Rabbi walked mean streets to learn about redemption:Stories about teens in crisis update themes of philosopher
March 01, 2001
Originally published in “The Seattle Times”
By Sally Macdonald
It’s a road map to redemption, via medieval Egypt and the rough back streets of New York.
Yehudah Fine, a hip street rabbi with roots in Seattle, has written teachings of Maimonides, a Hebrew philosopher who lived most of his life in 12th-century Cairo. Fine finds meaning in Maimonides for both the brittle, homeless kids who inhabit New York’s subway tunnels and the spiritually hungry middle-class people who fill synagogues during High Holy Days.
The Jewish New Year season - when sins are confessed and forgiven - begins Wednesday with sundown Rosh Hashanah services and ends Oct. 11 with Yom Kippur, when repentant Jews receive a clean slate from God. This year, by the Jewish calendar, will be 5758.
Fine, who has used Maimonides’ teachings to work with New York’s street kids for 15 years, has written a book, “Times Square Rabbi, Finding the Hope in Lost Kids’ Lives” (Hazelden). He is in town this week to talk to Jewish audiences about how Maimonides’ philosophy can serve as a guide for spiritual renewal during the High Holidays.
“Everyone needs to be straight with God,” he says, troubled teens on the street and disaffected adults in the pews alike.
In the book, Fine outlines an eight-step program for change based on the writings of maimonides, whose “Hilchos Teshuvah” Fine translates loosely as “the Path to Hope and Meaning.”
The steps range from confession, which Fine calls “hurling out the pain,” to redemption, “falling in love with life.”
They lead, as the High Holy Days are designed to do, from the darkness of sin to the light of forgiveness and the chance to start anew. “In the midst of crises and difficulties, life doesn’t dump on you,” Fine teaches. “Life presents opportunities. You can figure it out. You can find meaning. God wouldn’t have you in the world if you weren’t important.
“Imagine picking up a little baby and saying, ‘You’re so cute, but your life doesn’t mean anything,’” he says, a little indignantly. Fine says he never wanted to be “a pulpit rabbi.”
“I wanted to reach out to people who needed it, people who weren’t affiliated with anything but needed something.’
He grew up in the Seattle area, leaving after he graduated from Samamish high School and the university of Washington. He worked as a counselor with migrant workers in California until his life “took a deep spiritual turn” and he decided to become a rabbi.
About 15 years ago he began patrolling the streets of the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens as part of a night outreach ministry. The goal was to find kids in need, give them a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate or Kool-aid and try to get them off the streets. We’d spread the peanut butter and jelly at home in the kitchen before going out.
Once the kids ate, he thought, they might ask for help. Then they could figure out how to get out of the streets, which he calls “a war zone.”
“People were dying and disappearing,” Fine wrote. “I saw kids’ bodies become ravaged by sickness in just six months. I sat and talked with kids under tunnels of garbage. Rats jumped in front of my flashlight.
“Everyone was used or abused … AIDS and TB ate their way through young people. Night was day, and nobody went home. Nobody had a home.”
Each chapter of Fine’s book relates the story of a teen in crisis. They’ve been fictionalized somewhat to protect the real teens, Fine says, and some are composites of several people.
But the stories tell what happened to street teens when they took the steps prescribed by Fine and Maimonides to try to improve their lives.
Jessica turned her life around, quitting her phone-sex job and dropping her abusive boyfriend. She “learned the language of the heart - forgiveness,” Fine writes. “She didn’t forget what she learned in the shadow world - compassion … Her sense of herself allowed her to take honest risks to act in her own best interests.”
Three years later Fine officiated at Jessica’s wedding.
But not all the stories have happy endings.
The character Fine calls Danny was on his way along Maimonides’ path, volunteering at a youth center, when he blundered onto a robbery at a store and was gunned down.
“None of us has control over the length of our days,” Fine says, “But we do have control over our joys and our troubles, our consternations. That’s what I hope people will learn from the book.”
Fine is 50 now and has left the streets to counsel troubled people from an office in his home. But he’s still in touch with many of the kids he met on the streets and he still misses working there.
“It’s very hard for me,” he says, “but I’ve seen so much of life in the urban wilderness. I’ve seen so much suffering. It can be overwhelming. You can’t be with people who suffer without suffering with them.
“But the most comfortable I’ve been in my life is on the back streets of Manhattan.”