Reality Check

By Jennifer Bitton

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This past week, I was reminded of why I love getting to know the people in our community. Our preconceived notions keep us from seeing others in the image Hashem created them. We spend so much time in our own bubble, we tend to forget that everyone has a story to tell. This week, I learned about someone who is sincerely humble and honest. Her vulnerability was so sincere, that the interview ended with me giving her a huge hug and thanking her for uplifting and inspiring me. I also recognized that I am only one of many that she inspires on a daily basis.

Meet Sheera Bloomenkranz:

Sheera was born in West Rogers Park in October 1964. Her parents, Tema and Hilly Weiner, both native Chicagoans, had a reputation that has followed them until today. Sheera grew up in a house built on chesed. For Tema, one of the original founders of the Chicago Chesed Fund, community was a top priority. Hilly was always there to support Tema’s endeavors to help the community. Sheera remembers how her mother was constantly finding ways to feed people or help them through difficult situations, but for Tema the mitzvah went deeper than that.

“For my mother, it wasn’t only about the mitzvah of feeding the hungry; It was about saving a life. A person’s dignity was worth more than anything to her, and she made sure to protect that.”

Over 30 years ago, Tema worked for the ARK, and began to recognize a need that was not provided in the community. There were a lot of people who needed food or other assistance, but made too much money to qualify for government assistance. Whether it was lack of food, medical bills or emotional support, Tema found ways to provide it. In the earlier days of The Chesed Fund, Rabbi Fuerst distributed money to those who were in need. Eventually, Rabbi Fuerst, Dr. Sokol (a medical doctor from the community) and Tema found ways to make the giving more organized. This was the beginning of The Chicago Chesed Fund. At that time, they didn’t have a warehouse and would prepare monthly deliveries in alleys behind shuls. Delivery vans then distributed boxes to people’s homes. Tema made sure there were no names on the boxes, only numbers and addresses. To her, more important than the food was the dignity and integrity of the receiver. People had begun to bring food to her house for her to distribute. This was the environment Sheera was raised in, and until today she continues her mother’s work of selflessly caring for so many in our community.

Sheera attended Hillel Torah and CJA (the original Academy) and was one of six siblings, two sisters and three brothers.

“I was a tomboy. I walked around barefoot and my dad would beg me to put on shoes and socks”, Shira grinned, “I was always reading and was always at the park. Times were different, everything was. Things were easier in a lot of ways.”

Like many of us, high school was a very difficult time for Sheera. She graduated early and began college at Northeastern. Around this same time, Sheera wanted to spend some time exploring her Judaism. Although she attended Jewish schools her entire life, she recognized the holes in her education. She knew the rules, but not the deeper meanings behind them. Sheera took a break from school and ended up at Aish Hatorah in Israel. The classes were inspiring and transformative, but what happened next would change her world as she knew it.

Sheera received a call from her mother saying she needed to come home right away. Sheera’s sister, Adina, a senior in high school, was fighting a life-threatening case of Hepatitis. Two days later, at 17 years old and only 7 weeks before her high school graduation, Adina passed away. Sheera, only 19 at the time, was devastated.

“Adina was amazing. So beautiful and so spiritual, she was my light. I loved her. We shared a room our entire lives. I never slept alone in a room until the day she died. She was my everything…my everything”. It was her time in Israel that kept her strong through the devastation of losing her best friend.

“I wouldn’t have recovered if I hadn’t just gotten a surge of bitachon and understanding that there’s a higher power taking care of you”. Sheera continued learning at Northeastern and UIC, where she eventually earned her Occupational Therapy Degree. During this time, Keshet opened in Apache, and Sheera was asked to be in charge of the integration and inclusion piece. This is where she met her husband, Jess, who was also working for Keshet. While Shira and Jess raised their family, Shira did private evaluations from home and also taught at Keshet Sunday school. She spent about 5 years at Gesher Hatorah working with students and then spent the next 7 years as an OT for the Evanston Public School District. However, once her work in Evanston began to infringe on her spiritual growth, she had had enough.

“The political atmosphere was so hostile. There was so much hatred towards people with more conservative views. Everything was changing. The environment became so different. I was living in a different world. I said ‘I can’t live like this’. It wasn’t good for my kids it and it wasn’t good for my spirituality.” Sheera knew that her home and raising her children was her most important job. Although she would continue to work, it would no longer get in the way of her Torah values and self-improvement. She was offered other jobs, but if her husband couldn’t go to minyan or she spent too much time from home, she turned it down. Her job needed to fit into her Yiddishkeit, not the other way around. After some time, Sheera learned that Yachad was interested in opening a young adult day program for Jewish clients. There were many state-funded programs, but none for Jewish individuals. She was hired to create and direct an adult day program through Yachad under the umbrella of a state-funded agency. Sheera poured her heart into creating this program. In August of 2017, after a lot of dedication and hard work, Yachad’s first adult day program was opened. Sheera was overjoyed. She could finally use her OT experience to make purposeful time for an entire group of people who needed a Torah environment.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted. People who know what the parsha is. The clients eat at Kosher restaurants and spend their days in a Jewish environment. I’ve enjoyed setting it up so the clients could do something they couldn’t do before.”

