Several years ago, a voluntary organisation (חסד) was established to scrutinise and affirm the credentials of Tzedoko collectors frequenting Melbourne. The organisation had the approbation of the majority of the Melbourne Rabbinate and was served by the Av Beis Din in Melbourne. At the onset, I was most uncomfortable with the concept. I had felt that if someone was uncomfortable enough to have to knock on my door, from shores afar, that I would simply give, albeit modestly. I had the view that the less I knew, the better. Most probably, my mindset was influenced by the Rambam’s statement that the highest form of Tzedoko is when the giver doesn’t know who they give to and the receiver doesn’t know from whom they received.
The חסד organisation initially encountered resistance from elements of the Charedi Rabbinate in Melbourne. Ironically, some of these Rabbis issued, and continue to issue, their own letters certifying the bona fides of a collector. I know of one Rabbi, a friend and a most honourable person, who was concerned by one דעה in הלכות צדקה and this was the sole reason he didn’t formally sign up to the concept. חסד not only issued speedy certificates after consulting with similar organisations and respected רבנים around the world, they also administered their own fund, and provided genuine collectors with a monetary kick-start, as well as a certificate.
After a conversation with a local Rabbi who had extensive experience overseas, and after hearing some of the horror stories relating how communities were occasionally duped into providing sometime enormous sums to a fraudster, I gradually came around to the idea that this was a good idea. I subscribed to the view that the more people asking collectors to produce a חסד certificate, the more likely we were to stamp out Tzedaka fraud.
I recall translating a Psak from the famed misnagdic posek, רב אלישיב שליט’’א for חסד in which Rav Elyashiv supported the חסד concept on halachic grounds. There is also the typically outspoken view of הרב אבינר שליט’’א of the religious Zionist camp, who wrote:
Most Beggars are Swindlers – The Halachah is that we do not give money to beggars until we clarify that they are truly poor. This is a “Takanat Chazal” (Ruling of our Sages) since most beggars are swindlers. This ruling is found in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 251:10) and it applies to this day. Rabbis estimate that ninety percent of people who ask for money today are swindlers. If someone asks for money we do not give it until he provides verification from a reliable Rabbi. If someone asks for food, however, we give him immediately. What if he is being deceptive? It is a potentially life-threatening situation, and we therefore provide food without delay. Today, most beggars in Israel do not ask for food because there are many soup kitchens, and if you offer them food, they say that they prefer money.
Is Giving Tzedakah to someone who is not poor a Mitzvah? – The halachic authorities discuss if one fulfills the mitzvah of giving tzedakah if the recipient is in fact not poor. They point to the Gemara in Baba Batra (9a and see Rishonim and Achronim) and they also discuss whether the intention of the giver matters, but for certain he loses out on the mitzvah by giving that money to someone who is not truly poor. Perhaps you will say that giving tzedakah is still worthwhile even if the person is not poor since it strengthens one’s personal character traits (tikkun midot), as the Rambam explained in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (3:15):, that by performing an act over and over, one will achieve proper characteristic traits. This, however, does not occur when one is performing an act which is not beneficial. A person is cruel if he does not give to the poor, but he is not kind if he gives to the wealthy. We have to give to truly poor people. A person should not buckle under emotional pressure from a beggar: I have many children and a husband who is sick, you have a kippah but you are not really observant, you give a shekel and they throw it down, etc… If a person was poor before he asked for money at the Kotel, after a day he would no long be considered poor: They collect 1000 shekels a day!
