Trying to avoid snacks laid out in the conference room at WeWork in New York was the most corporate experience I’ve had since I resigned from the world of 9-5. But I wasn’t here for my job, I reminded myself. Seated around the table was a group of women bonded over the need for change. As Jews, we are commanded to perform mitzvot or good deeds. One of the foundations of Judaism is the idea of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and that’s why we were here.
I hadn’t heard of Challah for Hunger (CfH) before I volunteered to participate in their New York Giving Circle, a collaborative giving event where participants award micro-grants to CfH chapters that have innovative projects. There unfortunately wasn’t a CfH chapter at either college I attended – Columbia College Chicago or the New School. I first heard about CfH at a One Table Shabbat dinner, where some of the other guests were CfH alumni. They described the Giving Circle as a book club without the books, which really intrigued me.
When I learned more about CfH’s mission and campus program, my first reaction was envy. I acknowledge that it isn’t the best reaction to have but in college I never really felt like I was a part of a community. CfH would have offered me new leadership skills and the opportunity to connect with Jewish traditions.
At the New York Giving Circle, we learned about CfH’s advocacy initiative The Campus Hunger Project, While I wasn’t aware of the issue of college food insecurity before, I quickly realized that it was important. We tend to take our good fortune for granted. It never occurred to me how many college students were having to choose between books for class or food. The truth is that it is much more frequent than I could have guessed. Hunger isn’t just apparent in big cities like New York, where 1.3 million New Yorkers face hunger every year, including close to one in four children. According to a 2016 report on hunger on the college campus, as many as ⅔ of community college students and nearly 20% of students at four-year colleges qualified as food insecurity. Though there are a lot of amazing charities that try to help feed as many hungry people as possible, college students nationwide need our help directly.
Growing up, my family taught me to be concerned about the less fortunate. I became a Hadassah life member at birth, planned benefit concerts for Invisible Children, and donated every year at Hanukkah to charities we felt strongly about. I understood at a young age that it is my duty to do what I can for others. While I saw both homelessness and hunger, I didn’t always feel comfortable just handing out money because of my first experience with direct service. My first experience was challenging – when I was a child, my family decided to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. One of the homeless men we offered a sandwich to threw it at us and it made me a little unnerved about future direct giving opportunities. I knew I cared about people but didn’t feel like I had the right outlet to do good until the Giving Circle.
At the Giving Circle meeting, surrounded by other women who wanted to help but didn’t really know how, I felt like I’d found a new community. We weren’t a CfH chapter but the micro-grants we gave out would help CfH chapters flourish. During the meeting we discussed the best ways to approach grant-giving and the different ways chapters would use these funds. And yes, we also made our own challah.
Living in New York sometimes makes you cynical and lose sight of the bigger picture. Challah for Hunger helped me realize just what is important. It helped me find a community, support a charity and reconnect with the tradition I love best: giving back. While I never had the opportunity to volunteer with CfH as a college student, the CfH Giving Circle provided me with a way to give back now.
In this New Year, we can all really start to consider what’s important to us and appreciate what we have. It is also a great chance to consider how we can help others. There are a lot of incredible organizations that need your support. Challah for Hunger opened up my understanding of other groups of people who suffer from hunger who might be overlooked. Everyone should find an issue they care about, educate themselves and find a way to help.