Tuesday, July 14, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - July 2009

In recent weeks I have spent much time raising money for the family of a chassidic rabbi who died suddenly, leaving a wife and ten children, the youngest five months. The man died in his forties, after publishing a significant work of Torah scholarship. His family was bereft of means of support and there certainly were ample reasons to assist his wife and children. Yet, this effort is a departure from the pattern of communal activity that I have long adhered to and I am somewhat uncomfortable as a consequence.

We rightfully regard the mitzvah of tzedakah as the obligation to help the poor and needy. More than a half century ago, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood told me that in the contemporary period the primary tzedakah obligation is to assist Torah education and that two-thirds of a religious Jew’s charity should be so allocated. I heard something similar years later in a tape recording of a drasha given by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well as from my beloved rabbi, Rav Yisroel Perkowski of blessed memory. Although I have been immersed in klal activity for what soon will be six decades, relatively little of my time has been devoted to chesed activities, not even to the remarkable chesed project established a decade ago in memory of my mother.

When we give tzedakah, there is never a need to apologize and this encompasses whether the beneficiary is a chesed cause or a yeshiva. Each of us has much leeway in determining how to allocate our tzedakah dollars. In the aggregate, however, there is much to regret in the failure to adequately support yeshivas and day schools. With few exceptions, they struggle to get by even in good times and their road has become much more difficult because of the current economic downturn. In the competition to raise funds – and there is competition since most people have a sense of how much of their income will go to tzedakah – Torah institutions are at a disadvantage as the tendency is to fund causes that purport to help the needy or in some other way accomplish what is generally regarded as chesed.

It is easy to understand why chesed has priority over chinuch. There is a powerful emotional pull in efforts to assist those who are sick or elderly or in some other fashion in need of support. Jews are a charitable people, at least by comparison with others, and although it is evident that nowadays most of us do not adequately give tzedakah, a point made by Rav Moshe Feinstein, it is also evident that as compared with other people we are generous.

There is little in Torah education to match the emotional pull of chesed, not even the appeal or obligation to assist schools that perform a vital kiruv function and certainly not

the typical yeshiva or day school that provides for children from Orthodox homes. The argument that these institutions ensure that the heritage we have received will be imparted to new generations carries little weight. To the contrary, most of our schools are messy arrangements, with warts nearly everywhere and much to complain about. Educating a child is not an experience akin to giving money to poor persons.

Added to the deficit or difficulty confronting our schools as they compete for tzedakah funds is the reality that Torah education is a crowded field, with countless institutions asking for our support. It’s hard to satisfy more than a handful of schools and more than a handful lose out in the competition. There is also the reality that because tuition has risen enormously for most families, many current parents and also former parents feel that they have contributed sufficiently toward the education of their children and have little or no obligation to contribute toward the education of anyone else’s children. As I have written for a generation, Torah education is now widely regarded as a consumer product and, as such, it is for the consumers or the parents to pay for the service.

The dereliction of Roshei Yeshiva and other Torah leaders does not help matters. Whether they recognize it or not, the message they are sending is that there is a lesser obligation to support yeshivas, unless the institution is their own or one that they are close to. They endorse chesed activities routinely and seemingly without hesitation, yet they are parsimonious in their advocacy of support for yeshivas and day schools.

Whatever the explanation or justification for the priority being given to chesed activities, the necessary question is how are we different from the Federation world that we have sharply criticized? We have claimed that for all of their good intentions, Federations and secular Jews indulge in cardiac Judaism by supporting those causes that pack an emotional punch. Are we Orthodox also cardiac Jews?

There are clear differences between us and Federations, beginning with our heavy reliance on volunteerism which characterizes our chesed activities in contrast to Federations where there is an excess of bureaucracy, so that a small proportion of charitable dollars go directly to helping persons in need. Federations everywhere rely in their chesed activities on governmental funding, which isn’t true for most of Orthodox-sponsored chesed projects.

This acknowledged, it’s also clear that there are zones of Orthodox-based activity that resemble the Federation style. We do have organizations and projects that have significant bureaucratic infrastructures and rely on expensive marketing and promotion. There is, regretfully, a trend in this direction, as is evident from the barrage of ads in our newspapers and the glossy posters and promotional material plastered everywhere in our neighborhoods.

What is especially lamentable is the growing use of mumbo jumbo and farfetched claims in glitzy fundraising, such messages as that for the paltry sum of $180 this or that real or imagined holy man will pray for the contributor or that miracles will occur or that whatever the donor beseeches is likely to come to pass. Increasingly, there is fundraising that exists in a world of fantasy, a world in which someone who for whatever reasons may want a blessing is impelled to contribute not because of the cause but because allegedly the blessing will come to pass.

We also have the greater reliance on digitalized pictures of Torah leaders putting money in pushkas provided by this or that Vaad or praying for us at the cemetery or directly entreating our support. It’s hard to know how much of this is bogus, meaning whether the Torah leader has authorized use of his name or whether the photograph is a distortion. We are asked to rely on faith and good intentions and that should not be sufficient in view of how much is being raised. In some communities, when a collector comes from Israel hoping to raise funds for a child’s wedding, it’s necessary for him to secure a letter attesting to the legitimacy of his claim and authorizing him to collect. When millions of dollars are at stake, apparently no validation is required.

There is now in big-dollar chesed fundraising a big-time invitation to wrongdoing and it’s time for our community to wake up to this reality and not to be deceived into believing that the claim to help needy people is proof in itself that needy people are being helped. It’s time for Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivas to take protective steps. If they do not, before long we will be confronted by more serious wrongdoing.