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THE COLLECTOR

I’m not home much during the summer, besides for the two visiting day Sundays, but that’s enough time for me to notice a lot about our bungalow colony. This year what struck me the most was the meshulachim.

There are a lot of them from what I see, and they come all day long. I should know, because my parents had me back at the colony by 11:30 am and I stayed until way past curfew. Most of the people in our colony are nice to the collectors, from what I see. They invite them in or give them drinks and talk to them…not always, but a lot of the time. The thing is, they also complain. I heard this one guy at Minchah joking to my father that there were almost as many meshulachim as mosquitos. And I know for a fact that at least two times the people next door to us pretended that no one was home.

I’m the type of kid who likes to know everything. My mother calls me “overly curious,” but my sister calls me nosy.  So as the meshulachim walked up to our bungalow throughout the day, as I was getting ready to go swimming, or later when we were firing up the grill, I listened to the conversation, even though I was pretending to be very busy with other things.

There was one old man with a beard who said he was related to our Rav, and he was collecting money for a yeshivah. He only wanted water because he said he didn’t really rely on any of our hechsheirim, which didn’t make my father look too pleased. There was a guy with a heavy accent who said he was marrying off his ninth child, and he was very happy to eat my mother’s cookies (who wouldn’t?). Another guy pulled out pictures of a kid in a wheelchair hooked up to tubes and said he was trying to raise money for a complicated surgery. I think my father gave him a nice check, based on his reaction. He must have given us ten different brachos on his way out.

Much later in the day, after Minchah, when the last of the hot dogs were gone (courtesy of me), a skinny, middle-aged man with dark skin and long peyos walked slowly up to my father, who was busy trying to wrestle  a fire on the grill cover.

Shalom aleichem,” my father greeted him, somewhat distractedly. He was still focused on the grill.

The man extended his hand, as if to shake my father’s…and they both froze.  

My father recovered first. “Rafi, please bring out a drink.”  

I scurried in and filled two plastic cups with ice and the last of our lemonade. When I returned, I took good look at the man. There was something familiar about him. Was he a rebbi from our yeshivah? No, that wasn’t it.

The meshulach did not say one single word, but my father reached in his pocket and withdrew his checkbook. Then he changed his mind, put it back, and took out an envelope of cash. He gave it to the meshulach, shook his hand, and disappeared into our bungalow.

Of course, I followed him in, but not without one last look at the meshulach, who by now was heading towards another bungalow. My father was standing at the sink, staring out the window.

“Abba? Why’d you give him so much money without checking out his story?” I asked.

“Because,” he said. “I know him.”

“Really? How?” I knew there was something familiar about him.  

“He lives in our neighborhood.”

And just like that, I pictured Naftali, the boy with the long black peyos who was always tried to join our games but didn’t quite know how to play. The boy who always smiled, even though he was constantly trailed by a bunch of little boys who looked like miniature versions of himself, little boys who bugged him for drinks and piggy back rides and quarters. Naftali lived in the building two doors down from ours.

And this man was his father.

My father and I didn’t say another word about the matter, but we were both quiet during the ride back to camp. I don’t know what exactly he was thinking, but all I could hear in my mind was that comment about mosquitos, and all I could picture was Naftali’s smiling face.

You know, last year at camp we had a very intense game of hockey against another camp. I never fought so hard to win, and during the most intense moment, I looked up at the guy who was trying to wrestle the puck away from me – and it was my best friend from school. We both did a major double take, and started laughing. Suddenly, it didn’t feel so much like us against them – we were all just regular kids playing a game.

It used to be that meshulachim felt like they were from another planet. There was us and then there was them. So even though I knew that the right thing to do is to invite them in, give them a drink, some money, I never considered them regular people, just like us.

But now that I caught a glimpse of the person behind the extended hand, now that I know his family and a little about his life, everything’s different.

Keep this in mind next time you open your door to someone, the next time you have an urge to compare people to mosquitos. That person extending his hand? He’s not just a collector. He’s a regular person, just like you.

 

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