospital in a different city. His parents didn’t think they could afford it.
One day, Marty arrived to find Fred very excited. “I’m moving to be near my children next week,” he reported. Marty was happy for Fred, but sad too. He had come to look forward to his visits with Fred and the other old guys. In the day room, the others were sad. Marty realized that they also would miss Fred.
Suddenly, one of the old guys turned to Marty and gave him a hug. “I guess we won’t be seeing you any more, young feller. We’ll really miss you,” he said. Marty, to his surprise, found himself too choked up to even reply. He walked around and hugged each of them.
A few weeks later the rabbi stopped by Marty’s house. “The Greenblatt family is very thankful for the friendship and attention you gave Mr. Greenblatt. It was a wonderful mitzvah,” the rabbi said. “They wanted me to give you this,” he added, holding an envelope in his hand.
Marty couldn’t believe it when he opened the envelope. It held a check for more money than Marty could have hoped. “But they don’t owe me anything,” he stammered. The money, the rabbi explained, was a gift, a gesture of their appreciation.
“I’ll guess I’ll be packing you off to hockey camp,” said his mother. She caught Marty by surprise. He had given up thinking about hockey camp. After the weeks with Fred and the other old guys, he had sort of forgotten about hockey camp. He still loved hockey, but it just didn’t seem like such a big deal any more.
He took the check and handed it to his dad, who had hobbled into the room. “I want you to go to that special hospital and get better,” Marty said. “Then maybe you can send me to hockey camp next year.”
The old guys were stunned when Marty strolled into the day room the next week at his usual time. “Anybody want me to read the sports news?” he announced. The old guys rushed over to him. For the first time since his dad got hurt, Marty felt really good.