Rabbinic Verification – Even providing rabbinic verification is problematic today. Anyone can print a Rabbi’s letter or signature off the internet in thirty seconds. One time some people from a tzedakah organization in Ashdod came and asked for my signature. I did not know them and asked if they had other Rabbis’ signatures. They told me that they had the support of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I said: If so, I will blindly support it. Please send me the letter. When I received it, I saw that in the signature there was an extra “alef” in the last name “Schneersohn” and instead of being signed by the last Rebbe – Ha-Rav Menachem Mendel, it was signed by the previous Rebbe – Ha-Rav Yosef Yitzchak, who died almost sixty years ago! It was a forgery! Often times there are people who request money for yeshivot or organizations which do not exist, never existed, and will never exist. One time I signed a letter in support of giving money to the poor. I found out that they were giving $1000 to anyone about to be drafted into “Nachal Ha-Charedi” (Ultra-Orthodox unit in the army) to convince them not to join. They claimed they were poor: They were in great spiritual poverty if they were about to join Tzahal. I called and requested my name be removed from the letter, but they did not. I called again, no response. I called again, no response. I sent a letter, no response. I sent a letter from a lawyer and they called: “Why not talk like a mensch? Come on, let’s talk,” etc… We have to be extremely careful about where we give our money.
In sum: We only give tzedakah to people who we can verify are poor or to trustworthy organizations. Give to one, two, three trustworthy organizations. It is not possible to provide for every poor person in any event. Most beggars are not evil people, they are mentally and emotionally unstable. We do not judge them, but we only give tzedakah to genuinely poor people.
Two evenings prior, I interviewed a potential postgraduate student in my office for an hour. I was inclined to accept the student, however, some documentation was missing. I asked the student to quickly email me some missing mark sheets from his undergraduate aeronautical degree. The next morning, he duly emailed me a certified and scanned copy of his consolidated mark sheet. A consolidated mark sheet lists all the subjects that the student has passed. It does not indicate whether a student had failed and retaken a subject. As a matter of probity, despite my inclination that he was a genuine student, especially given that he had quickly organised the missing mark sheets on the next morning, I advised the student that I would need to see a fuller transcript. The student replied that it was very difficult to get this quickly because his University was very slow on such matters. I also know this to be true in some countries. It can take a year for some Universities to respond and re-issue a transcript. The student pressed on, and was desperate to be admitted, and asked me what he could now do. I suggested that he contact his University nonetheless, and ask them to email me directly, providing fuller information. The student duly supplied me with a web link where I could contact the registrar of that (international) University. Last night, I received an email from the Registrar, less than 12 hours after my email had been sent. The email read:
I HAVE EXAMINED THE MARKSHEET ATTACHED BY YOU. I CONFIRM THAT THIS STUDENT HAS PRODUCED A FAKE MARKSHEET. HE HAS NOT COMPLETED THIS COURSE TILL DATE. SO FAR HE HAS PASSED ONLY 3 SUBJECTS OUT OF TOTAL 15 SUBJECTS
I was flabbergasted to say the least. I asked for a genuine copy to be sent to me, and I am now in the invidious moral position of having to inform authorities about this irregularity. I could stay silent and simply not admit him to the University, but I feel morally bound to ensure that he not only does not gain entry to another University whose procedures may well have been less rigorous (trust me, some so-called group of eight ivy league universities can be quite slack) but that he doesn’t cause a bad name for future students through this fraud.
I was going to post about the demise of the חסד organisation but had not gotten round to it, as I am incredibly busy at this point in time. The incident about the student was a timely reminder about probity and its importance. A recent conversation with Rav Schachter was also on my mind. Rav Schachter clearly stated that the standards of morality and ethics (assuming these are of course reasonable) exhibited by the אומות העולם cannot be or seen to be greater than our community. In other words, every time a Yid fails to follow accepted standards of ethical and moral behaviour, that Yid potentiates a חילול שם שמים. Our community, in these very difficult times, needs to be cognisant of that reality and should do everything in its power to avoid such an interpretation by the אומות העולם, as this causes זלזול of Hashem’s name, and nothing is worse than that.
I was, therefore, very sorry to hear that the חסד concept and organisation had been shelved. The reason appears to be that whilst there is an enormous work load on the volunteers, there isn’t the level of acceptance by the community in requesting credentials to make it a viable and effective enterprise.
Especially in these times, we need to ask ourselves why our Kehilla cannot seemingly have a process of charitable probity. Do we want to wake up to an article on the front page of a newspaper declaring that a Jewish charity collector has been arrested at the airport on charges of fraud and misappropriation after an Interpol tip off? Are those who continue to think that it is possible to avoid the gaze of the world in this day and age deluding themselves?