On the death of חסד

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?

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

12 thoughts on “On the death of חסד”

  1. The numerous meshulachim who come visit us pose a real challenge. Lately, there has been a “surge” as a result of the strong Australian dollar. When I look at the macro picture, it is difficult to see how it stacks up. It’s hard to know what the average person collects during a visit – I think it might be $5-10K, but someone posted a thank you note on the shul which recorded that they had collected less than $3K. With travel costs of around $2K, and commission to drivers, how can they justify coming all the way to Australia? And who are we really supporting when we give? The person themselves or Qantas/El Al and the local drivers & list brokers (who themselves need a parnossa)?

    Let’s say the average collected is $7K, and around 300 meshulachim come here each year. That’s over two million dollars that collectively goes from our community to (mostly) Israel. Is there a better way? There must be!

    But then I am torn between that very cold analysis and the famous story of Reb Levi of Berditchev regarding proposed town reforms to the way tzedokah was collected. See http://davidknows.blogspot.com/2009/03/jewish-communal-appeal.html

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  2. Please help me with this one Isaac.I have learnt that in Halacha it matters not wether the amount is a pruta or a mina it is all the same.Could that not be extrapolated to giving tzedakah.By that I mean if you are going to give someone $1.00 or $18.00 just to get them out of your hair are you doing what is correct.If you would take great care when deciding to give a few thousand dollars to a particular charity should you not take the same care when giving $1 or $2? I know I don’t.I give a token amount to ease my concience & for larger amounts I want some sort of assurance I am not being ripped off AGAIN.Am I allowed to disagree with Reb Levi of Berditchev or can we compromise with a pruta to the door to door collectors & a mina to the centralised charity that checks the bona fides of the collector?

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  3. I can only concur – as someone who is working multiple jobs to cover basic costs and support a family – even a modest donation at shule & at home – is very difficult. Last night, 3 meshulochim knocked on the door to the frustration of my Akeres HaBayis who besides asking for money, we don’t really have, also disrupted precious time that she requires to run her business.
    That said, I suppose that I have been guilty not checking credentials of collectors – I try to minimise the disruption by quickly signing a cheque and handing it over with the least interaction.

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  4. My father A”H gave to every meshulach, who used to arrive at his house many times throughout the evening. A friend of mine once went through his receipts and saw that he had been visited by the same guy twice in one night, and again the next day.

    A few years ago I started turning overseas meshilochim down and giving the money to local institutions and ones with which I have a personal connection. My evenings are more peaceful and I’m pretty sure the money is going to better use.

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  5. There is a broader issue that needs to be considered here. The Chareidi world and its leadership seem to have ignored Chazal’s abhorrence of financial dependence. When was the last time you heard a Chareidi Rov quote the Gemoro in Shabbos 118a: “Aseh Shaboscho Chol V’al Titztorech al Habriyos” or in Psochim 113a “Pshot N’veiloso B’shuka V’shokil Agro” or Rashi in Brochos 35b (dh “Shelo Yaasok”) “She’im Tovoi Lidei Tzorech Habriyos Sofcho Livotel Midivrei Torah” and see Eiruvin 82a where Rashi explains why individuals that have no profession are Posul for Edus. Shas is full of examples that are at polar odds with the culture that characterises present day ultra-orthodoxy.

    Poverty is a very real phenomena in any society, and Chesed is the defining characteristic of Avrohom Ovinu. But poverty is no less real a phenomena than the abrogation of personal financial responsibility that seems to have overtaken the Chareidi world in recent decades.

    If you think my comment is unreasonable, then I ask you – why is it that I never see a Meshulach with a Kippa Srugga arrive at my door?

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    1. why is it that I never see a Meshulach with a Kippa Srugga arrive at my door?

      Because they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, so they dress up as Chasidim.

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  6. Joe raises a good point! One could assume it’s a cultural thing. In the modern world official organisations are set up to service welfare issues within the community. This would usually cover most of the modern orthodox community. Culturally the charedishe community has been more insular and autonomous and rely on themselves and there own private ‘organisations’ to raise funds for their needy.

    Having said that, the sorts of problems that individuals who come from overseas collecting for are a lot less prevalent in other communities owing to smaller families, more integration into the workforce and levering off the governmental welfare services.

    Then there is finally, the indignity of having to ‘beg’ for money which many in this day and age find very difficult. This is the wedge that many mushelachim rely upon to coerce us to give. This feeling of pity and shame, and the assumption that any normal person would not stoop to these levels if they were not seriously in need.

    At the end of the day, it is a difficult call to make. I know I don’t give enough, but with that nagging doubt that the money is not always serving the best need, one can tend to hold back from giving with a completely open hand. Especially as one continues to hear horror stories which (sorry about this) beggars belief that people could perpetrate such low acts in the name of tzedoka.

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  7. Re kipa sruga types etc. There are quite few coming here. I know them. Joe is not saying something outlandish. Although these don’t dress as chassidim, they have a hat and coat for the occasion. This is because the vast majority of their donations come from Lubavitch, Adass, Kollel and other charedim. I also see some with ks without disguising it.

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