Rabbi takes beliefs to the mean streets
June 20, 1997
Originally published in The Times Herald Record, Middletown, NY on Friday, June 20th, 1997 by Chris Farlekas, Staff Writer
His synagogue has no walls. The ceiling is the neon sky. The floor is human misery. That’s the temple of the “Times Square Rabbi.”
Originally, Rabbi Yehudah Fine was thinking of calling his powerful book of mean-street stories, “I Saw the Fallen Angels Touch the Sky,” but the publisher liked the catchy “Times Square Rabbi” better - a name given him by the New York City media.
That’s a mission he continues even though he’s moved to Fallsburg with his wife and three teenage children. He said he’d been looking for someplace that was quiet and beautiful, and yet was near enough to the City.
Fine is average height, slim and usually wears a Yankee cap. When he talks, his hands become as expressive as his words. When he talks about his faith, fingers gently stretch out. And when he talks about the dead-end lives he’s encountered on the streets of New York, the fingers become taut, as if the broken lives have somehow reached into his joints - the way they’ve reached into his heart and life.
It’s been quite a journey for the 50-year-old from Seattle. The son of a prominent doctor, he grew up watching his father get up at least four nights each week to go to the hospital to deliver babies, “My father was an extraordinary man. He delivered more than 10,000 babies. His reverence for life became ingrained in me.”
Fine recalls that his father “often said he couldn’t accomplish what he did if it wasn’t for his wife. And that’s the way I feel about my wife, Elliesheva. Her love, vision, sharing and caring are the invisible hands behind my work. She’s a woman of valor to support my unending mission of giving hope to people.”
Married 21 years, she says she was “always worried when he went on the streets, but I saw such amazing results from his work, so I trusted to God that He would take care of Yehudah.”
After graduate school and time in Israel, Fine thought he might like to create wines. “To do this, I decided I needed to know how to grow the grapes, so I went to work in the Napa Valley with the migrants.”
Fluent in Spanish and working alongside the migrants, he got his first serious look at the underbelly of American society. This led to starting a secondary-school program for migrant farmworkers. Its success led to a call to start an alternative high school, which became a national model - all before he was 30.
“Doing these things deepened my spiritual search and odyssey and I was led more and more to become involved in the Jewish community, as well as the community at large.” So he came to New York to complete his rabbinical studies and train as a family therapist at the Ackerman Institute of Family Therapy.
Because of Fine’s extensive background in education and outreach, people from all walks of life began to seek him out for advice. Runaways and homeless kids found their way to his door. As a result, he began to actively provide outreach to kids on the streets. “I have this profound feeling in my heart that we’re here to help each other. If I can help, that’s what I do.”
Here’s an example, “A parent calls me and they’re in the absolute depths of despair. They feel like they want to give up on their kids. I step in and be a voice of hope and encouragement. Going that extra mile to help can save a child.”
He says, “I try to be a constant in people’s lives. Many people today have never had someone to fill that role.”
In the book, Fine tells some powerful stories of “Finding the Hope in Lost Kids’s Lives,” which is the book’s subtitle. “Working the streets has led me to some amazing, inspirational encounters,” he says. “Kids don’t ask about religious affiliation. They don’t ask what temple you belong to or what church. Sometimes religion can be a barrier. The spiritual message can be lost. What I’ve always responded to are the needs of the kids.”
Through the years, Fine created an eight-step program for self-discovery and renewal based on the teachings of the Hebrew philosopher Maimonides, whose Hilchos Teshuvah, which he freely translates as “The Path to Meaning and Hope,” remains “as relevant and powerful a guide to inner growth and spiritual reawakening on the cusp of the 21st century as when it was written 800 years ago.” Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. “A couple of times I almost bought the farm,” he says, using a term from the Vietnam War that means to be killed. He quietly talks about “times on the street where things got very out of control, where I had to face down confrontation that could have been life-threatening. There’s a lot of chilling reality on the street, and if you say you don’t get scared you’re lying. Some of the looks I’ve seen in people’s eyes would put Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’ to shame.”
So why did Fine put himself in harm’s way?
“If someone is suffering, I need to be there. If someone is crying, I need to be there. You have to believe that God is the ruler of the universe. You have to believe that life has meaning even in the greatest of difficulties. In Genesis, it says, ‘First there was night, then there was day.”
“Of course I’ve been frightened. I’ve been depressed. I’ve cried. Who wouldn’t with some of the stories out there on the streets, with people’s need to be loved and affirmed? But I’m always hopeful for redemptive things in everyone’s life.”
One of the things he teaches is, “That people must create a safe haven in their hearts, a genuine refuge. It’s not a place to hide, but a place to be renewed. And once you have this haven, you can become tapped into tremendous strength, and can receive blessings.
“There’s no set pattern for blessings to happen. But they’re there all around us everyday, whether it’s 3 a.m. on the streets of New York or buying groceries at ShopRite.”