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Soup Kitchen Chaos

Soup Kitchen Chaos

We are all hungry for something.

by

On a recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to spend time volunteering in a soup kitchen. I peeled industrial size sacks of potatoes, filling pots larger than a baby bathtub. I felt a giddy satisfaction.

When the lunch hour began I was transferred to the 'dining hall', a room with a dozen lunchroom style tables and a crowd of hungry people. It was my job to hand out the lunch trays to the waiting throng of diners, while others waited in line to collect food to take home for Shabbos.

A chaotic scene ensued. The smell of chicken, rice, potatoes and salad mingled with the heat of bodies pushing to get their food. I was instructed to give trays only to those who were seated. Not enough seats, hungry bellies and a pushy crowd soon landed a tray of salad on the head of a young girl at my side. Not only did this child have to endure the embarrassment of collecting food for her family, her hair was now a mess of cucumber and tomatoes. Tears welled in her eyes as I helped to smooth her hair.

"Zeh beseder, motek, it's okay sweetie," I assured her. But it didn't feel that way to me. An increasing band of tension stretched up my back circling my temples and tightening like a vice around my throat.

"Lady, it's not fair! You gave that woman two trays of food. They sit and eat while we who are standing get no food," a short elderly woman charged.

"You've given that table all the trays, nu, and none for us?!" another man protested.

Every time a tray would surface a crowd of hands would reach towards me. "Please sit down, I know you are waiting, I will get you a tray as soon as possible. I am doing my best." But my best was not enough. The shouts became louder, the pushing stronger. The chef had to break up a fight.

I recalled the stories told by my Bubbie about how some of the most civilized of men during the Holocaust were reduced to animals when scavenging for a piece of bread. I was witnessing the effects of hunger before my eyes.

Many thanked me as they left. A woman and I shared a laugh as she waited, conceding that laughing was all we could do. The panic of hunger was pushing all of us a little closer to the edge.

I left the soup kitchen feeling deflated and helpless, uncertain I had done much to help.

That Shabbos, I encountered two of the soup kitchen's patrons at a Shabbos table. On Sunday I passed another on the street and later than evening, I noticed a man sitting on the bus to whom I had handed a lunch tray. Why was I seeing all of these people?

If you had noticed any one of these people you would not have suspected their need to visit a soup kitchen. You couldn't have known their hunger or desperation. Perhaps this was the message, that hunger and need lurk in every corner. We cannot know who might be missing breakfast or uncertain of their next meal.

What we do with that hunger? Do we push or do we trust?

I arrived at Ben Gurion airport to catch my flight back home on one of the busiest travel days of the year. It was a frenzy of travelers. I was offered the option to be bumped from my over-booked flight in exchange for a free El Al ticket. Perfect, no? One hitch: I was to report to the check-in desk 79 at precisely 12:15 AM to learn my fate. If I was bumped I would be set up in a hotel until the morning flight; if not, I would need to scurry on board my original flight before it left.

I arrived at 12:13 AM at desk 79. But I wasn't the only one. A crowd ten-people deep encircled the counter. There was no way I'd be reporting to the desk on time. 12:15 AM came and went and I hadn't moved. I began to panic. What if I was indeed on my original flight? Would it leave without me? What if I was bumped but without checking in on time I lost my spot?!

I NEEDED TO GET TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE. NOW!

And then I understood. I was hungry. Not for food, but for security. So was everyone else in line. They needed attention, they needed a ticket. They too were hungry. The question is: what we do with that hunger? Do we push or do we trust?

When I stood in the crowded soup kitchen, I came face to face with the struggle we each encounter on a daily basis: how to deal with our hunger. Some of us are lucky. Our hunger isn't for food, or shelter or healing; it is for security, love, direction.

Ultimately, we each have to choose what to do with our hunger and strive to take notice of those around us who are in need. Even though we can't always see who needs what, sometimes we are lucky enough to pass along a needed tray or share a laugh while we're waiting.

P.S. My flight was bumped!

Published: October 24, 2010


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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Monica, November 2, 2010 6:18 PM

Empathy Mr. Needleman, empathy

It's very hard to feel the pains of hunger when your stomach is full and I don't mean after 1 day of fast, I mean chronic hunger. It's nice to be polite on a full stomach.

(10) moshe, October 28, 2010 12:10 AM

When push comes to shove...

At some point or other we all judge others in their shortcomings. When we are in the same position of stress and worry we also so to speak "lose it". The real test that exposes our true level of bitachon is preciseley at these moments.

(9) Anonymous, October 27, 2010 12:59 PM

Superb

I loved the juxtaposition of the outer and the inner hunger. I guess emuna is the key. Thank you.

(8) Kitty, October 25, 2010 8:55 PM

hi Aron

I commend you for your ambition and I am sure you have been very successful in life. Unfortunately soup kitchens are an unfortunate reality in the world. Yes, there are jobs available but many of the soup kitchen patrons have physical and mental health issues which preclude employment. They usually do not have the skills to compete in the employment market. I would suggest a visit to a local soup kitchen - it is a real eye-opener,

(7) SusanE, October 25, 2010 3:20 PM

Was this over a Holiday?

Was the kitchen open over a holiday when the lady worked there, or are they overwhelmed all the time like that? Could some of the patrons staff the soup kitchen, doing the cooking, serving and cleaning up? They would in turn be better able to help one another. The patrons could understand where the food comes from and how the kitchen and the serving works. If the kitchen is not efficient enough to serve all the hungry, have some of the people who rely on it open another soup kitchen nearby. Do the patrons have community gardens to grow food for their areas? Poor and hungry don't have to co-exist. Working for food is always a good idea. I read the ads here on Aish.com, and see orphans faces, and the Chicken Lady, and other pleas for food or financial help in Israel. Perhaps an article on here about why there is such a huge gap between those who have plenty and those who are desperately poor. Not poor in money but poor in that there isn't affordable available food enough.

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