Providing Food, Clothing, and Shelter

Jewish communal institutions address the problems of the poor, but individual efforts still make a crucial difference to many in need.

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Over the generations, the three actions most associated with gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness) have been feeding the hungry, clothing those in need, and providing shelter for the homeless.

According to Jewish law, if a beggar approaches you on the street, and asks you for money, you are not required to give. The only time you must respond to his request is if he asks for food. Then you must feed him. Even if he is wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, a Rolex and blue suede shoes, his request must be met.

As a people with a strong tradition of providing for indigents within their own community, Jews feel that one hallmark of any healthy Jewish community is its ability to care for its poor. They may not be the most visible members of the Jewish community, but they are there. The elderly and single parents form two substantial demographic groups that often need support. And Jewish communities, by and large, do this well. They may even serve as models for many others to emulate. That is why we have hospitals, nursing homes, family and vocational services all sponsored by the Jewish community.

We would be mistaken however, if we thought those institutions released us from our own individual obligation to help. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ideally, each person should be aware of his or her surroundings and find ways to help those who are hungry. There are people starving in the most affluent communities. It is the individual who makes the difference.

The stories are as many as they are varied. Clara Hammer is known as the "Chicken Lady of Jerusalem." One Friday morning, waiting for her Shabbat meat order in the butcher shop, she noticed a small girl take a bag of chicken necks, skin and gizzards from the butcher. When asked, her butcher told her that both the girl's parents were out of work. They had no credit left. The butcher gave them the discarded offal from the shop so that they could at least make a soup. Clara ordered the butcher to take care of them, at her own expense. Twenty plus years later, Clara helps hundreds of families in similar situations--all because she refused to hide her eyes.

Syd Mandelbaum loves rock music. He noticed that all the leftover catered food prepared for the bands and their roadies at their concerts was thrown out. His project, "Rock and Wrap It Up" convinced Aerosmith, Santana, Hootie and the Blowfish, and many others to provide food for shelters all over the United States.

School lunch programs are notorious for their leftovers. David Levitt arranged for the entire state of Florida to mandate its school lunch leftovers be sent to food pantries.

Ranya Kelly was looking for a box in back of a strip mall. She found 500 pairs of shoes discarded by a local shoe store. When she brought the shoes to a homeless shelter she realized how much good she could do by supplying discarded shoes to those without. Hundreds of thousands of shoes later--she is still on the job.

Clara, Syd, Ranya and David did not start out to change the world, just their little portion of it. Clara was moved by the incongruity of a six-year-old girl carrying a bag of chicken offal. Syd was moved by the contrast between the beauty of music and the ugliness of discarding good food. David just wanted to know where the leftovers went. Ranya could not let 500 pairs of shoes go to waste.

In Pirkei Avot (the Mishnah tractate whose name probably means "Primary Principles") we are taught that "It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we allowed to desist from it."  Nowhere do we see greater evidence of the truth of this axiom than in gemilut hasidim. We learn in the book of Deuteronomy that "There will always be poor in your midst."  Perhaps we cannot eradicate the problem, but the Jewish tradition nevertheless mandates that we fight it.

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Rabbi Steven Bayar

Steven Bayar received his bachelor's degree and a masters in religious studies from the University of Virginia and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He serves as rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, N.J., and is the author of Teens & Trust (Torah Aura), Ziv/Giraffe Curriculum (Righteous Persons), and Tikkun Olam (KTAV), & is co-founder of Ikkar Publishing.