A few years back, one of my teachers recommended that I volunteer at a local homeless shelter to satisfy the mandatory community service hours that my school required of its high school juniors. I had never been to a homeless shelter, and the idea of spending time at one didn’t seem appealing. In my mind, there was something taboo about shelters and soup kitchens; I viewed them as foreign and distant worlds, places that would force me far beyond my comfort zone. At the time, I was living in a middle class Modern Orthodox Jewish environment, and the fear of the unknown pushed me to contribute to society in other ways. The idea of spending time aiding the country’s poorest of the poor was something that I arrogantly thought wasn’t relevant to me.
Growing up in the Modern Orthodox community, I noticed that many of my peers and I flinched whenever we encountered a homeless person. We often viewed him or her as a fixed spectacle on the streets downtown, and our involvement with those people barely extended beyond a casual greeting with the rugged musician outside of a baseball stadium or local park. I once asked a rabbi why our community hadn’t done more for the homeless, and he responded that he didn’t “know that there was anyone homeless in our community.” But America’s homeless population is significantly larger than many would expect, and I believe that we must begin to see past the confines of our often insular community to recognize this and help.
In an article written in my online publication, one author criticizes our society’s view of the homeless and says, “To us, every homeless person is the same.” For years, my community has subscribed to this warped understanding of our country’s most neglected population, and it has turned a blind eye to some of those in need. Many view the homeless as intellectually inferior or lazy, along with a series of other erroneous prejudgments already deeply ingrained within us. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an American nonprofit aimed at helping those in need, more than 50,000 New Yorkers go homeless each night, which includes a disturbingly high number of 20,000 helpless children. While it claims that approximately 46,000 of the homeless manage to take refuge in the city’s shelter system, there are still many homeless who don’t have the capabilities to get to a shelter. Even more disturbing than these numbers, though, is the fact that the percentage of the population that is homeless has increased dramatically over the past decade.
A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend asked me if I would volunteer with her at a local soup kitchen on the morning of Thanksgiving. When I first heard her request, my stomach sank and a nearly forgotten fear seized me. My instinctual, adolescent antipathy towards the homeless other returned, and I initially agreed to go only because I loved my girlfriend and thought that my willingness to help would mean a lot to her. However, later that night, I sat on my bed and thought more about the opportunity that lay before me. I realized that I would be helping a group of people who desperately needed it, and that thought slowly began to bring me pride.
My girlfriend told me that the highest degree of charity isn’t preparing the food, but speaking to the unfortunate and showing them that there are those who care. The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yitzchak, is recorded to have said, “He who gives a coin to the poor is rewarded with six blessings, but he who encourages them with friendly words is rewarded with eleven.”
The problem of homelessness doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, and a growing population likely means that it will only get worse. Various Orthodox organizations have recently begun to take the problem of homelessness seriously, but much work has yet to be done to combat the damaging stereotypes. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be spending my first day ever in a soup kitchen, and I’m sure that my experience there will be one to remember. Despite how uncomfortable it may make some of us feel to be at those places, the positive emotional impact that we can have on those suffering should far outweigh any irrational discomfort. The homeless are people, too, and I pray that more of our community’s myriad charities can be aimed at helping them. Let us remember the powerful scripture in Genesis regarding the creation of the world, that God created all of humankind divinely, each person in His image.