Today, Shira and Jess have been married 27 years and have 9 children. Unfortunately, both of her parents and her second sister, Alita, all passed away within the past eight years. Alita struggled with liver problems and Jess donated part of his liver to save her. Although the surgery was successful, there were some complications, and Alita passed away at the age of 40. It’s been a struggle for Sheera. When Tema passed away, true to their character, Sheera and her family moved down the street from her father so he would have a place to go every Shabbos. Jess was with him on a regular basis caring for him until he passed away a short time later.

Sheera’s home has become a reflection of her mother’s vision. Along with providing strep tests to people in the community, her home has become chesed central. All hours of the day, people drop off food by the house, either large amounts from community events, private simchas or even leftovers from Shabbos. She calls it the Tema Weiner Food exchange, because she loves being able to continue her mother’s vision. People loved Tema and they love Sheera as well. People go out of their way to bring food and necessities to the house, because people know that it will go to the right places. Recently, two boys from Arie Crown combined some of their bar mitzvah money and donated a refrigerator to help preserve the huge amounts of food Sheera receives on a daily basis. If she knows of someone is in need, she will call them and let them know what she has. Sheera is always there to offer a meal or just a listening ear. Every time someone picks something up or drops something off, she is as grateful to the people who pick up food as to the ones who drop it off. She is also grateful that their lifestyle has given her children the opportunity to learn to be givers.

“My kids see what we do and they get to be a part of that. They are proud and even though they don’t necessarily want the house to be so crowded with food all over the place, they wouldn’t do it differently.” I asked Sheera who she admires most in the world:

“I admire my husband. He wasn’t raised this way, and he walked into this way of life as if he’d been doing it forever. It doesn’t bother him. All of these things, the food drop-offs and the cleanup. To him it’s great! He’s an amazing partner to have in all of this.” Sheera does everything she can to make sure people are comfortable coming to her home. She tries to organize pickups in a way where people won’t run into each other.

“When I give somebody something, I try to do whatever I can to make sure nobody feels less than. We are all people and we all deserve to keep our dignity. I believe that I do a good job of respecting people. I have a talent for not making someone feel like 2 cents, because I know how feeling like 2 cents feels.”

Sheera continued, “My mother did everything in her power to maintain the dignity of people receiving assistance from her. She would call someone and say ‘Someone brought me a huge amount of chicken, and I have no space for it all. Do you need any chicken?’” Tema would invite people in and offer them a drink and something to eat, just to make them feel like they were visiting rather than receiving for chesed. My mother was careful not to make people feel like they were recipients of chesed, but I feel like I’m the recipient. I really do enjoy when people stop by. I don’t have the confidence to go up to someone and say ‘Hi! Do you want to be my friend? But, if I go up to somebody and say ‘I happen to have something you could use’, then you feel like you have something to offer. Or, if i call somebody up and say, ‘I just got a whole bunch of food dropped off’ and then they’ll come by to pick stuff up. I never think twice about it. But if I have to call somebody to say ‘Hi’, I would be wondering if I’m bothering them. Do they want to get off the phone? Am I talking too much? It’s really just a total insecurity. It’s easy to be there for people in a time of need, because you don’t have to worry about what they are thinking of you. You could just try to be there to help them with what they’re asking for anyway.”

I told Sheera that she’s so easy to talk to, and that she should become a therapist. Her hilarious response was, “I wanted to be a therapist, but I was afraid if I did people would stop talking to me.”

Sheera is a genuine person. As she told me about her “insecurity”, I was so impressed with how vulnerable and real she was. She doesn’t put on any airs, and she truly knows herself. We all have insecurities or qualities we would like to change. Sheera takes her own traits, negative or positive and uses them in a way that mirrors her moral values. What Sheera saw as an insecurity, I saw as a great strength. She uses what she knows about herself to do good in the world. Rather than hide from the world and wallow in her insecurities, she used them as a tool for helping others. I asked Sheera what she thinks people in our community should be aware of: “Years ago, someone called my mother and said ‘I know this person is a recipient of funds, but she has magazine subscriptions, so you know she is misusing her money. I don’t have magazine subscriptions’. Tema said, ‘Thank G-d you don’t need something to hide in. She needs to read to escape from her reality’.” Sheera continued, “People need to be very careful not to judge people by the way they look, because there are people who are put together and are really hurting inside. There are people who you just helped with something and gave them some money, and then you found out they went to a nice dinner. Don’t think you know, because you have no idea. Please don’t judge people. If you know somebody needs something, but it looks like they have too much, it’s not a reason not to help them. You have no idea what their financial needs are and you have no idea what their emotional needs are.”

I asked Sheera to tell me three things about her that people may not know. She said that she loves coffee, she loves arts and crafts, especially working with clay, and she really doesn’t mind when people drop off food at midnight. If anyone would like to be involved with contributing to the Tema Weiner Food Exchange, you can call Sheera at 773-600-9403 or email her at shneinu@live.com

Sheera’s Advice to the world: “Always know Hashem is taking care of you. Just sometimes he does it through people.”

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