By Irene Howard-Weitzen
How many times have you heard a young child in a middle-class family beg for a snack, complaining, “I’m starving!” That child has probably never been starving, and, hopefully, never will be. However, this outburst shows a sad truth of our society: that many middle- or upper-class people are uneducated or even indifferent about poverty. Because they have so little experience with it, they tend to underestimate its impact. Pictures and stories can only do so much; they cannot make you stand in their shoes. People pretend to others and to themselves that they understand what the poor are going through, but in actuality they have no idea. As famous author Elie Wiesel once said, “Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present.”
There are people, however, that can say truthfully that they are educated about poverty and have seen it through their own eyes. These people are the people that actually spend their own time to volunteer at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, orphanages, and other charitable organizations. Yes, I know, we all say that we could, we would volunteer, if we only had the time… but alas, our lives are too busy (or so we tell ourselves) to actually put in the effort to help those beneath us. However, there is a group of people for whom charity is not a chore, but a pleasure, and it is on those people that the hope for a caring, educated community lies. These people make it their duty to remember those forgotten by the rest of us and help others to understand the force that drives them to care when others look away.
My hometown, Highland Park, NJ, is only one square-mile in area, yet it has a soup kitchen. My former Hebrew school is very socially active, and the director, Ira Mintz, often would advertise within the school when volunteers or aid was needed in the community, including the soup kitchen. In fact, he felt so strongly for this cause that he celebrated his 50th birthday at a local soup kitchen and organized about 40 volunteers, including my mother, to load boxes with food for distribution.
My family celebrates the High Holidays at a synagogue up in Woodstock, NY, where we also spend our summers. Every year the youth program organizes a massive food drive. These teenagers spend their own time distributing bags and flyers, collecting full bags, loading trucks, and driving them to wherever the food is needed. These kids truly understood what Jack Riemer said in his well-known poem:
We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If only we could use them wisely.
Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely to pray
To become instead of merely to wish;
That our world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
If only every community had a younger generation that was this caring, maybe they could inspire the adults.
As part of the eighth-grade curriculum, there is a class called community service. Each week we do something to help out the community, such as volunteering at a daycare center for underprivileged kids, cleaning up a park, or playing music on the street to raise money for cancer research. One week we walked to the grocery store, bought huge amounts of peanut butter, jelly, ham, cheese, and bread, and made our way to the local homeless shelter. There we made sandwiches and chatted with the people there. Some were sick and worn out, and simply needed a loving touch and a kind word. Others would brighten immediately and enthusiastically chatter on about their youth or life in general.
They had the most amazing stories to tell! These were people that had had the hardest life you can imagine, yet they somehow found the strength to tell about the daughter that had had a child before she was 16, or the kind old storeowner who would always save some bread and fruit for the hungry children that passed by. Needless to say, I was very moved, and began to see these people for what they really were: not poor people, not ignorant, uneducated people, not desperate people, but simply people. They were simply mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters that were trying to make the best of what they had.
One Wednesday before Thanksgiving, about two years ago, I did something that I will never forget. It was a cold, rainy day, and I was running for a train. I reached the station and waved to Ronnie, a man that owns a small fruit and vegetable shop in the station. I suddenly had a thought. I was going to go home and have a feast with family and friends at my warm dry house, but there were plenty of people that did not have that opportunity. Without a second thought, I loaded up a shopping bag with broccoli, squash, cranberries, potatoes, yams, and other vegetables. I then paid for the food, hid my backpack and coat, grabbed the bag, and ran. I ran, without a coat, in the freezing rain, for eight city blocks to get to the homeless shelter. There I breathlessly handed them the bag, and commenced to racing back to the station. By the time I got back, I was dripping wet, freezing, and exhausted, but exhilarated. I had missed my train, but made a difference.