Smile at a stranger: Kindness is what the world needs most

    Who doesn’t love a good kindness story? If you can’t get enough of those viral videos where the kindergarten children surprise the janitor with a gift, or everybody in the workplace chips in to buy one of their co-workers a car, then February 17th is the holiday for you. It’s officially Random Acts of Kindness Day — a day when we’re encouraged to smile at a stranger, or buy a coffee for the person behind us in line, and help make the world a kinder, better place.

    Fox 8 Cleveland

    Thanks to the polar vortex, many people in the Midwest have already made a start. In Chicago, real estate developer Candice Payne paid for 20 hotel rooms to help homeless people escape the cold — an act that prompted a group of strangers to end up funding 60 rooms. In Cleveland, Ohio, residents have been attaching warm clothes to a “wall of love” for homeless people. And in the UK, which has been hit by its own freezing conditions, the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall opened its doors to let 140 people bed down for the night after they were stranded in the snow.

    Acts of Loving-kindness — G’milut chasadim

    Of course, we shouldn’t need a designated day, or even a polar vortex, to prompt an act of kindness. While the notion gained popular currency in the mid-’90s through the efforts of Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, it’s been a central tenet of Judaism for centuries. Our religion was pretty much founded on the concept. In Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers), Shimon the Righteous says, “The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of G-d, and upon acts of loving-kindness.” Sticking with the rule of three, the Talmud states, “Three signs identify this [the Jewish] people: they are merciful, they are modest, they perform deeds of loving-kindness.”

    What might these acts include? While charity is just about giving money, g’milut chasadim requires you to give of yourself and your time — and voluntarily, too. Visiting the sick counts as g’milut chasadim, as does offering hospitality to travelers. Unlike charity, you can show kindness to the rich as well as the poor; and to the dead as well as the living. Burying the dead is considered to be one of the greatest examples of g’milut chasadim.

    Practicing kindness is good for you

    While acts of loving-kindness are good for the soul — essential, in fact — they have plenty of other benefits too. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which was established in 1995 and offers resources for schools and aspiring “Raktivists”, cites a stack of scientific research. Not only has practicing kindness been found to lower blood pressure, but it’s also been linked to an increase in the feel-good chemical serotonin, and could even make you feel stronger and more energetic.

    So why wait until February 17th to bring a little extra change to the coffee shop? When you buy that latte for a customer you never met before, you’ll not only be making their day, you’ll feel a whole lot better to boot. And don’t forget to hold the door open for that mom struggling with her stroller on your way out.

    Susannah Cohen is a fashion journalist, e-commerce editor (specialist subjects: lingerie and diamonds) and Jewish mom. Recently relocated from London to the West Coast, she’s feeling a lot more spiritual these days.