Life can change on a dime

In these dark times, when violence floods our universe, and the world can sometimes seem destined for demise, I try to live by one person's example

The writer in Berkeley in the 1990s (photo credit: SASKIA SWENSON MOSS)
The writer in Berkeley in the 1990s
(photo credit: SASKIA SWENSON MOSS)
Life can change on a dime. I am not even sure where that phrase comes from, or how the lucky dime gets to be the medium of human transformation. But I do know that sometimes, defying biological efficiency, life hops up on that small silver coin, whirls around, and the rational is supplanted by the miraculous.
This happened for me, when I was 30.
It was the end of November. I needed to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from Oakland to San Francisco for an evening lecture that Bay COEJL (The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) was hosting. It was entitled, “Israel, Land of Milk and Honey… or Barren Wasteland?” And maybe because I sensed it wasn’t going to be pretty, I was dragging my feet about going. I was tired, Israel was not something I thought about much. I wanted to stay home, strum the guitar with my lapsed Catholic boyfriend, eat some organic yogurt. Go to bed. The problem was I ran Bay COEJL. I had to show up.
On my way to the BART, waylaid by inertia, I took a turn and entered the Rockridge café. I thought Jasmine tea might motivate me. As I stood in line to order, somewhere in our orchestrated multiverse, a sparkling dime began to turn.
It was a normal weekday, and, work being over, there was an unusual number of people at the café waiting to get a warm pick-me-up. A friend joined me, and we kvetched about the small things in life (perhaps dime turning does not depend on enlightened living?). I was worried about losing my eyesight from too much computer use. My friend wondered how long her job in the Jewish community would last. We both kept checking our watches. Sensing our unease, an older man, ahead in line, turned to us.
“I see you’re in a rush” he said. “Please, take my place.”
The kindness of this stranger poured over me like bath water on the back of a neglected baby. A do-good instinct, often ignored by overwork, blinked on inside me. “Thanks!” I said, stepping forward. “Don’t thank me,” he replied, stepping back. “One kind deed begets another. Now you can do something nice for someone else.” I smiled, thinking of fairytale heroines combing the curls of trolls in return for rubies bubbling out of their mouths. And here, with the simple tidiness of a PJ Library book, the story might have ended. But it didn’t.
To do something nice for someone else was the last thing I needed. Nonprofit directors, especially in Jewish organizations, are much like a character in Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Juster creates four doors marked, “The Giant,” The Midget,” “The Fat Man” and “The Thin Man.” Knock on them and the same person appears every time. Same idea for the solo Jewish professional. Only the signs read: “Program Professional,” “Volunteer Coordinator,” “Day Camp Director” and “Fundraiser.” The lone professional becomes a bit of a superhero able to hold down four jobs at once, while still exuding enthusiasm.
The Bay Area Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life organized programs, fundraised, did outreach, trained volunteers, and the person doing each of these different jobs… was me.
We took our new place in line and as we did, I realized if I did not act right away, the good deed would never get done. So, I asked our acquaintance, in his purple socks and white shorts, what he wanted to drink. When my time came, I bought him his coffee. We turned away, checking “good deed” off the karmic to-do list, and forgot about him.
But, like angels doggedly tasked with helping their humans, he did not forget about us. As we sealed our decision to head to the lecture by tossing our Styrofoam cups into the trash, he reappeared.
“I couldn’t help but hear that you were talking about the Jewish community,” he said. We had been. We waited. He continued,
“I’m Jewish, though not practicing. I’ve recently come into a lot of money that I want to do something good with.”
Now, even in fairytales there are some clues that magic is in the air. The person you thought was your grandmother becomes a fairy; wolves start to talk; trees have faces. You get a hint of possibility. But this magic of extreme goodness (coupled with resources) took me by surprise. It was delivered by an ordinary mortal, not beckoning to us from some faraway kingdom but slurping fresh coffee in a crowded yuppy market stocked with packages of handmade pasta and overpriced macchinettas. I looked more closely at the speaker.
This guy is probably crazy said my subconscious. True, but so what? I answered. Ask him for his business card said my rational mind, that’s a good litmus test for sanity.
I asked for it. The shimmering dime spun closer. “Call me,” he said, handing me his card, and we headed out into the night.
