Friday, December 30, 2011

Kars 4 Kidz

It’s a catchy tune. Anyone who hears this ubiquitous radio ad’s jingle will recognize it immediately as the Kars 4 Kidz jingle: "1 877 kars for kids. K-A-R-S kars for kids. 1 877 kars for kids. Donate your car today." That’s usually followed by "We're a recognized 501(c)(3) charity organization, so you'll receive a maximum tax deduction."

The ad is about donating your used vehicle to a charity in exchange for a huge tax write. Which is perfectly legal assuming the write off is not inflated beyond the car’s reasonable value. The radio jingle and billboard ads imply that the money being donated is going to be used to help out needy children. And lately it has been advertising a bonus to those who donate - a vacation voucher. On the surface - not a bad deal.

The problem is that this ad campaign is grossly misleading. The organization running it is a Kiruv organization by the name of Oorah. It is not targeted at feeding hungry children but at disadvantaged secular Jewish children – trying to get them to become observant.

And once again an Orthodox Jewish institution is in the media making a Chilul HaShem. This time it is in the Star Tribune – a newspaper serving the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

When Oorah was created it was very up front about its mission. Its tactics were quite honorable. No pressure. No hype. Just outreach. But over the years it seems to have gone from a devoted Kiruv organization to a power house money making machine. And it is doing so dishonestly – if technically legally.

Gneivas Daas is a serious violation of Halacha. It is a form of Geneiva - stealing. And it applies to everyone. It is Halachicly forbidden to steal from anyone – Jew and Gentile alike. This seems to be what the people at Oorah are doing. They are misleading potential donors into thinking they are helping needy children when in fact funds are being used in religious outreach.

It is true that a lot of people might not care where their car is going or what the proceeds will be used for as long as they get a generous tax write-off. But there are probably also a lot of people who might actually object to donating funds to an organization that will use it for strictly religious purposes. Especially if it is not their own religion. What makes matters worse is that the so called voucher is not exactly as advertised.

I am not the only one who has had issues with the misleading nature of these ads. From the Star Tribune:

Oregon and Pennsylvania who investigated the charity for leading donors to think the charity benefited a broad group of children, not a "narrow religious purpose."

Kars4Kids, they learned, is the primary funder of a New Jersey organization called Oorah Inc. that provides religious-based services to Orthodox Jewish children. Kars4Kids paid $65,000 in fines in each state in 2009.

Oregon also found that Kars4Kids failed to disclose that its "free" vacation vouchers offered at the time recruited people for a timeshare and contained hidden costs. Meanwhile, the New York attorney general investigated Kars4Kids last year as part of a broader probe into solicitation and spending practices of car donation charities.

Imagine if the reverse was true and a Christian Evangelical missionary group aimed at making believers out of non Christian children would have such a campaign – advertising it a charity for kids without even a hint that the organization is a religious one and that the donations were going to be used for missionary work. How would you feel if you found out that you unknowingly donated your car to that because of a slick ad campaign?

Oorah’s revenues are pretty hefty:

Kars4Kids' revenue soared from $5.6 million in 2005 to $24.6 million in 2009, tax returns say.

I have to wonder where all that money goes. 24.6 million dollars is not peanuts. One thing I do know is that a few years ago a prominent supporter of Jewish education was promised funding by Oorah for his Yeshiva’s Kiruv program but - according to his website - never received any.

It pains me greatly every time a story like this hits the news. Unfortunately I have no power over Oorah. But I do have a voice. As an Orthodox Jew all I can do is make a Macha’ah – and protest it publicly when it happens. I do so here in the strongest possible terms. This is not Torah behavior and it ought to be loudly and clearly protested by every Orthodox Jewish rabbi and organization.