Every spring, I lead my second grade Hebrew school class on a short walk from our synagogue to a neighboring church that hosts a soup kitchen. We deliver the nonperishable foods we have been collecting all year as our class mitzvah project. We then tour the facility and learn about the many services offered like healthcare, counseling, classes, and Internet.
Each year, the director of the charity explains that the individuals who seek assistance at this warm house of worship are referred to and treated as guests, since we are all worthy of respect regardless of our circumstances. The atmosphere conveys this same sentiment–with flowers adorning the set tables much like a restaurant. A jovial group of volunteers prepares meals with assistance from a dietitian using largely organic foods, conscious that indigent people desperately need extra nourishment for their health.
I am grateful we have the opportunity to visit this special place. The kitchen puts a face on hunger in our own community and illustrates to my young students how easy it is to make a difference in the lives of others.
But I was less than enthusiastic about taking my class to this soup kitchen my first visit. I, like most people I assume, have no trouble donating food, but interacting with people who are truly in need means witnessing their struggle. Selfishly I preferred to avoid this heavy burden. I also feared that I would say or do the wrong things. And above all, I worried about the safety of my students in what I anticipated would be a glum, possibly dangerous environment.
My students, on the other hand, have always appeared perfectly at ease in the setting, asking questions and excitedly offering to volunteer to cook as soon as they are old enough. Perhaps at their age, they have no preconceived notions of people in need, so they dive in headfirst.
Teaching gives me much cause to reflect on my own situation. After a divorce, a few bad choices, and a series of misfortunes over the last few years, my lifestyle has changed significantly. Though we are struggling now, I do not consider myself poor. Instead, I prefer to use the word broke regarding my current financial situation, because it implies a temporary state of being with the potential for upward mobility. Poor, on the other hand is limited. I am educated and healthy–and I also know that if the situation gets really desperate, I have people I can count on to help me. I am fortunate, unlike others.
But, asking for help SUCKS. It is humiliating and frowned upon in our society. I suppose that is also why I struggled on that first visit. A part of me thinks that asking for help is failure.
This past year I have found help in the form of two young girls who come to my house for one glorious hour every Tuesday. During this brief time, they assist with homework and engage our boys as I race through the house changing sheets, sweeping floors, and gathering the garbage before cooking a “real” meal. These girls, who the boys adore, have made this weekly commitment as their mitzvah project for their bat mitzvahs.
In the near future, our beloved helpers will stand on the bimah and share with their congregation how they spend an hour each week caring for children so a working mom can do housework. As their time with us comes to an end, however, I fear that their mitzvah project will be met with less admiration than some of their peers who have taken on more grandiose endeavors. I hope this is not the case, because they have made a huge impact on our world.
During the girls’ visit this past week, I overheard one of them say that the house was chilly. I apologized and explained that our heater has died and with the house in foreclosure and no means to fix it, we are making do for now. Besides, spring is finally here, and hopefully we have seen the last of the cold weather. I imagined what the girls must think of this single mom who cannot afford to make repairs on her home.
At this transitional period in their lives, as they become adults in the eyes of the Jewish community, are they judging me like I judged the guests in the church on that first visit, or do they still see the world through the same innocent lens as my young students?
However they see me…one thing is for certain: I am their soup kitchen, and I am trying to make peace with that.