My guest today is Yehudah Fine. He is best known as the "Times Square Rabbi" and he wrote a book by the same name whose subtitle is: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids' Lives. Welcome to OpEdNews, Yehudah. You've been in this line of work for a long time. How did you get started seeking out kids who otherwise would fall through the cracks?
Yehudah Fine by Yehudah Fine
Decades ago, a phone call came into my unlisted line around 3 AM. It was a mother in desperate circumstance. Her daughter had gone missing. She suspected she had 'gone street' in NYC. She begged me to help. Back then, I had a rule. You find my private line and I deal myself in. It means a parent is working back channels to find me. I got up, hit the 'D' Train to Manhattan, and started my search at Covenant House, New York. I walked in and my life changed forever. I looked around and there were hundreds of kids having breakfast.
I asked one question, "How many kids come through your place every year?"
The answer, "We take in around 22, 000 kids through intake every year."
My soul spoke and said to me, "Deal me in."
Look. You have to understand: fate is what happens to everyone, but destiny is what you do with it. I am not a side-liner.
From there, the road got heavy. I have been shot at and had to fight for my life out on the streets. I have been stalked and threatened. It only made me tougher. I do not walk away from anyone in trouble. Period.
If the Talmud maxim is true, "Saving a life is saving a world," then you either have to do something about saving worlds or you walk away. I do not walk away."¨ From there, I went street. I made my rounds in the mean streets from late at night until dawn, four or five times a week. This is life unpeeled down to bare wires. It's a war zone out there.
I got dubbed the "Times Square Rabbi" from working with Covenant House's Times Square-based "Off The Streets" program.
After a year or two, the kids called me "the Shadow Walker": the man who comes out of the shadows and means serious business."¨ Let me be clear: street kids die. Almost no kids I met made it. AIDS, murder, suicide, overdoses and just disappearing were and still are the end game. I went because I cannot stand knowing kids can grow up, die young and never have anyone love them, give them hope, or listen to their short-lived dreams. Then, they die alone.
These kids deserve someone who cares. I do not sleep well at night. I am haunted by all these kids' dreams. You see suffering and hear every night the wing beats of the Angel of Death. How can you walk away from the injunction, "choose life"?
No one said life would be easy. I know and knew where I was and what the stakes were. Someone has to be out there. In my own small world, that someone is me. Out there, you learn to live your compassion. Understand the extreme value of kids. Know that caring penetrates the darkness, that the power of laughter is the language of hope.
It was a dark world. In my book, I called it 'the way beyond' and 'the kingdom of the night.' I sat and talked with kids under tunnels of garbage. Rats jumped in front of my flashlight. I went down in the subway tunnels looking for young women pregnant who had tested positive for AIDS. Kids from so-called important families ran to me. Kids showed up at my door at all hours. Often, I would find them sleeping on my stoop when I went out in the early morning.
In time, too, because I lived in Brooklyn, I became feared by a portion of the Jewish Orthodox community. In that world, some leaders protect predators and protect rabbis and parents who prey on kids. Remember these people are protecting predators, not innocent victims. I became a real problem. My book was unofficially banned in every Jewish bookstore; I was unofficially excommunicated by persons I did not know. Death threats and people targeting me became a way of life even around my home.
That was the dark side. But there was another side that wasn't dark at all. In fact, being in that world with those kids was probably the highest and most profound place I've ever been in my life. That's the ultimate paradox. How could it be so meaningful if everybody was dying? The answer is that, in a world like that, all the boundaries get erased and anything and everything can come out, including all of the goodness.