My Little Brother — and yours
I was 23 years old, living in New York City when I was matched with my first Little Brother, Jeremy. He was 11. Fast forward 32 years. I am now 55 years old, and I was recently matched with 9-year-old Noam, here in Los Angeles, through Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA). The legacy continues.
In 1984, I was living the single life in New York City. I saw a story on TV about being a Big Brother, and, on impulse, I picked up the phone and called Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York, a mentoring program for children ages 6 to 18. These children come to the program because they’re in need of an additional role model: Many are being raised by single moms or grandparents, some have experienced the death of a parent.
It took several weeks for the application to be processed, then a few weeks later, I heard from my point-person at the JBBBSNY office. We scheduled a meeting among Jeremy, his mom and me. Although I was very nervous — as I suspect Jeremy and his mom were — we all got through it. Jeremy and I were “matched.”
Jeremy’s story was similar to other kids in the program: His parents divorced when he was quite young, and his father was not involved is his life. Jeremy and his family — mom, older sister, younger brother, and a magnificent Holocaust survivor bubbe — lived on the Upper West Side, and were Orthodox, both of which worked well for me. Coincidentally, the principal at his yeshiva — Manhattan Day School — was, years earlier, my principal in yeshiva in New Jersey. Small world.
From the start, Jeremy and I got along beautifully. He was (and still is) a big-hearted, appreciative, fun person to be with.
Our first outing was to a New York Rangers hockey game. Some helpful information for those of you not familiar with Rangers fans: They’re just a wee bit passionate about their team. (Think: rabid pack of wild dogs.) Well, Jeremy, is a proud New York Islanders fan, the team that is the arch enemy of the Rangers, so he decided to root against the Rangers. Not smart — not smart at all: I told him, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t make it to 12 years of age if he kept cheering for the visiting Philadelphia Flyers. He finally understood my point when he witnessed a Flyer fan being beaten up during the third period.
Another time, I took him bowling at the Downtown Port Authority, only to have the police come through ordering us to immediately vacate the building: There was a bomb scare. We wound up walking around Manhattan in bowling shoes. We did look stylish.
For his bar mitzvah, I took Jeremy to Grossinger’s resort hotel in the Catskills. Grossinger’s was like a cruise ship that never left land. Besides eating a ridiculous amount of food, we got to go skiing, which neither of us had ever done. He loved skiing, and I loved not killing myself. It was a great weekend.
As the years went by, Jeremy’s mother remarried and moved to Skokie, Ill., and I got married and moved to Los Angeles. But the distance didn’t stop us from continuing what we had: Jeremy was all too happy to leave Chicago during the winter for the warmth of Los Angeles, and I was excited about the chance to visit him in Illinois.
As Jeremy approached the age of 16, his mother asked me to teach him how to drive. During a visit to Skokie, I took him out for a couple of memorable lessons in my rental car. To the people of Hertz, all these years later: I’m sorry, I’m really sorry for the condition of that Mazda’s clutch.
As the years rolled past, Jeremy got married to a lovely woman, and I was there. And then they had triplets — three boys. I begged him and his wife to name them Moe, Larry and Curly. I was rebuffed, although I was there for the bris. The boys’ bar mitzvah was a couple of years ago — yes, I was there — and it was magnificent to be a participant.
As a career, Jeremy decided to go into kosher catering. I feel somewhat responsible for that, as I like to think the weekend at Grossinger’s had something to do with his choice. He’s done very well for himself. When I needed a caterer for my younger son’s bar mitzvah, guess who I called? My Little Brother, Jeremy.
As I look back upon these 30-plus years, I have a love for Jeremy that’s developed and grown over time to the point that he’s like my third son. He knows he can talk to me about anything — he knows I’ll always be there for him. And as he’s become an adult — I know the reverse is also true. It’s been wonderful to see his growth as a person — to see him morph from being a somewhat timid 11-year-old into a self-assured 42-year-old — a responsible adult, a husband and father of three. Besides the love, I feel a lot of pride, not because I did the heavy lifting in raising him, but because I was able to be a conduit to help get him through some challenging years. I believe that’s the core goal of being a Big Brother or Big Sister: to be there to help get the child across to the other side.
This past spring, I discovered that there were more than 50 Jewish children wait-listed at JBBBSLA. It broke my heart. And so, I did something I never thought I’d do again: I signed up to be a Jewish Big Brother.
In a city the size of Los Angeles, 50 children awaiting volunteers is unacceptable. These single parents have done the right thing — they’ve signed up their child for a Jewish Big Brother or Big Sister, trying to give their child some mentoring, some friendship, possibly some love — and this city has largely responded with a yawn. I just wrote that it is “unacceptable.” I take that back: It is shameful.
I often get asked about being a Big Brother — people are curious about the program. Most people seem shocked that the time commitment is only 2 to 3 hours every two weeks for one year. Yes, in that amount of time, you have the ability to impact a child’s life. The time with my new Little Brother, Noam, has flown by. He’s an extremely smart 9-year-old, we share a love for sports and we both greatly enjoy our outings. Fortunately, he’s not an avid New York Islanders fan, so he should make it to his next birthday. As for teaching him how to drive — well, I’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
There are few precious things in life that will reward you like being a Big Brother or a Big Sister. You can help make a difference in a young person’s life. And they can have an impact on your life. Yes, you can always write a check to an important cause — it will never be turned down — but here’s a cause that doesn’t need your money: It needs your attention, it needs your concern, it needs your heart. Don’t sit by, don’t let 50 children wait for “someone else” to volunteer. Be 1 of 50. Make a difference. You’ll never regret it. And you will continue a legacy of your own in our community.
Barry Oppenheim is a businessman in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com. For information on volunteering with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, visit jbbbsla.org or call (323) 456-1155.