I've been volunteering at the same New York soup kitchen on Christmas Day annually for the last decade or so. The volunteer turnout year after year has been inspiring. Even as the number of homeless guests sadly remains high, dozens of kindhearted workers graciously give their time to those less fortunate. I have come to know many familiar faces over the years, and not all of them are Jewish like me -- a true Christmas sacrifice.
As I've matured, however, I've noticed a certain element of competitiveness amongst volunteers that I find contrary to the core values of charity work. What I first noticed subtly with a few high-strung volunteers has transformed into a disappointing antagonistic contest between those supposedly giving back.
There are no gold stars given out for most "tables turned" at a soup kitchen. It's not a "scene" to socialize and garner attention. But as I waited in line last Christmas to fill plates for my designated table -- of which many volunteers are angrily protective -- I was elbowed out of the way by a disgruntled male volunteer. "I have the big table," he snidely announced. "I'm waiting for 20 plates, 16 adult and four children. You can serve yours after." Volunteers yelled at the servers to hurry up and reminded them incessantly, with some even having their cohorts "reorder" plates to get their tables served fastest. "Guard my plates," commanded one woman, without a hint of irony. "I want them in mint condition when I return."
The rivalry extends beyond serving, as certain showy volunteers flaunt interactions with the guests as an indicator of "above and beyond" charity. Many of the patrons at my soup kitchen only speak Spanish, and conversaciones en español are touchdowns in the tournament of giving back. One woman, a basic volunteer like myself, labeled herself "traffic coordinator," expressively directing everyone where to go, and even occasionally picking up babies from mothers to "ease the load this Christmas Day." Rarely were the infants offered up by their mothers, and this volunteer would dramatically kiss the children or even take photos with them. A camera crew from a local news station stops by the soup kitchen on Christmas each year, and the amount of "look at me" performances amongst volunteers of all ages is disheartening.
I do not think this competitive ambiance is limited to my soup kitchen. It was even briefly spoofed in a recent episode of NBC's Up All Night, when Ava and Walter (Maya Rudolph and Sean Hayes) suddenly decide they want to be generous on Thanksgiving. The characters must sneak in to the Los Angeles soup kitchen, for which there is a volunteer wait. They push in between workers in the overstaffed dining room to get "face time" with the homeless patrons.
Is this really what the idea of volunteering at a soup kitchen is all about? Those who donate their time are undoubtedly responsible for positive Christmas or Thanksgiving spirit, but the charity is cheapened by immature competitiveness amongst them. In 2013, all should be encouraged to volunteer, as doing so at all is an invaluable gift, but let's resolve to make sure we remember the real meaning of giving back.