Thursday, October 23, 2014

Taking Charity for a Living

Students at Beth Medrash Gavoha better known as Lakewood (NYT)
On my fight back from Israel to Chicago I was surprised to see a feature article in the international edition of the New York Times. It was entitled The Beggars of Lakewood. I found it to be a sympathetic portrait of the community’s generosity towards what we call ‘Meshulachim’. That is the Hebrew word for ‘sent ones’. Those who are ‘sent’ by various charitable institutions as their agents to raise funds. 

But just as many, if not more, come for themselves. There are the poor and the sick …or those that have sick relatives requiring massive amounts of money for medical procedures not always covered by Israel’s national health care system. They need funds just to survive and support their families.

In the vast majority of cases, they are truly people in need. The fraudulent ones have been weeded out by a process know as an Ishur  (permit).  It is usually  issued by a respected organization (Agudah does this in Chicago) after verifying that their stories are true to be. (That was not always the case in the past.)

Lakewood has an organization that does the same thing. What was nice to see is how altruistic the community of Lakewood is.  Despite their lower incomes they tend to be more generous in their charitable contributions. They observe better than most of us the Mitzvah of Maaser Kesafim that requires us to give 10% of our income to charity. The bottom line for me about that article is that the community of Lakewood came out looking very good.  At least that’s the way I read it.

But it seems not everyone had my take. Matzav – republishing an article from Arutz Sheva – thought it was terrible.

What they saw was an article about the Meshulachim - most of whom come from Israel - that made them look bad. It was stereotypical description of Jews as money-grubbing beggars. 

I can’t say that the description of Elimelech Ehrlich, the Meshulach described at the beginning of the article is inaccurate. I have seen versions of this fellow many times in Chicago. And the truth is it bothers me.  Yes, giving them charity is legitimate. They do need to feed their families. 

But I have to ask, why so many Meshulachim come from Israel? Is it because there are no jobs? Is it the case that every Meshulach that comes from Israel has tried to find work and just hasn’t been able to? I’m sure that is true in some cases. 

As I said, it is also true that many of them collect for legitimate institutions that are concerned with feeding the indigent, or forYeshivos and Kollelim. In some cases Meshulcahim are collecting for medical reasons. 

I always ask myself why the vast majority of Meshulachim from Israel are Chasidic or Charedi? There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are Meshulachim. But I can’t help but think that a lot of it comes from the fact that Charedim in Israel do not have the education or training for good jobs.

This does not of course mean that we shouldn’t help them. But I think it does mean that as the population of Charedim and Chasidim in Israel increases, the number of Meshulchim will too. It is not unusual to find 5 or more Meshulachim coming into Shul every morning with their Ishur (green cards) asking for charity. 

Wouldn’t the greatest charitable act to these people be to change the way they are educated? If there are no secular studies in elementary or high school curricula in Israel, then the only jobs they can get are menial. And even those are limited. There are probably a lot more people applying for even a menial job that there are jobs – by a lot! It may not eliminate poverty to give them better educations. But I have to believe it would reduce their numbers considerably.

I realize that there are schools cropping up to help Charedim get better jobs. There is the Charedi College of Adina Bar Shalom, and various other schools and training facilities that are beginning to educate Charedim for the workplace once they've left Kollel. But I don't believe that the vast majority of Charedim are doing that. Which leaves a lot of them impoverished.

There is another aspect of this that is even more troubling to me. It is the fact that many of these Meshulachim treat taking chariry as a living - the way most people see a job. And they actually make a decent living doing this.  One may think that they do not make much asking for charity. But I recall an interview with a paraplegic beggar who made a career panhandling on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile – a very posh and upscale shopping area. He was asked how much money he made annually doing this. His answer: in excess of $100,000 a year!

I don’t know how much Meshulachim  that come to Chicago make. It is probably a lot more than people think.  But look at the price they have to pay. They have lost all their dignity by making a living asking for charity. This is not the way a Jew should support himself.

Now as I said, many of these Meshulchim are not like that. They are ‘one timers’ in desperate need of help and it should be given with a full heart. And many are legitimately collecting for institutions and not for themselves (other than a percentage of what they collect as a fee). But there are many who do what Elimelech Ehrlich does. From the New York Times
Once a year, Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine… Ehrlich is a full-time beggar. 
So yes, in the end Matzav and Arutz Sheva are right. The New York Times painted an unflattering picture of a Meshulach. But it is an accurate picture.  Elimelech Ehrlich is a  man who makes a living by asking for charity. And he is not the only one.

But it also painted an accurate picture of Lakewood’s generosity. I didn’t like the title either. But other than that why not focus on the positive side of the article instead of the negative side. Because the positive side is a real Kiddush Hashem.