I kept that card for a few days. It had his name and a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on it. I tucked the card next to a four-leaf clover I had found, and I thought about who needed help. The organization I worked for had, with my assistance, raised money to cover its yearly budget. But my roommate worked for a battered women’s shelter that never seemed to have enough to fund its projects and was constantly battling lawsuits brought by its landowning neighbors.
A few days later, exactly a week before Hanukkah, I called up the director of the shelter. “Hi,” I said, “My name is Saskia. I’m a friend of Lesa’s.” “Lesa who works with you.” I added, helpfully. “I recently ran into someone who might be able to give you a lot of money.”
There was a pause on the other end.
“Well, honey,” the director began, “who is it?”
Magic met hard reality and I faltered.
“His name is Michael and I met him at the Rockridge Café…”
Another pause. This time longer. You know you sound ridiculous said my rational mind. You know how fundraising works…you met a man in a coffee place? Seriously?
Luckily, I was put out of my mental misery by the director’s response.
“Thanks for thinking of us,” she said kindly, “but I don’t think you’ve given us quite enough information. Call me back when you have more details.”
I hung up. She was totally right. I sounded crazy! “Met someone at a café…” What kind of a pitch was that? I fingered his card. I had to call him! I had to figure out if he was for real.
Two days before the first night of Hanukkah I sat in my large white office in the East Bay Jewish Federation. I played with Michael’s business card. I was alone. I felt my heart speeding in my chest. I propped the four-leaf clover from my wallet against my computer. Now or never, I figured and dialed his number.
“Hi,” I said, “remember me? I met you in the café and bought you a...”
His words interrupted mine, like those of an excited child, “Oh yes, my coffee! I remember you! How are you?”
“Fine,” I said… “fine.” Relief that he remembered brought clarity of thought. “I’m calling because I know an organization that needs money.” It all came tumbling out fast. But Michael didn’t seem to mind. I told him about the shelter, that it was a home for mothers escaping violence and that so much of the staff’s energy was spent on lawsuits brought by wealthy neighbors that did not like the noise. I told him how they offered hot meals and counseling and everyone pitched in to do chores.
“Sounds perfect,” said Michael when I had finished, “I’ll go there and see what I can do.”
And that was it! It was done!
I sat in disbelief, and then, a thought flew into my brain like a dove struggling with an oversized olive branch. What if, on top of saving women and children from domestic violence, he’d like to send me to Israel for a year?
At the time, it seemed completely logical. Only later did I ask myself, why go to Israel for a year? I was comfortably settled in Berkeley, and didn’t speak Hebrew. Israel was not in my consciousness…so why in the world did I suddenly think I needed to go?
A girl is walking in a fairyland of possibility and there, in the corner of the bear’s house, past the oatmeal and the broken chair, past sleeping Goldilocks, waves a blue and white flag. It has a star on it, a Jewish star.
I reach for the flag.
You can’t ask him for yourself…said a voice that sounded like my conscience, that would be selfish!
You asked for the battered women’s shelter, now be done!
But maybe he could help…a new voice was piping up…Maybe he could send me to Israel where I’d finally learn Hebrew and Torah and everything else I need to be a knowledgeable Jew!
I’ll tell you what, the moderator had stepped in. Let’s see what happens – If I get a sign from the universe (the moderator had been living in Berkeley for a number of years and was relatively young…not to mention she was influenced by fairytales)... If I get a sign, I’ll ask; if not, I won’t.
At which point, as I sat in my white office, my heart beating to the sky, the sign came.
 “I just have so much money”, Michael said, “I don’t know what to do with it all…”
Like the sword sticking awkwardly out of the lake, attached to some pale arm not even pretending to fit in with the bulrushes and green water, the sign was there. Now I had to do my part and act.
I took a breath and grabbed the sword. “I have another idea” I said. “How would you like to send me to Israel for a year?”
“Why do you want to go?” he responded.
It was a very good question. After all, I was not the world’s most traditional Jew.
Since coming to Berkeley, I meditated in New Age Zen centers, sat mesmerized in Quaker meetings, breathing in the smell of coffee, honesty and light, and even dabbled in modern-day paganism. A year before getting the Bay COEJL job, I had participated in a Solstice Spiral Dance orchestrated by Starhawk, a Jewish woman now in tune with Goddess energy.
