Gift volunteers & the #Trolley Challenge

Social media can be bizarre. In case you missed it, a tweet in Atlanta divided the internet this week with what appeared at first glance to be a pretty mundane question. But the cartoon went viral, sparking heated debate about what determines a “good” member of society.

If you fail the challenge, the sanctimonious tweeter states that you are: “no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening (you) with a law and the force that stands behind it”.

The monumental question which had Twitter users careening off in different directions was: would you return your shopping trolley to the bay if nobody was watching? (‘nobody watching’ being the critical point).

The question is confusing to Brits and Israelis since you have to return your trolley (cart) to get your pound/shekel back and few would want to toss their coin away. But let us entertain the idea that trolleys are free to use in Britain and Israel as in Atlanta.

The question is actually more nuanced. As one tweeter explained;“to return the shopping cart is objectively right. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart is the apex example of whether (one) will do what is right without being forced to do it.”

In other words, do we still feel duty bound to do the right thing even when there is no law and expectation upon us to do so?

Pose the question to staff and volunteers at UK Jewish charity Gift and they would not only return the trolley but would first pile it high with groceries and goods to deliver around town to those in need. This is precisely what over 750 UK volunteers have been doing day in day out since the beginning of lockdown.

Upon realising how many of our elderly and vulnerable were to be stranded and helpless, the charity set up a Whatsapp group mid-March to recruit volunteers. They were immediately inundated and one group quickly turned to three. The organisation expanded its food bank and supplied hot meals, deliveries and emotional support to both young and old, becoming family to those who had no other family to turn to. Volunteers rushed to respond to requests, ranging from grocery shopping at their own expense to donations of laptops for home schooling and toys. Over 500 individuals and families have benefited from the initiative.

Whilst many of us are lamenting boredom and frustration at cancelled holiday plans, there are countless others lying awake at night wondering how they are going to be able to put food on the table. One young woman who has never had to seek charity before, turned to Gift in desperation after losing her 33 year old husband. She found herself not only bereft as a single mother of two young children but also destitute as she had been wholly reliant on her husband’s income. Reports of making a tin of baked beans stretch 4 days and hair falling out from the sheer stress of it all are all too real and sobering.

Whilst the Twitter challenge was a light hearted behavioural experiment, the Covid crisis has created its own social experiment, testing our reactions and resilience to the extreme. It is heart-warming that in the midst of so much anguish and despair, there have been so many extraordinary and anonymous acts of chessed (kindness) and generosity.

Let us hope that when life returns to a semblance of normality, the trolley becomes a symbol for those in need who, like the idea behind the original experiment, should not be abandoned.

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