Understanding Hakarat HaTov

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ghost workers in abandoned factory
05 Mar 2019

The maintenance crew at Touro’s Lander College for Men works so hard every day. Whatever needs to get done, whether painting the walls in the student government office or cleaning the bathrooms at least three times a day, the crew does it with a smile. I felt it was so important to recognize them publicly with a special event because people don’t notice what they do and I imagined that the crew might feels under-appreciated. To change that mindset, I decided to turn the tables for one morning. Instead of the cleaning crew setting up and cleaning up for us, we students would do it for them and honor them with special awards at a Maintenance Appreciation Breakfast.

Our mashgiach, Rav Moshe Bamberger, often speaks about how in the Yeshiva of Kelm during Simchat Torah, the Alter of Kelm would run a classic Simchas Torah auction. However, he wouldn’t just auction off Choton Berashit, he would auction off the zechut to clean the Beis Medrash and the zechut to shovel the snow. The latter category of auction items would go for the most money. We live in a time where that kind of job is not always appreciated so I thought it would be appropriate to honor those who do these jobs. If we all took a moment to imagine what would happen if they stopped doing their jobs—cleaning our apartments and the Beit Medrash, taking out the trash, setting up for meals—we would truly appreciate their efforts. Without the cleaning crew, the school wouldn’t be able to function properly for a day.

When I thought about this a bit more, I realized that many of us also take our parents for granted despite the fact that they do so much for us in every area. When it comes to the maintenance crew, however, we don’t even notice them. We don’t just take them for granted; for many people, they are simply invisible. Beyond noticing the incredible job they do, I wanted all the students to have an awareness of how we could be helping them. Instead of leaving coffee cups all over the Beit Medrash for others to clean up, we could be aware that each of us can throw out our one cup and the overall effect would make life so much easier for the crew. I was once in a Beit Medrash and saw 100 coffee cups on the tables and I wondered who the talmidim thought would clean up their mess. When each person takes responsibility for his own cup, we ease the burden and make a Kiddush Hashem in the process.

The difference in honoring someone at a shul dinner vs. our maintenance crew breakfast is that a shul dinner has a one-time honoree who will be replaced next year by a new person. The people we chose to honor at our breakfast are not one-time honorees. They are people whose work on our behalf is ongoing, and taking the time to recognize this shifts our attitude and promotes hakarat hatov.  Jews are called “Yehudim”–those who are “modeh” or acknowledge–and hakarat hatov is a basic, essential part of who we are. I wanted to put that into practice and heighten our awareness of the need to recognize the crew who cleans the hallway while we are learning, tidies up the Beit Medrash while we are in the lab…all the time, not just this one day. I wanted to put them on the radar screen of all the students and so I started promoting the event.

When I put up signs about this breakfast, a lot of students were confused. Usually, when there’s a sponsored breakfast, it means we are hosting a big-name speaker or a rosh yeshiva. They couldn’t figure out what we were trying to do.

The morning of the breakfast, the Student Government woke up early and davened at an early minyan. We told the crew that they weren’t allowed to do any work and the student government set up the entire breakfast, served the food and cleaned everything up. People responded much more enthusiastically than expected. At the event, we had maintenance staff sitting up on the dais instead of the mashgiach, the rosh yeshiva and the rebbeim. There was cheering, clapping and a standing ovation for the maintenance crew. Every crew member was called up by name, they each received a box of chocolate, a gift card and a personal thank-you letter. Each one of them had a huge smile on his face that day. They started talking to all of us more often and the effects of that event are still felt months later. Everyone now notices the cleaning crew, thanks them regularly and talks to them in a friendly manner.

I think it’s important for Jews to interact in a positive way with the non-Jews we come in contact with daily wherever we find ourselves. Always acting like a mentsch and showing an interest in others as people is critical. I think that not only was planning this event worthwhile, every person in the school took a positive lesson from the event. In some ways, it was more important and inspiring than a mussar shmuess. Everyone contributed something–set up, served or cleaned up–and when they saw the reaction of the crew, they all realized how important this effort was.

I am looking forward to the second annual Maintenance Appreciation Breakfast. I also sincerely hope others will follow our lead.

Azzi Kimmel is Student Government President at Touro’s Lander College for Men. He is a psychology major and is planning for a career in Clinical Psychology

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.