As I walked from the Wilson Red Line stop to the JUF Uptown Cafe one sunny Sunday morning, four people called to me asking to spare some change. Two of those people were later guests at the JUF Uptown Cafe, Chicago’s first kosher anti-hunger program, where I was volunteering as a server for two hours of Sunday brunch.
Located in the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center, the JUF Uptown Cafe is neither a soup kitchen nor a cafeteria. Volunteer waiters serve dinner three times a week and Sunday brunch to guests who are seated at tables and order food from a menu, choosing dishes they’d like to receive. Some of the guests are chronically poor, some are homeless; others have only an eighth-grade education. Still others have college degrees and are working, but do not make enough to afford food, housing and medical care. About 40 percent of the guests are Jewish and the rest come from a variety of backgrounds, the Cafe’s manager, Sara Shapiro, told our group of 14 volunteers as we learned how to set the tables, how to take orders and where to get the drinks and the condiments. Most were recruited by JUF’s Russian Jewish Leadership Forum, which builds bridges between the organized Jewish community and Chicago’s Russian-speaking Jews.
As I got their drinks, their bagels, their plates of pancakes, hash browns, eggs and sausage, I got to know the four people who sat at the table assigned to me. Among them was a middle-aged avid Cubs fan, who had heard some of the volunteers talking about the game that day and eagerly interjected stories from his own times at Wrigley Field. He also shared a fascinating take on the 1919 White Sox bribery scandal. Another guest was a former art teacher, who shared her secret aspiration to take up PR work – she said she’d “always been able to sell an idea.” After she finished her dessert – chocolate cake and fruit this time – I told her about my sister’s exceptional skill with portraiture and my utter lack of talent at anything requiring pencils or paints. She told me it’s just about practice and a lack of inhibition. After all, kids can draw anything; they just haven’t gotten discouraged yet.
A feeling of absolute helplessness washes over me whenever people ask me for money on the street. How do I decide who to give and who to snub? My husband and I have a philanthropic plan we work out every year. We give to community organizations we trust, like JUF and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But sometimes, people on the street tug at my heartstrings, and I can’t help but wish I had more to share.
That’s why the JUF Uptown Cafe and programs like it are such a boost both for the people who use them and for those of us who are lucky enough to volunteer there. The Cafe provides an essential service, satisfying the basic human need for nourishment. But it also gives the guests and the servers the opportunity to interact in a dignified manner. We smiled at each other and we shared stories as I checked to see if the Cafe guests needed anything else. A sense of hope pervaded our encounter, however brief it was. For me, the Cafe also takes away the need to grapple with the choices: should I or shouldn’t I give. Everyone walking through the door receives a meal, period.
JUF’s Tikkun Olam Volunteer (TOV) Network offers plenty of opportunities to do good and give back in a very real way, like the JUF Uptown Cafe and Maot Chitim, which distributes home-delivered meals for Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. For all opportunities, check out TOV’s site or contact the Network directly at 312-357-4762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.