Yael's Corner: It’s time to close the computer and take action

This week, an answer came to me through an eye-opening experience I had with an Ethiopian-Israeli street cleaner named Yefet in a small city in central Israel.

Yefet, who made aliya from Ethiopia in 2000 (photo credit: YAEL ECKSTEIN)
Yefet, who made aliya from Ethiopia in 2000
(photo credit: YAEL ECKSTEIN)
In this age of technology, we’re connected as we have never been before. And yet, it is ironic how so many people feel utterly alone. Despite our hundreds of friends on Facebook, the lengthy list of contacts in our cellphones, and email accounts filled with messages, we can see tears and the pain of loneliness nearly everywhere we turn.
For years I have been struggling with this paradox of our generation, and this week the answer came to me through an eye-opening experience I had with an Ethiopian-Israeli street cleaner named Yefet in a small city in central Israel.
The day started out like any other. I rushed around the house getting my kids dressed and fed, then quickly ran them to the car in a race against the morning school bell, which rings promptly every morning at 8. As I drove down the street right next to my home, my three-year-old suddenly shouted, “Look, there’s a man cleaning the street!” “You’re right, and we should thank him,” I answered. I continued to drive past the middle-aged man cleaning the street, and with the window closed, I said in a sweet voice for my daughter to hear, “Thank you so much for keeping our streets clean.”
At first, I felt proud of myself for teaching my daughter the important lesson of appreciation. Yet that moment quickly faded. “Mommy, he didn’t even hear you,” my daughter said. I thought about the school bell that would already be ringing at my older kids’ school, and the sad face of the man sweeping the street.
It became crystal clear to me which should take priority. I immediately turned around my car and went back to the street sweeper so that my family could give him a few words of appreciation.
As we pulled up, I noticed that he was holding his hands as if they were cold. “You do hard work,” I said as my kids and I climbed out of the car. “I’m just grateful for having work,” he replied.
With my toddler on my hip, I told him how much we all appreciate what he does. “You come here early in the morning to clean our neighborhood no matter what the weather is, and we thank you for that.” As the words came out of my mouth, a big smile appeared across his face. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
“My name is Yefet and I came to Israel from Ethiopia 15 years ago. Living here has always been my dream.”
It was amazing for me to see how Yefet continued to smile the entire time we spoke. His whole body language changed.
He seemed tense and sad when we initially drove by him, but now he was relaxed and happy after receiving much-deserved recognition and appreciation. While I thought showing appreciation for Yefet would be a good lesson and experience for my children – besides simply being the right thing to do – I ended up taking this powerful experience to heart as well.
What Yefet taught me during our short time together is that everyone wants to be seen and appreciated.
Modern technological advances leave us feeling connected, yet invisible; we’re exposed to everything happening around the world, yet blind to what’s happening right down the block. The constant news on social media, television and our cellphones leaves us with a small taste of everything, but with a deep feeling for nothing.
It’s not until we put down our cellphones, move away from our computers, and work on establishing deep and meaningful relationships that our lives become truly full and happy. When we take little steps in life to show appreciation for others and do acts of kindness, the rewards to everyone involved are tremendous. True joy comes when instead of clicking “like” on a picture online expressing support for people in need, we seek these people out and express our support for them with real words and offer a helping hand.
Technology is effective in exposing us to the tremendous needs in the world and the experiences of others, but this is not enough.
Clicking a button does not create change, but rather a false feeling of interconnectedness. We are all aware of the issues facing this world; now it’s time to close the computer and take real, tangible action to help.
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.