November 18, 2019

Be the Angel

At least there’s one good thing we can say about Abraham preparing to sacrifice his own son Isaac. When he lifts the gleaming knife above the boy’s head, an angel calls out: “Do not harm that child.” Jews don’t sacrifice their children. It might have been the norm in pagan societies, but not in our ancestors’, and not in ours.

Fact: There are 78,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County, the most of any jurisdiction in the United States.

Fact: Los Angeles County has the highest percentage of children in America not covered by health insurance.

Fact: Children are the poorest age group, twice as likely to be poor as elderly people.

These are statistics that tell a tragic tale. But there is another side to the story, a truth not revealed by the facts. The truth of Kiara.

Kiara is a lot like most of the kids I met in foster care while I was preparing this article. When I walked into the room at the agency where she goes for counseling, Kiara looked at me with the suspicious eyes of an 18-year-old who’s been in what she calls “The System” for a long time. Aloof but intense, dismissive but observant, dark and beautiful, attitude camouflaging a broken heart, she had a lot to say.

With her long, thin fingers poised on her chin, Kiara started to speak. “The system labels kids like me bad,” she said. “But I’m not bad. It’s just that a lot of bad things have happened to me, and I’m angry.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like my mother, addicted to every drug you can imagine before I was even born. I never knew if she was going to be able to feed us most nights or not. Lots of times, I’d give up whatever I had so that my little brother could eat. My mother’s boyfriends, including my father, were always violent. One of them killed my mother in front of me when I was 11. By then, I’d been beaten, burned and raped by others of them.”

Diana, another teen-ager in the room, nods her head. She, too, has gone without food so that her little brother could eat. Fourteen, raped by her father, shy and wounded, she’s been in foster care since April, when she finally told a friend what her father was doing to her.

“If you had the chance to stand up and tell people something, what would it be?” I ask both Kiara and Diana, expecting something angry.

“What I would tell people is this,” Kiara said, turning toward me: “I’ve always looked my whole life for someone to say, ‘Kiara, you did a good job. I’m proud of you.’ People need to say that to their kids.”

“Yeah,” Diana said. “If you really want something, you can work for it and have it. I’ve suffered a lot, but the people who have helped me mean a lot to me.”

The facts would lead us to assume that the kids in “The System” are hopeless and unsavable. But there’s more I haven’t told you about Kiara. She’s graduating high school this February with a 4.0 GPA and heading off to Spellman College in Atlanta. What does she want to study? Early Childhood Development. Diana too.

How does it happen that kids so damaged can be so strong? It happens because of people doing God’s work. People such as Andrew Bridge, director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and a foster kid himself who went on to Harvard Law School and a Fulbright. He heads Los Angeles’ only free legal-services organization devoted solely to helping children in poverty.

Kids so damaged can be so strong because of every Jewish Big Brother or Sister, because of places such as Vista del Mar (310 836-1223) and the Aviva center, (213 876-0550) because of every dollar and every minute we donate to places that are doing God’s work by saving children in Los Angeles.

I had a professor in rabbinical school who used to say that it was the rabbi’s job “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So I have to ask another question, not about the abuse of someone else’s children, but about the neglect of our own. What about our children and grandchildren, these hothouse flowers we are raising in Los Angeles — pushed, coached, tutored, scheduled, given too much, too soon, too often? What does it all mean when we have calls to our nursery school, requesting parenting classes for nannies? What, eventually, happens to a kid whose parents are unwilling to say no, because they want to be liked? What happens to a family that almost never has dinner together?

Isn’t being overly accommodating and overly demanding of our children at the same time it’s own, subtle form of neglect? Kids like Kiara and kids like ours just want the chance to be kids — to fulfill their God-given potential, to feel worthy, to feel joy, to feel like a family. Every kid deserves that.

Elie Wiesel once said that, since human beings are capable of love and hate, murder and sacrifice, we are both Abraham and Isaac. I think we can be something else, something other than Abraham the perpetrator or Isaac the victim. We can be the angel that stops the slaughter. For our own children, for Kiara, Diana and so many others, we can be the angel.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.