By Yvette Alt Miller | Kveller
It’s been decades since I ordered food at a McDonald’s. I’ve kept kosher since I was 18 and, outside of Israel, at least, Mickey D’s is decidedly treif.
Except the other day, I found myself entering and ordering a decidedly nonkosher cheeseburger and fries.
To be clear, the food wasn’t for me. After months of sheltering in place in my suburban neighborhood, I could no longer put off a downtown appointment. So I headed to Chicago’s central business district. It felt like something out of a dystopian movie. There were no masses of people hurrying along the wide avenues; gone were the tourists that stopped foot traffic as they gaped at skyscrapers. Homeless people seemed to be the largest contingent I saw. On most corners I passed, there were several.
“Can you help me out?” one implored. Another asked for money, saying he was cold and wet and needed help. The amount of need felt so overwhelming that at first I rushed past them all, ignoring their pleas.
Then, just before I boarded a train back to the suburbs, I asked myself why I hadn’t helped. After all, I had cash on me. Just then, I was approached by a skinny man about my age who asked for help.
“Sure, I can help you,” I said as I reached for my wallet.
“I don’t want your money,” he responded. “Can you buy me a meal instead?”
“Of course,” I replied, trying to mask my shock as it occurred to me that as I almost rushed by, there was a human standing here hungry. I asked him where he wanted to go, and he led me to a nearby McDonald’s, one of the few restaurants still open.
My new acquaintance ordered a cheeseburger. Before I paid, I hesitated.
“Why don’t you order dinner, too, for later?” I asked. He ordered Chicken McNuggets and some sides. I swiped my credit card: a total of $16 for providing a day’s worth of food.
“God bless you — you’re the only one who stopped,” he told me.
In a time of such enormous need, his words broke my heart. After all, the pandemic has decimated the economy. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that about one-fourth of Americans have had trouble paying their bills in the past seven months. Demand at food banks has risen at an “extraordinary rate,” according to The New York Times, and up to 14% of U.S. parents say their children are not getting enough to eat.
“The number of families having difficulty affording food has exploded during COVID-19,” the nonpartisan Center on Budget Policy and Priorities recently noted.
Each week, a food pantry near my home offers drive-through food assistance. The line is long and filled with late-model minivans. Just a few months ago, many of these people would never have imagined being in this position. But jobs have been eliminated, salaries cut and workers furloughed.
In this unprecedented moment, it’s wonderful that many Jewish institutions are redoubling their efforts to help those in need. But are we, as Jewish individuals and families, doing the same?
Judaism mandates giving charity: The Talmud goes into great detail about the obligations we have to help others, declaring “Charity is equivalent to all the other mitzvot combined.” The Jewish mitzvah of maaser kesafim instructs us to donate a portion of our income to charity.
For many of us, performing this mitzvah feels like an impossible ideal. But perhaps it’s finally time for us to have a difficult conversation about our attitudes to giving charity and to the poor. Over the years, I’ve heard some troubling comments reflecting a profound reluctance to help others. A friend once told me she didn’t donate her children’s castoffs to charity because she didn’t believe in helping people bear “children they can’t afford.” A 10-year-old student in one of my Sunday school classes was taken aback one day when we learned that the Jewish sage Maimonides taught that the highest form of charity was giving a poor person a job.
“But poor people don’t want to work,” she said, no doubt echoing what she’d heard at home. “That’s why they’re poor!”
Unsurprisingly, the reality is very different: A report in October from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the overwhelming majority of unemployed workers expressed hope of finding another job soon.
These attitudes have long been a problem, but today they’re a crisis that we can’t ignore. We need to rediscover the central Jewish tenet of charity more than ever. When people can no longer feed themselves — when people are begging on street corners, wracked by hunger and asking for succor — we have no choice but to step up and help.
It’s time for us as a community to step up to the plate and, if we are in a position to help, increase our charitable giving. Reach out to your local synagogue, JCC or Jewish Federation and ask what they’re doing to help people in your community. If you feel they’re not doing enough, urge them to do more, and consider volunteering. Contribute to emergency relief funds. Donate to established charities. And remember, too, that tzedakah isn’t always made up of money — if funds are tight, we can also help by donating time and expertise.
A few weeks ago, if you had asked me whether there was more I could do to help, I might have said no. I already donate between 10% and 20% of our income to charity. I might have said I was maxed out — I certainly would never have thought I’d be paying an impromptu visit to McDonald’s. But there’s always more we can do.
Judaism teaches that we are each here to fulfill a specific set of tasks that only we can perform and for which we’re given the precise, individual tools we require. Let this be our moment to shine. Let this pandemic be our time to step up and start helping our fellow men and women in their hours of need.