Feature: Lessons in humanity

Sick of throwing away most of their evening meals, I decided to take my two young children to volunteer at a soup kitchen.

soup kitchen 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
soup kitchen 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
‘Are the people there going to be naked?” asked my seven-year-old daughter, Gefen, as we made our way into Jerusalem for the first outing of the school’s Pessah vacation.
“No,” I responded, smiling to myself. “They will be wearing clothes.”
“Oh,” she said, staring out the window at the morning traffic almost disinterested by my answer.
I was taking Gefen and her brother Ben, nine, to spend the morning volunteering at one of Jerusalem’s largest soup kitchens, where some 4,500 meals are prepared for needy individuals on a daily basis.
With food aid centers around the country and three industrialized kitchens such as the one in the capital, Hazon Yeshaya provides a huge range of services, from 14,000 hot meals daily and food packages with basic staples (15,000 just on Pessah) to vocational training and free dental care. I was hoping that by spending several hours around those less fortunate, my children would see life in a slightly different way.
The decision to take my pampered, spoiled suburban-raised kids to help out chopping up vegetables and preparing food baskets for the needy ahead of Pessah was derived from a few factors. The first was based on years of scraping half their evening meal into the garbage and from the usual “mother-feeling-unappreciated factor.” The second was the urge as a parent to try and instill some humanity into them, show them that helping others often brings great satisfaction. The final reason, perhaps the most important, was just the need to pry them away from the television set or computer (there had been huge protests over our plans the night before because of this).
“Then what will they be wearing?” piped up Ben, a sensitive soul who had been the most vocal protester about going to volunteer.
“Well,” I answered. “They will most likely not be dressed too differently from you or me. You really can’t tell when someone is poor; they usually don’t like to make it obvious to other people. But even though they might not look poor, those coming to the soup kitchen can’t afford to buy food like we can. This is the only hot meal they’ll have all day.”
I could see he was nervous and would be much more comfortable in his regular zone of the Cartoon Network.
There were a few more questions before we arrived, and I tried to answer them as best I could, not wanting to frighten them too much but making sure that they understood the significance of what we were about to do.
Luckily, Hazon Yeshaya is built on volunteering efforts, its founder and director Avraham Israel explained, and it is fully prepared to ease volunteers, especially the younger ones, into the tasks at hand.
UPON ARRIVAL, we watched an introductory film about the growing poverty in the country – one in three children live below the poverty line – and the expansive work of this humanitarian aid network. The film is based on Avraham Israel’s own experiences as an Egyptian refugee in France. He describes how his family could not make ends meet and they were forced to eat in a soup kitchen on a daily basis. It was this experience that compelled him to set up a similar operation here more than a decade ago after spending his early adult years in the US running a successful business.
The film helped my children understand what we were about to do. They were most touched by seeing the children in the video, young people like themselves enjoying the food prepared for them by this organization.
“Can we come here to eat?” asked Gefen, her eyes opening wide as she noticed the oversized saucepan of spaghetti and meat sauce.
We were already wearing our plastic aprons and rubber gloves in preparation for the next hour of chopping up carrots.
“We are lucky,” I told her. “We don’t need to come here, but it is important that we make this food for those who aren’t as lucky as us.”
“It’s good then that I do not like carrots,” she smiled. “Or I might be tempted to eat them instead!”
As we worked together peeling and chopping our way through an industrial-sized bag of the orange root, Ben, a child of few words, asked: “Can’t we just give them some money?”
“We could,” I answered. “But sometimes it’s nicer to do something real to help others, and for some of the people, if they get only money, they end up spending it on other things beside food such as medicine or bills for the electricity.”
As we worked, the questions from Ben and Gefen kept on coming. I was amazed at how animated they were; it had been a while since I’d seen them so alive. I knew it was because they were away from the TV and computer and not in a mall with the goal to have me buy them a gift. It was because they felt worthwhile helping others.
“HUMAN BEINGS are basically lazy and selfish,” says Dr. Moshe Kaplan, author of the book Be a Mensch – Why Good Character Is the Key to a Life of Happiness, Health, Wealth and Love, and founder of a charity with the same name aimed at instilling basic manners and human compassion into young Israelis, as I relay to him our experiences at the soup kitchen.
“It is in our nature and it is very hard to overcome this,” he continues, adding that from a young age it is important for children to have tangible experiences of what it is like to help others.
“The more you give, the more you get, that is what we should be teaching our children,” adds Kaplan, a veteran immigrant from the US. “They should be experiencing many different kinds of volunteering; it should not just be a one-time thing. If they keep on helping, then it will become part of their consciousness.”
According to Kaplan, the whole world has seen a general increase in antisocial behavior, some brought on by modern technology, such as increased Internet usage and the promotion of violence in the media.
“None of it is good,” he says. “Now we have to work harder to reinforce certain values and create an environment where people are interested in doing nice things for each other. We need to start this process as young as possible.”
Asked how to deal with children who are nervous or negative about helping those less fortunate, Kaplan, who is set to release his book in Hebrew soon, said: “The best way to overcome any fear is to simply experience it, but don’t overdo it.”
Luckily, back at the soup kitchen, we did not have the chance to overdo it because my overprivileged angels tired pretty quickly. After chopping carrots for an hour, we were led to the warehouse to help put together food aid packages.
Ben and Gefen turned the task into a game, carefully counting out the components of each package before tying them up in a plastic bag. I had never seen them get along so well, usually it’s just fighting over the TV remote control or arguing over who got more candy.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” I asked them.
“Oh mommy, it’s so much fun,” exclaimed Gefen, the eternal optimist. “We are going to make people very happy.”
Ben responded: “I liked packing the bags because it made my muscles strong.”
Despite their clear enthusiasm and invitations to stay and help servethe meal we had prepared, after two hours of hard work Ben and Gefenwere ready to go home.
That night, I decided to make them spaghetti and meatballs – the samemeal prepared at the soup kitchen that day – in the hopes it wouldremind them of their volunteering experience.
I hoped that perhaps they would appreciate their food this time andactually clean their plates. But miracles do not happen in a day and,as Kaplan points out, this will just have to be the first of many suchvolunteering experiences.