In a long life of quiet good deeds that generally go unnoticed except by the individuals on the receiving end, Isaac Theil, 65, had no hidden agenda last Thursday when he felt his neighbor on the Brooklyn-bound Q train nod off on his shoulder, and then let him sleep soundly there for the better part of the next hour.
A fellow passenger, taken by this scene, was further struck when Theil politely declined his offer to rouse the dozing straphanger. “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?” said Theil. The astounded passenger took a furtive photograph, posted it with an accompanying caption on Reddit, and the rest, as they say, is social media history: the photo quickly made its way through the blogosphere and garnered over one million “likes” and nearly 200,000 shares on Facebook.
“The whole thing was happenstance, and I simply remembered the times my own head would bop on someone’s shoulder because I was so tired after a long day,” Theil recounted, sounding bewildered by his sudden catapult into viral Internet fame. The still-unidentified young man remained fast asleep as the train pulled into Newkirk Avenue, Theil’s usual point of departure, and Theil gently eased him off his shoulder before exiting. “When I got off the subway, I didn’t give it a second thought.”
It was Theil’s sister in Montreal, Pam Russ, who called him early the next morning to let him know he appeared in an online photo; her eagle-eyed son had spotted his uncle and quickly alerted family members. Before long, the phone calls poured in from family and friends who were seeing it everywhere. When Theil arrived at shul for Shabbat the next day, the rabbi gave him a huge smile and two thumbs up before making his way over to praise his Kiddush Hashem.
“Who lets a random stranger sleep on his shoulder in germ-filled New York City?” asked Theil’s 32-year-old daughter Helah. “But this is just typical of Dad.”
Other family members, friends, and neighbors corroborated Helah’s observation of her father’s penchant for doing good deeds in his typically unassuming manner; many shared their experiences with these acts of kindness online. Yehuda Jason Schupper, a neighbor of Theil’s younger daughter Shira, 27, shared the time his wife was waiting outside for an ambulance to take their daughter to the emergency room after an accidental injury. “Mr. Thiel observed my frantic wife and though he knew her only in passing, immediately offered to drive her to the hospital and then did so,” he wrote.
“Isaac’s lovely act of graciousness towards a stranger on the train is emblematic of the life that he leads and behavior that he strives for,” said Orlee Zorbaron, a close relative. “He is a kind and generous person who takes to heart the Jewish tenet of ‘do unto others,’” she added.
Pnina Rudy, a longtime family friend, said that in the 20-plus years she’s known him, “Mr. Theil has always taken a genuine interest in people and asks how they’re doing because he really wants to know, and not because he’s fulfilling some pat obligation to make small talk.”
Even Helah’s ex-husband, Yehuda Feldman, speaks kindly of him; maintaining warm relationships to ex in-laws might be the most irrefutable evidence to Theil’s all-around likeability factor.
“Despite the fact that I am no longer married to his daughter, Isaac made sure to let me know that he would always be there for me if I ever needed anything,” Feldman said. “Needless to say, this attitude is not very common in cases of divorce.”
Elad Nehorai, a popular blogger who runs Pop Chassid, was the one who pulled the photo from Reddit and first posted it on Facebook. As the director of marketing for Charidy, a startup dedicated to reinventing the way people support charities, Nehorai is always on the lookout for things to post on social media that foster communal goodwill. “I thought the photo was a perfect fit as soon as I saw it, though I had no way of knowing if it would take off,” he explained. “Clearly, people have responded, and I think it’s small moments like this one, which are easily captured and spread across the Internet, that help to restore people’s faith in humanity amid the terrible news stories that we’re bombarded with on a frequent basis.”
Of course, the Internet also invites remarks from those who are more small-minded, and several commentators have offered up their worst racial assumptions about the image. Others have taken offense to the photo caption’s references to the religion and race of the two men, as though that was what made the story so compelling.
“Maybe the photo wouldn’t have become so popular if people weren’t seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two,” theorized Theil. “But there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”
Theil jokes that his 15 minutes of viral fame are almost up, but he gets serious when he says that what he hopes people remember is not him so much as the opportunity to help the next person out, whether it’s on the subway or elsewhere. “I would love for people to use this as a lesson to just be good to each other.”
Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. She is a contributing blogger at Kveller.com.
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.