Highest level of tzedakah

These days Liz Jasoni lives in her van, trying to park it “wherever I’m not a nuisance to neighbors and the police.”

In the early morning of Wednesday, Aug. 29 she maneuvered through a crowd of thousands of homeless people outside San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, her lone crutch in one hand and the leashes of her two dogs, Dosha and Karma, in the other.

“My brother died when she [Dosha] was 6 months old, and left her to me. And now she’s 8 years,” said a smiling Jasoni, nodding at the large and healthy black-and-white pit bull.

Jasoni is homeless, yet she didn’t show up at Project Homeless Connect for her own benefit. She came so a veterinarian could take a look at her dogs.

“They’re my other crutch,” she explains.

Inside the vast auditorium, thousands of white-shirted volunteers buzzed about, readying services for San Francisco’s homeless population that included dental exams, vision exams, legal advice, career counseling and even haircuts. Three-year-old Project Homeless Connect was the brainchild of Mayor Gavin Newsom and his former Deputy Chief of Staff Alex Tourk.

This year, more than 100 of those volunteers came from 16 Jewish organizations — a source of great pride for Project Homeless Connect’s director, Judith Klain (a Jew from Brooklyn herself).

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, gave the volunteers a Torah- and Talmud-inspired pep talk prior to the throngs of needy recipients entering the building.

Kahn noted that no more primal a source than the Book of Genesis instructs that “All human beings — all human beings — are created in the image of God.”

He then outlined Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, starting with the lowest (giving alms reluctantly) to the highest (helping the poor help themselves).

“I’m not sure Mayor Gavin Newsom knew about the eight levels of Maimonides, but all of you are participating in the highest way,” he said.

Kahn recalled the talmudic tale of a rabbi who asked his students how they could tell night had ended and dawn had broken. The answer: “When you can look into the eyes of another and recognize a sister or brother, then truly night is over and dawn has begun.”

At dawn of that very day, Wesley McKinney had found himself staring into the eyes of a police officer.

Along with his partner of 16 years, Philip Gibson, and their cat, Bear, McKinney had been staying nights in the doorway of 150 Grove St., within throwing distance of the Bill Graham Auditorium. Though they’d been sleeping there since Memorial Day weekend, McKinney claimed he’d been told if they spent one more night on the site, their possessions would discarded and the pair of them would be arrested.

He didn’t know where they’d be sleeping that night. But he didn’t seem too concerned.

“God has given me and Phil enough to be happy,” he said. “And that’s good.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.