Acknowledging the ‘invisible’ people

“Everywhere you turn, there are people who serve us, sometimes doing menial or boring jobs, whose efforts we all enjoy but whom we hardly notice.”

Man stands in the light  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Man stands in the light
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Social change sometimes begins in the most unlikely places.
The student council of Elyashiv – Yeshiva High School in Lod decided to go on a campaign to make the invisible people visible.
“Everywhere you turn, there are people who serve us, sometimes doing menial or boring jobs, whose efforts we all enjoy but whom we hardly notice,” says Rabbi David Netanel Abramowitz, the staff adviser to the council.
The boys in the high school decided to change that all-too-common practice by starting to relate to the street cleaners, the janitors, the garbage collectors and security guards around them. The plan was that by their example they would bring about a quiet revolution. The idealism of youth, plus their natural empathy for the under-appreciated, gave them the motivation to operate.
They planned their project carefully for almost a month. First, they decided to acknowledge every neighborhood’s taken-for-granted people by smiling at them and asking their name. The students purchased 40 flasks for hot or cold drinks and, after chatting in a friendly manner with the workers they met, presented each one with a flask and wrote their name on it.
On a Thursday afternoon last month, the students began their first dry run and videotaped themselves going out into the streets of Lod with the flasks and felt-tipped marker. First they met an Ethiopian immigrant who was cleaning the streets. He was quite taken aback by their friendly greeting and didn’t respond when he was asked “What’s your name?” However, when he received his aluminum flask and one of the boys wrote his name on it, the cleaner gave them a wide, happy grin and returned to his sweeping.
The boys met a number of other invisible people, such as a Russian immigrant who praised them highly for their efforts, and a security guard who was suspicious of their real intent.
The reactions ranged from mistrust and confusion to amusement and gratitude. One cleaner asked the boys, “Who sent you?” Another one received his flask and asked, “Do I have to pay you anything?” A week later, as two of the students were returning home from school, they saw the Ethiopian sweeper.
“Hello, Solomon,” they called from across the street. At first the worker didn’t react, but then he recognized the two from their first meeting. He gave them a broad smile and held up his aluminum flask in greeting.
The members of the student council are now posting the video they made to other schools and communities in an effort to spread the word as they investigate if other communities are doing similar things.
Meanwhile, the Lod Municipality’s Education Department has joined the project, calling it Ro’im Be’karov, Ro’im Shakuf (Seen Close By but Seen Transparent). The Tzvia Educational Network to which the boys’ school belongs is giving the project full exposure and publicity.
“These teenagers are intuitively opposed to a paternalistic attitude towards people doing menial jobs.
They see a kind of social injustice in the way most people ignore the common cleaners, pass them by without acknowledging their existence, without thanking them for their jobs well done,” says Abramowitz.
One of the students adds, “We don’t think this is a one-time undertaking, like Do a Good Deed Day once a year. This shouldn’t be an annual campaign like Yom Ha’isha [Women’s Day] or even a month dedicated to rediscovering the humanity of our common workers. It’s a year-round program, and it should be undertaken nationally and daily.”
To spread the word and advertise their campaign, the students of Elyashiv are opening a Facebook page, sending out e-mails and hoping to raise awareness on YouTube. They not only want to make people in Lod aware of the workers around them but to make a change in attitudes around the country.
Their campaign reminds me of a story from the 1930s in Nazi Germany with a similar theme. An energetic young Jewish lawyer was walking up the steps of the district courthouse in Berlin, ready for a full and promising day of legal work, when the doorman stopped him before he entered. Quietly but emphatically the doorman warned him, “I wouldn’t go inside today, Mr. P. – they’re waiting to arrest you.”
The lawyer turned white. He knew that he was unpopular with the Nazi activists and that Jews were being apprehended without cause sporadically.
Before he turned around and fled, he asked the doorman, whom he knew by name, “Heinz, why are you telling me this? You can get into trouble yourself.” The doorman replied, “I’ll tell you the truth, Mr. P., there are probably 200 to 300 people walking through this door every day, but you’re the only one who stops to talk to me and wish me Gut Shabbes.” 
The writer is a veteran geriatric social worker and co-founder of Melabev, the organization for Alzheimer’s care. She is now organizing courses on aging for professionals and support groups for family members coping with dementia.