The Master of Empathy

About five times a year something unexpected happened at the small Jewish day school I attended as a young girl in Pittsburgh; something that taught me empathy. There was a rabbi who would come to school unannounced seeking students to accompany him to an old age home or perhaps a facility for young adults with intellectual disabilities. The students were meant to spend time with these people: to sing to them or talk with them, perhaps—anything to lift their spirits.

None of the school administrators dared stop Rabbi Leib Heber from pulling kids out of class. No one said no to him. And EVERY student wanted to go with him because for one thing, it meant playing hooky with permission. And what student doesn’t want a decent excuse to get out of school?

The real truth of the matter is that we all felt better after going with Rabbi Heber to visit the elderly, kids with disabilities, and others forced to live an institutional life. We felt we’d done something GOOD—something valuable and kind. It did something for our souls. It taught us empathy.

A Necessary Deed

I never forgot Rabbi Heber and the example he set. He was always organizing amazing community events no one had ever attempted, things like group bar mitzvahs for the deaf. We’d read about these events in the local Jewish newspaper. Rabbi Heber could have wooed rich congregants and chased after honor. But he did none of those things. He helped the disenfranchised in a quiet, matter of fact manner. He did this because he thought it was important and because it was a necessary deed that awaited doing.

More important, he taught the students of Hillel Academy empathy for those with limitations and disabilities. That’s no small thing. No one is born with empathy. It’s something taught by example alone. It’s a value absorbed by imitation.

Empathy Personified

I’ve been lucky enough to parent 12 children. As they made their way through their school years, I always wished for a Rabbi Heber. But he was one of a kind. No one ever showed up at my kids’ schools to take them out to come in contact with the less fortunate up close and personal. That meant it was all up to me to light the way. Not such a problem—after all I DID have a Rabbi Heber as a kid, so I knew just what to do–knew just how to teach my children about empathy.

Today, I think of Rabbi Heber whenever I note someone in my community that might need a helping hand: one my children might provide. I think of him when I come in contact with people who have differences of one sort or another and it informs my behavior. At all times I’m aware that children are watching and learning, even children not my own, just as I watched and learned from the master of empathy, Rabbi Heber.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Sheila Gorbacz says

    I remember rabbi Heber. I also remember going to sing and greet the elderly people. It was rather hard at times. Many were lonely and sick . They would hold us with their bony fingers and smile from ear to ear. I think we would walk away with mixed emotions, confused, happy, and even sad. We grew from these experiences. I always encouraged my children to participate and volunteer for these kind of trips. Rabbi Heber was a very special person. Thank you for remembering such a good hearted man. He not only helped the elderly, and the developmentally disabled, he was their friend and family. He also helped us go out of our comfort zone. This is a beautiful article. May rabbi Heber’s memory and good deeds be a blessing for us all.

  2. Varda says

    Amen. May his memory be a blessing.
    That was a beautiful tribute you just wrote, Sheila. Now I’m wondering who’s the real writer here??

  3. Susan Wolf says

    Rabbi Heber sounds like a wonderful man. However, B”H I am happy to say that my children also benefitted from many similar experiences at Orot Etzion and the various high schools they attended. Not only are the kids encouraged to volunteer, but they also visited the seniors and had shabatonim with those that are different from them. I could go on and on listing the various activites but suffice it to say that there was no shortage of opportunities for chesed, both in school and after.

  4. Varda says

    Hi Susan, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. My kids attended Orot Etzion and I don’t recall any such volunteer experiences offered under school auspices. The closest thing I remember was when my children were nursery school and sang for the seniors. One of the seniors later told me how much the seniors hated these things: listening to little kids who weren’t even their grandchildren. Clearly, this effort missed the mark.

    I don’t mean to criticize, but I just haven’t seen this sort of effort repeated in my children’s schools here. Beit Yaakov had a volunteer program when my eldest was a student in high school. But there was very little guidance.

  5. aharonnoach Grossman says

    Thank you so much for your wonderful piece regarding my Zaidy.
    I remember visiting him and Bubby on Phillips street in Squirel Hill.
    One my fondest childhood memories, was helping my Bubby prepare hundreds of kosher salami sandwiches for Zaidy to distribute to his “children”, in the institutions that you accompanied him to.
    Aharon Noach Grossman

  6. Varda says

    How wonderful to see your comment here, Aharon Noach! I’m so glad you found your way here and got to see my piece on your amazing Zaidy.

    I thank you for sharing your sandwich-making memories. This adds so much to the story of a man who was surely a tzaddik. May his memory be a blessing for us all.

  7. Brocha Chana Heber Metzger says

    I really enjoyed your piece on my Zaidy Heber. I remember going to those “homes” with him. I must have been 8-12 years old – cowering in the car – afraid of the people who were “different” . It was older when I was older and zaidy was gone that I really learned to appreciate what he did for these lost souls.
    I, too, recall helping Bubby pack huge stacks of kosher sandwiches for Zaidy to bring to the patients.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Brocha Chana Heber Metzger

    • Varda Epstein says

      What a lovely note, Brocha Chana. I’m only just now seeing this. May his memory be a blessing!