Friday, November 01, 2002

November 2002 - RJJ Newsletter

The previous newsletter discussed the expanding tendency of Torah leaders to promote chesed causes, usually on behalf of individual families in Israel or here. The point that was underscored is that a message is being sent that chesed takes priority in tzedakah allocations over chinuch, an attitude that is similar to the approach of Federation and others in the secular camp and which was fiercely criticized by Orthodox Jews who contended that yeshivas and day schools should receive the lion’s share of our tzedakah. The essay concluded with the observation that there cannot be one standard for the Federations and another for our community.

This view raises several uncomfortable questions. The issue is important because the funds that are being raised in individual chesed campaigns amount to millions of dollars each year and the figure is almost certainly growing in view of the avalanche of letters that we now receive from respected Torah leaders. At the least, the subject deserves greater attention than it has received. The following comments are intended to encourage our consideration of this issue.

1. Let us assume, perhaps incorrectly, that all of the individual solicitations are legitimate, that they are for deserving persons who are in extraordinary financial difficulty and that Torah leaders whose names are being used have given their authorization. There still is the question of whether these situations merit priority over the financial – at times desperate financial – needs of Torah institutions.
There is - or so it seems – much tragedy and extreme hardship in our relatively small community. There is a stream of sad news telling us of catastrophic illness and of the death of parents, often at a young age, who leave behind young children and scant financial resources. It is one of the glories of religious Jews that we act quickly to assist widows and orphans. There are campaigns that in a matter of weeks have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars or even as much as $1 million.
If only because of personal experience, I am not callous toward those who have suffered loss. I have played a role in a number of chesed campaigns. But I am troubled by a question that was raised not long ago in the name of a Rosh Yeshiva on the way to a simcha in Lakewood. He apparently wondered how he and the yeshiva world could justify raising $1 million for a single family when, in the example that he gave, an outreach high school for boys at risk was about to collapse under a mountain of debt and few seemed to care.
2. When a Torah leader sends out letters regarding a chesed situation with which he is personally familiar, we can be confident that the need is real and probably great. It’s apparent that these situations are no longer the rule. While most solicitation letters used to be written in Hebrew and personally signed – with a convenient English translation provided – nowadays, a personal letter is often dispensed with and all we get is a signature to someone else’s letter.

The situation has become more problematic because many of the letters we now receive seem to be not the work of those who are identified as signers but rather the product of someone who is adept at writing these messages. Invariably, the tone and style are the same. At the least, there is a credible question regarding the legitimacy of certain of these solicitations. We do not know whether the signatures that we see were actually authorized or perhaps lifted from another source. Put otherwise, increasingly these communications partake of mechse k’shikra, the appearance of deception.

3. Confidence in these letters is not buttressed by reliance on what I regard as the vulgar technique of printing messages on the outside envelope that abet fundraising but which, in all likelihood, are false. We are being manipulated by the likes of “a little boy is waiting to hear from you” or “you can save this life” or “can’t you see the tears?” And so it goes. Chesed apparently is exempt from the fundamental Torah principle that all that is sanctified must be conducted with hatznea leches, a sense of modesty.

4. The Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivas whose names are on the return envelopes are busy people. It’s a good bet that they do not open the envelopes or record the contributions or make the deposits or disburse the funds. These functions are performed by others, at times by persons who are close to the families for whom funds are being raised, but with increasing likelihood by individuals who control the mailing lists, draft the standard letters and who have little to do with the persons on whose behalf the solicitations are being made. It’s anyone’s guess how the funds are being distributed or how much reaches the families. We don’t even know whether those in control of the funds are trustworthy people.
5. The practice of buying and selling contributors’ lists needs to be examined. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School has an unyielding policy that prohibits this practice. We do not believe that it is appropriate to reward our contributors by peddling their names elsewhere. In fact, more than ethics are involved. There are practical reasons the practice should be curtailed.

Yeshivas are being hurt because tzedakah is generally not a zero sum game in which contributions to one cause have no bearing on what may be given to others. When chesed campaigns are emphasized, inevitably less is available for Torah institutions. There is a second negative impact in that there are potential contributors who refuse to contribute because they are convinced that if they do, their names will be put on a list and the list will be sold to others. We may think that these individuals are wrong; at the least, we have to understand their motivation and how it affects yeshivas.

6. In order to ensure that the chesed solicitations that have become a significant feature of our communal life are conducted with probity – both in appearance and reality – we should insist on several precautions. We need to be assured that the Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva who are the primary signatories to these letters and to whom the contributions are being sent have given their authorization and that they have knowledge of the situations that are being described. It is apparent that in more than a few instances a Torah leader who is the key person in the campaign is at best a kli shlishi, a third hand source, someone who has been contacted by a person he knows who claims to have been contacted by a rabbi in Israel who has knowledge of the family for whom funds are being raised. If they do not have personal knowledge of these situations, they ought to say so and tell us on whom they are relying when they ask for our contributions.

We also need to put into place a better arrangement regarding the collection and distribution of funds so that we can have greater confidence that what is occurring is legitimate. It is not sufficient that the Torah leaders who receive these contributions turn the letters over to someone who appears at the door and that is the end of their responsibility. We and they must be concerned about what happens after the contributions are received.
It may be helpful for Torah leaders to establish a three-person vaad or committee of respected individuals who will oversee in some fashion this critical stage of chesed campaigns.

Doubtlessly, there are other issues that can be raised about a development that has not received the scrutiny it merits.