Having grown up in Vermont, the idea that nature and the sacred can dance together appealed to me. As I twirled with hundreds of searching souls around a huge alter of wood and stones, Starhawk called out to us to put something from home on the altar, which she called “the altar of our African ancestors.” That stopped me. I wasn’t sure I had African ancestors, though my grandfather’s family had emigrated to South Africa escaping pogroms in Lithuania. But that wasn’t the real problem. I could suspend my disbelief and reach out to whichever ancestors showed up. But on a practical level, I’d forgotten to bring something to contribute. The only thing I had on me was a small necklace, a Jewish star my college friend Melissa had brought me back from Israel.
What happened next might have been one of the first signs that Israel was going to be in my future. As I reached to unclasp the simple necklace, I felt a distinct feeling that this was not the place for it. It felt like when you hold a magnet the wrong way and the two forces, while neither bad, repel each other.
I backed away, necklace in hand, and left the dance. That day I began to think more about my Jewish journey and where it could take me.
“Why do you want to go to Israel?” Michael asked again.
I pulled myself back to reality. Shaping my ideas as I spoke, I answered, “I want to go because I’m an educator, a Jewish educator, but I know nothing about Judaism. I want to learn Hebrew, to study, to know what the Talmud is.” I could have gone on, but Michael interrupted with a practical question.
“How much do you need?”
I closed my eyes. I really had no idea. I picked a number. “I think I need about $10,000.”
“OK,” said Michael. He thanked me for the name of the shelter, said he’d pop a check in the mail, and hung up.
I went back to my communal apartment on Kales Avenue, buzzing with hope, excitement, and a manic feeling that something big was about to happen.
Michael lived in San Francisco and I lived in Oakland. Two days went by, and no letter came.
“Yes,” said a wise rabbi friend, “I’m not surprised he didn’t follow through. Men like that only want one thing.” I tried not to think about what that thing was and let his comment slide.
My parents, a bit uncertain about the whole situation, didn’t interfere too much. My mom suggested I do the I Ching to see what wisdom it had for me, and my dad laughed and said, “No matter the outcome, it never hurts to ask.”
And then, hours before the first night of Hanukkah, a letter arrived. My roommate Lesa called me immediately and said, “Come home.” Home I sped, on legs that would have grown wings if they could.
A simple white envelope sat on the counter, next to our shared phone and the pad where we scribbled notes to each other. “Open it, girl,” said Lesa.
A check for $10,000 flutters to the floor. There is no official note, no list of things required or grant letter to sign. A yellow sticky is attached to the check. “Have fun in Israel” it says. “Bring me back a T-shirt, I mean, a Jewish star!”
And there it was – I was going to Israel! What I did there – that’s fodder for another fable. Suffice it to say that two years later, I was married, expecting my first child, and studying for a Masters in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
That’s my part of the story, but magic rarely touches just one person and there is more to reveal. As soon as that check cleared the bank, I called the shelter again. “Hello,” I said in a voice made strong by certainty, “I called a few weeks ago.” “About a potential donor. I have more information, I have a name, and I have evidence that he has resources to share. May I connect you?”
Within the week, Michael visited. He looked around, at the worn couches, the toys piled carefully in the corner, the tired but supportive faces of the staff.
He loved the place. He asked to speak to the director. When she spoke to him about the work that they did, he cut to the chase.
“How much money do you need?”
She looked amazed.
“What’s your budget for the year?” He asked, helping her out.
“$100,000” she answered.
And then this man, who could have asked for paperwork, evidence of success, statistics of goals met, simply reached into his pocket, and wrote out a check for $150,000.
“I expanded the budget a bit,” he said, “to help you grow.”
That night, as the Hanukkah candles shone, I got a call, from the shelter director.
“You are our Christmas angel,” she began. “We can hire a children’s educator, buy a van to pick women up from dangerous homes, counter the people that want us to close.”
Angel, pagan, monk, or Jew, all I know is that my life, and the lives of many others were altered that day in the café.
Years later, I ran into Michael again. We walked through the high and windy streets of San Francisco. Every person that asked him for money, he reached into his pocket and gave them change. I asked him, “What motivates you to be so incredibly generous?” I gave him the old arguments, what if people use the money for the wrong things, like drugs and alcohol? He laughed, and answered, “What I always say is, when in doubt, give.”
In these dark times, when violence floods our universe, and the world can sometimes seem destined for demise, I try to live by his example. When in doubt, give. After all, life can change. It can change for the bad, but it can also change for the good. And the strongest catalyst for this good kind of change… is kindness.
Saskia Swenson Moss is a writer and an Engagement Officer for PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Yonatan, and their three children.