There was radiant spring sunshine on April 29, when Laura Schroff told her story to a gathering in Whippany, a dramatic contrast to the gray, rainy day when it all began, in 1986.
On that day almost 30 years ago, she encountered a hungry 11-year-old panhandler, neglected by his parents and the world around him. She was stopped in her tracks by his words, “I’m hungry.”
“It was the first time I’d ever seen a child on his own with his hand out,” Schroff told the audience at the annual Women’s Awareness Day. The event at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus, hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, drew around 350 people.
Schroff went back to the boy and offered him a meal at McDonald’s, and asked if she could sit with him. It was a lunch date that launched a steady relationship. They would come to meet weekly, to share stories and advice that changed both their lives.
Now, at 41, that boy, Maurice, has a good job, a happy marriage, and seven children of his own. The benefits have been two-way. Their ongoing friendship, the former advertising executive said, has enriched her life in ways she never anticipated.
“I had always dreamed of having a family of my own, but that apparently wasn’t meant to be,” said Schroff, the author, with Alex Tresniowski, of The Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny. “But through Maurice, I found meaning and purpose and love.”
Having come from an abusive, alcoholic home herself, she said, she learned to appreciate what that home did provide — so much more than this child’s, and to forgive her parents for their shortcomings.
“Maurice and I were destined to meet,” she said.
Connections like that are also what the Women’s Philanthropy is about, Schroff commented. “The power and dedication of this group is truly incredible,” she said. She urged them to persist, and — for their own sake — to grasp every chance to “throw a lifeline to those in need, or grab one that is thrown to you.”
The tissue count was high even before Schroff spoke. It started with Danyelle Neuman, who made aliya from New York to Israel three years ago and is now managing director of fund-raising and resource development for the Jewish Agency for Israel.
She talked about the agency’s work with Jews around the world and described a turning point in her own life: While heading back to the States after a visit to Israel in 2011, her plane was delayed because the pilot refused to take off until he had heard whether Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for five years, was safely back on Israeli soil.
“Everyone sat quietly waiting,” Neuman said. “And that’s when I knew I belonged in Israel.”
The event, cochaired by Lisa Olender and Eve Sorkin, was underwritten in part by the Maxine Fischer Memorial Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Fischer’s daughter Taryn Glassman, attending with her own daughter, described the connection that still binds her so powerfully to her mother, a community activist who died of colon cancer 26 years ago.
Glassman recalled how Maxine saw service to others and friendship as “the true meaning of a fulfilled life” and pursued both of those passions with intrepid determination. Her mother, she said, was “rich in friends in good times and bad. She was an amazing woman whose life was cut way too short.”