When I moved to Placerville, California, several years ago, I became involved with the homeless community—which averaged about 60 people—volunteering wherever I found opportunities.

Once a month, I planned a lunch, shopping, cooking and delivering it to various locations. During the winter months, when various churches hosted an overnight shelter, I worked the graveyard shift once a week. Through these activities, I met Elliot, one of the homeless people in Placerville.

Elliot was a pleasant and friendly guy, though very picky with his food. He would always look at what I was offering that day for lunch before accepting it. And he much preferred a cash donation so that he could buy his own meals.

It wasn't about until a year after meeting Elliot that I found out that he was Jewish, and that his name was Elliot Cohen. Although my Jew-radar failed me, the connection that Jews have when they find another Jew kicked in, and I tried to reach out in a more personal and meaningful way to Elliot.

Elliot was a solitary individual, and for the most part did not hang out with the other homeless people. He had his spot on Broadway where he could be found rain or shine, and shirtless in the summer, listening to music on his earphones.

Elliot was a fixture, and so many people grew to know and love him. He was a kind person, and I don't believe I ever saw him in a bad mood.

After getting kicked out of the park where he would sleep, he would sneak back in and sleep on the floor of the bathroom, preferring the women's to the men's as it was cleaner. He also slept behind stores, in the area set aside for trash.

I heard people speaking of his demons. Of course, I don't know, nor do any of us, what issues Elliot wrestled with. I do know that he appeared happy and content with the life he led, which is a lot more than I can say about many people in their comfortable homes with their lawns and their fences.

But living on the streets is not an easy life. A friend told me that last winter Elliot asked to sit in her car for a bit, as he was so cold.

Elliot had no apparent interest in religion, although he was proud to be a Jew, and had been to Israel. A very private person, he was not all that forthcoming with information, but I was able to find out where he had been born and raised, and where he had lived in the recent past. I surreptitiously took a photo of Elliot, and with the help of Rabbi Grossbaum of the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Folsom, wrote a letter to various Jewish communities on Long Island, trying to find his family. Often families want to know the whereabouts of their missing family members, and I hoped to be able to connect Elliot with his.

I was not successful.

When Elliot died, his autopsy determined that he died from heart disease. It turned out that his father had died from the same disease at about the same age.

The Sheriff's Department was able to locate Elliot’s family and notified them of his death. I then heard parts of Elliot's story from his brother. Originally from the Bronx, Elliot grew up on Long Island and enjoyed a pretty normal childhood, along with his younger brother and sister. He loved playing sports and following sports, and later on, chasing girls.

Elliot with his two younger siblings.
Elliot with his two younger siblings.

He got good grades in school, but instead of attending college, he chose to join the navy. He was trained to work on a nuclear submarine, but after two years he was discharged, and his journey into mental illness began.

Over the years, he had traveled to Israel, Las Vegas and California, slowly losing contact with his family. The last time he had contact with them, a phone call with his mother, was nine years ago.

When I was told that Elliot had been found dead on the sidewalk in his sleeping bag, I immediately notified Rabbi Grossbaum of Chabad in Folsom. After some hard work, the rabbi was able to arrange a Jewish burial for Elliot in Folsom, as opposed to the regular practice of cremating indigent people.

Rabbi Grossbaum posted a fundraiser on Facebook to cover the $2,000 necessary, and I was blown away by the response. Fifty-six individuals donated well over that amount in just three days, and these were people who were not in Placerville, and they did not know Elliot. They were Jews from around the country, and they stepped up so that a Jew could have an appropriate burial.

Thirty people attended Elliot's burial, including Jews from Sacramento who wanted to honor him and make sure there was a minyan.

A local church put on a beautiful and moving memorial service for Elliot. It was standing room only. Various people shared their memories of Elliot, and an honor guard gave his brother a folded flag, as Elliot was a veteran.

I am writing this in honor of Elliot, and also to remind everyone: When we see homeless people on the streets, we don't know their circumstances, or what led them to live that kind of life, but they are all sons or daughters of someone, and often they are also parents or sibling or friends. It is not for us to judge them; we do not know their life's curriculum. But we can treat them with kindness, respect, compassion and generosity, as befits all of G‑d's children.

Zichrono livrachah. May Elliot’s memory be for a blessing.

Elliot's funeral service.
Elliot's funeral service.