Human Spirit: The kindness network

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Shoshana Greenbaum, 31, taught elementary school in Long Beach, New York. As part of her master's program, the dark-haired, pretty teacher was offered an all-expenses-paid summer program in Israel. She and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, were delighted. Steven accompanied her to Israel for four weeks, and then returned to his job. The idyllic summer in Jerusalem brought an additional cause for joy: Shoshana and Steven were expecting their first child. On the Thursday morning after he'd returned to their home in Passaic, New Jersey, Shoshana phoned Steven, missing him, happily anticipating their reunion. A friend invited her for lunch, but Shoshana didn't want to trouble anyone. She'd just grab a slice of pizza after classes. So she stopped at the corner of King George Avenue and Jaffa Road on the afternoon of August 9, 2001, just before a Palestinian with a guitar case packed with explosives and nails entered the Sbarro pizza restaurant. The terrorist murdered Shoshana and 14 others. May her memory be for a blessing, we say in our Jewish tradition. But how do you make sure that memory is a blessing? The international media had already gathered as Steven Greenbaum deplaned in Israel to bury his wife and unborn child. The 37-year-old Brooklyn-born widower had the attention of the world. What a shame it would be to use that spotlight to boil over in anger and hatred. So he spoke of the struggle between truth and falsehood in the world, and how Shoshana prized truth. The reporters turned away. They weren't interested. IN THE overwhelming days of mourning, amidst the horror and grief, Greenbaum could find his only sparks of light in an idea that was vaguely forming at the edge of his mind. He wasn't interested in revenge. Many would call him na ve, but he knew that Shoshana's extraordinary goodness could only be perpetuated by increasing kindness in the world. He marked the 30th-day memorial ceremony first in Israel, and then with a second ceremony in New York. His bereaved in-laws left on September 9, and Steven returned to his job as a computer analyst for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on September 10. On the next morning two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. As darkness engulfed the city, he reinforced his pledge to light a spiritual candle. Greenbaum gathered friends and acquaintances to brainstorm. They came up with a modest idea: Let's exchange stories of kindness. Everyone could use a daily dose of kindness. These wouldn't be grandiose heroic deeds like leaping into a fire to save a child or like Bill Gates donating millions of dollars to eradicate malaria, but reports of letting someone go ahead of you in a bank line, returning a lost notebook, or surprising a plumber by offering a compliment for arriving on time. Not headline-catching enough for the media, the stories could circulate in e-mail messages. At first there were a dozen or so participants, but within the first two months the numbers grew to 300. He eventually set up two organizations - two organizations in Shoshana's memory - a Jewish one called "A Tradition Of Kindness" and a general one called "Partners In Kindness." Greenbaum wanted to encourage people everywhere to do kindnesses each day. One reader wrote about buying a beggar a small bottle of water, and another about sharing a Metrocard so that someone could get to a parade. One writer recalled the joy of filling a neighbor's refrigerator with food before they returned from vacation, and another recalled a moment from the past when he gave his socks to a cold, barefoot Vietnam War veteran. Today Greenbaum has 40,000 subscribers, with several hundred new subscribers every week to his daily doses of kindness. His own Web site has become a springboard for other Web sites promulgating niceness. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has started a kindness public-awareness campaign among employees. He speaks in New York City schools and to groups. THIS WEEK, Greenbaum was delighted with a story of someone in Israel who was giving bus drivers Purim food gifts to thank them for providing transportation on a day that so many other Israelis enjoyed as a holiday. "This is just the beginning," Greenbaum promised by phone from his New York office. The stories, he said, remind readers of experiencing or witnessing kindness. "When they relive that feeling, remembering kind deeds, they're infused with a sense of gratitude, which is a tremendously spiritual experience. Generating this feeling is what being Jewish means to me." Steven Greenbaum knew he could have drawn a crowd by spewing anger and hatred. Who could have blamed him? "But that's not the way I look at our purpose in this world," he said. "We're supposed to bring light to the world, not allow ourselves to become the tools of darkness." Purim, named for a lottery to choose a day of destruction and not Redemption, marks one of the darkest moments of Jewish history. Redemption comes not only with dramatic acts of bravery, but also with simple kindnesses, such as giving credit to the doer of a worthy act. It ends with a promise of light and joy and gladness. If Steven Greenbaum is right, we might just get there, one kindness at a time. Greenbaum's Web sites are: and