Compassionate teenager wants to do the right thing

In nearly every respect, Mikey Greene is a typical American teenager. He's into basketball, football, soccer, music and video games. He occasionally cops an attitude with his parents. He sometimes fights with his older brother. An ordinary kid.

Except, he's not.

As his 14th birthday approaches, Greene, an eighth-grader at Miller Creek Middle School near his San Rafael home, continues his nearly yearlong commitment to helping the homeless.

It all started when he decided to do something charitable with some of his bar mitzvah gift money.

"I knew I would do something…I didn't know what, but I felt an obligation, being a Jew," he said. "I chose the homeless, and became involved with a homeless chaplaincy."

He began by buying a bunch of $5 scrip certificates from Safeway, bringing them to a homeless shelter and handing them out. "I talked to the people, I met them. This one woman just started crying. I think it touched them. It was very emotional. They've been through a lot of stuff."

Since then, Greene and his family began regularly attending a monthly luncheon for the homeless, sponsored by his congregation, Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, in conjunction with the Interfaith Chaplaincy in Marin. Once a month, a local pastor brings a group of homeless people to the synagogue for a hot lunch.

"I wanted to stay involved," said Greene. "I felt it was the right thing to do. I felt close to these people and I wanted to keep the relationship going."

His desire to help those less fortunate was not born in a vacuum. He was raised in that kind of a family.

"My family keeps a tzedakah box," he said. "I got to choose where the money would go. I chose to buy the Safeway scrip again. I plan to stay involved. I definitely plan to go to the luncheon every month. It's just something I wouldn't miss."

His mother, Joanne Greene, is understandably proud of her son, though not surprised.

"He's very caring," she said. "He feels a connection to these people. Sometimes the same people come back [to the luncheon] and sometimes they don't, and he meets new people. There's something very real about these people, and about this experience for him, and he responds to authenticity. He feels good when he's being compassionate with people."

Her son, she added, has "committed to going every month for a year."

Sometimes, the lessons Mikey and his family learn from the experience come in unexpected ways.

Recently, his mother said, "there was this one new guy at the luncheon, who seemed really agitated. We learned he had left his coat in a free dining room, with his medications in the pockets. He was very upset. These were his pain medications, his diabetes medication.

"So I offered to drive him back there, and Mikey immediately offered to come with me. It turned out to be a real adventure, but we finally tracked the coat down. The guy was so incredibly grateful. It was a really good experience for Mikey, to really be involved with somebody's life for an hour. It was very real."

Now her son "isn't Mr. Perfect, by any means," she said, but "he is very compassionate.

"He doesn't feel superior to anyone, just more privileged, and that's great. We try to share a little bit of what we have."

Mikey also attends services and religious school at Rodef Sholom, "where right now we're learning about the different levels of Judaism," he said.

As for the future, he wants to "do something special. I hope to make a difference in the world — to do something for someone."

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Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."