Opinion | We need to step up our charitable giving during the pandemic

Yvette Alt Miller
Yvette Alt Miller (Courtesy via JTA)

By Yvette Alt Miller | JTA

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 neighbor-hood, I could no longer put off a downtown appoint-ment. So the other day I headed to Chicago’s central business district. It felt like something out of a dystopian movie. The typical afternoon crowds had disappeared: There were no masses of people hurrying along; gone were the packs of tourists. There was also hardly any litter — even the alleyways were eerily clean.

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 that would take me back to the suburbs, I asked myself why I hadn’t helped anyone. After all, I had some cash on me: Why hadn’t I given any out? 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’d given plenty of money to beggars in my life, but nobody had ever asked me to buy them food directly. I asked him where he wanted to go, and he led me to a nearby McDonald’s, one of the few restaurants that was still open.

My new acquaintance ordered a cheeseburger. Before I paid, I hesitated.

“Why didn’t he 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 coronavirus pandemic has decimated the U.S. economy — as well as much of the world’s. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that about one-fourth of Americans have had trouble paying their bills over 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 American parents now say their children are not getting enough to eat.

I’d like to say that the American Jewish community has stepped up to help. And, in many ways, Jewish institutions have indeed pledged funds to alleviate the worst effects of the pandemic. But are we, as Jewish individuals and families, doing the same?

Judaism mandates giving charity: The Talmud goes into great detail about the many obligations we have to help others, declaring “Charity is equivalent to all the other mitzvot combined” (Talmud Bava Batra 9a). The Jewish mitzvah of “maaser kesafim” instructs us to donate a portion of our income to charity. Rabbis through the ages interpreted this to mean that we should donate at least a tenth of our income to charity.

Perhaps now 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 report in October from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the overwhelming majority of unemployed workers —  7.2 million — expressed hope of finding another job soon. That number was substantially higher than before the pandemic hit.

In a world buffeted by recession and sudden destitution, 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.

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.

Yvette Alt Miller has worked as a professor of international relations, a trade analyst for the U.S. government and in public affairs.

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