January 18, 2020

Keeping a Child’s Memory Alive Through Random Acts of Kindness

Photos courtesy of Jesse Zilberstein

In the past few days alone, one woman made and delivered lasagna to a colleague recovering from knee surgery. Someone else went out of their way to give a ride home to an employee they recognized from CVS. One person gave blood. Another left a $25 tip on a purchase of just a few dollars. What do all of these acts have in common? They are all part of Gidi’s Kindness Project.

Gidi was Gideon Zilberstein. But everyone called him Gidi. Three years ago, just shy of his fifth birthday, Gidi died in a freak boating accident while his family was on vacation in Lake Arrowhead, even though he was wearing a life jacket. 

One year later, in 2017, his parents — Woodland Hills residents Jesse and
Amit Zilberstein — started Gidi’s Kindness Project, an annual event lasting approximately two weeks, which runs through Sept. 7 — Gidi’s birthday. They got the idea from the MISS Foundation, a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization that provides counseling and other support services to families that experience the death of a child.

“One of the things that MISS Foundation promotes is random acts of kindness in honor of your dead child as a way to help do something with your grief,” Jesse Zilberstein said. “We really loved the sound of that. But our family doesn’t like to do things small. We sort of thought, ‘We don’t want to be the only ones doing random acts of kindness.’ We are surrounded by such an incredible village of people in our lives, from our synagogue [IKAR], day school, neighborhood. There were so many people who were grieving with us for Gidi. We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to spread kindness in Gidi’s name. It seemed to us such a perfect thing to do for Gidi in particular, because he was always the welcomer, the lover, the one really teaching us all about kindness.”

Gidi Zilberstein; Photos courtesy of Jesse Zilberstein

The Zilbersteins printed thousands of colorful cards (Gidi was very keen on color and glitter) that read: “This random act of kindness was done in memory of Gidi Zilberstein, forever 5 years old. To spread more kindness in memory of Gidi, visit ww.gidimagic.com.” People can also print cards directly from the website in either English or Hebrew. (Amit is from Israel.) 

The couple, who has two other sons, now 13 and 11, distributed the cards to friends and family. They weren’t sure what to expect. They anticipated that some people would participate. But the response was overwhelming, in the best sense. 

“What we saw people doing in his name, I don’t have words for it,” Zilberstein said. “Someone would do an act of kindness and give a kindness card to a stranger. That stranger would look at the card, go online and find the Facebook page and post that they had been the recipient, that they would always remember [Gidi] and pay it forward. In a way, it was like he was still here because the world was still learning about him. There is nothing I love more than when I get those posts.”

The Zilbersteins also speak about Gidi at IKAR. This year, during the Saturday morning Shabbat service, Gidi’s brothers Zeve and Oren passed out bracelets reading “Gidi — make the world sparkle” and temporary tattoos featuring Gidi’s signature.

“On a selfish level, I hope that Gidi’s name and his face and everything that he really exuded becomes part of that person’s consciousness so that he continues to be a presence in the world.” — Jesse Zilberstein

Zilberstein said the project, which coincides with a particularly difficult time of year — between Gidi’s yahrzeit and his birthday — “really adds light to the world for a couple of weeks.” 

But the family is still very much grieving.

“Just because we’re doing good things in Gidi’s name and just because we feel the incredible support of our community and just because we’re able to keep his memory alive in such a beautiful way, doesn’t mean I don’t curl up in a ball and cry,” Zilberstein said. “Three years might seem like a long enough period of time to people on the outside to think we have acclimated to a new normal. But we have not. He is missing all the time from everything, even in our most joyous moments — and we do have joyous moments. But that joy is always tempered by his absence.”

Ultimately, Zilberstein hopes Gidi’s Kindness Project does two things: “On a selfish level, I hope that Gidi’s name and his face and everything that he really exuded becomes part of that person’s consciousness so that he continues to be a presence in the world,” she said.

“On a higher level, I would hope that this kind of project continues to teach people the lessons Gidi taught people in five short years, which is that you can engage with strangers and bring a smile to someone’s face and you can be tolerant and open, and when you do these things, it makes you feel really good. He lived in a state of pure joy.”

To learn more and to participate in Gidi’s Kindness Project, visit their website.