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Is ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’ OK When It Comes to Acts of Charity?

Mexican chef

I recently found myself chatting about how delivering meals to those in need has in some ways become a new form of “keeping up with the Joneses” in Jewish small-town Baltimore. My friend explained that coming from the Upper West side in Manhattan, there was competition in signing up to deliver meals to people, which appears much more innocent than competition with wealth.

As our conversation developed, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is it actually just innocent? Are doing acts of kindness something we innately do or something we do to show the community that we are worthy of being a part of said community?”

While I don’t personally know people who sign up for meals just to prove something, I did continue to think about the competitive edge. Why does this simple act sometimes feel tainted with a less selfless commitment?

She and I shared that no matter how busy our lives may be, we still feel an intrinsic need to drop everything and sign up to deliver meals if there are community members in need. In Judaism, many people, both religious and non-religious, have the custom of delivering meals to people who have recently given birth, are recovering from an illness, or in mourning.

Coming from Savannah, Ga, a true small town, the concept and experience of community was never something I thought too deeply about or craved. By nature, I simply experienced community. My parents were heavily involved in Jewish life and gave their time and resources to communal affairs. Our family adopted a Russian-speaking family when I was young, traveled to Israel multiple times, and always had a collection of homemade tzedakah boxes on our kitchen window sill. And it seemed like my parents were always at meetings.

While, as a young girl, I was not really exposed to tragedy, loss and the reality of life’s hardships, I was raised to be hyper aware of communal needs and to go beyond caring for our nuclear family. It was ingrained in me that the larger Jewish community was to be considered as family.

Throughout all the places I lived, abroad, and across the country, my life has continuously been about the search for community. Now, nearly 15 years later, having found myself a home in Baltimore, I can begin to say “thank goodness for small-town Baltimore’s Jewish community.” I feel motivated to be a part of a community because it was something I was always searching for.

The craze of working all day, coming home, and preparing food for others in need as well as for  my husband and myself just innately, makes daily and weekly life feel better, more fulfilling and more meaningful. I am surely not suggesting that making meals is entirely altruistic. I definitely get my own satisfaction out of giving back. Perhaps that is selfish.

The conversation I had continues to raise questions, and possibly give some answers, about the ways in which we experience community. Is keeping up with the “JEWISH Jones” a positive value when it comes to kindness (chesed) as opposed to wealth?

I think the answer is yes. If making meals and housing or hosting people for Shabbat is what defines community, then is Baltimore an ideal community? Quite possibly. I personally believe that the more frequently I volunteer to help, the more I am able to go beyond my nuclear family unit and experience the power of giving back to the community.

I continue to explore what it means to live in a community and continue to ponder how and why we give back as a Jewish people to our greater community.


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