Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rationalist Tzedakah

You'd think that a mitzvah as basic as tzedakah, charity, would not have anything to do with the primary topics of this forum - rationalism vs. mysticism, and charedi vs. centrist Orthodoxy. But, at least in Ramat Bet Shemesh, it certainly does.

There are a number of different communal charity organizations in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Some organizations give hand-outs to the many local desperate kollel families which, while alleviating their current hardship, does nothing to change their long-term situation. This is presumably based on the mystical idea that such kollel study is valuable; perhaps even more so than financial self-sufficiency.

But one of them, Lemaan Achai, is the most extraordinary charity organization that I've seen, and has a different approach. Their motto is "smart chessed." When taking on a family, they first have a case worker assess every aspect of the family's situation. Then their goal is to practice charity according to Rambam's principles, whereby the highest level of charity is to rehabilitate the family such that they are independent.

"Smart chessed" also has ramifications for collecting donations. They focus less on shtick and more on what people really need. Collecting money to provide people with a Purim seudah made a lot of sense in an era where the basic requirement was food. But today, when the amount of money collected may well exceed the cost of providing Purim seudos, but there are utility bills and other problems to be solved, it makes more sense to spread donations more broadly. Lemaan Achai offers a "Smart Matanos L'Evyanim" program, whereby some of the donation is used to buy provisions for a Purim Seudah, and the rest is used for more important needs.

Lemaan Achai equally services all sectors of the local population - charedi, dati-leumi, secular, Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Israeli, Russian, French, Anglo. Its rabbinic board is also diverse, including dati-leumi as well as moderate charedi rabbanim.

Put together all the above factors, and you have the recipe for an organization which does incredible work - but you also have the recipe for an organization that, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, faces active opposition.

It's no secret that Ramat Bet Shemesh, for all its amazing qualities that make it a much sought-after place to live, suffers from a lot of divisiveness and zealotry from certain sectors of the population. This has spilled over to local charities. Despite the fact that Lemaan Achai helps many local charedi families, they are prohibited from making appeals in many local charedi shuls - often the same shuls which have families that they help! In some cases, Lemaan Achai fundraisers have been forcibly and physically prevented from entering local shuls. And when they put up banners and posters to fundraise, these are often ripped down. At a broader level, the struggle between Lemaan Achai and other organizations has become symbolic of the larger struggle to define the character of Ramat Bet Shemesh - as a town housing a diverse population, or as a charedi hegemony.

If you're looking for a good, smart cause for your charity shekels/dollars, please consider Lemaan Achai. You can find out more, and donate, via their website at www.SmartChesed.org.

14 comments:

  1. I just clicked on your link, and was surprised to see a picture of someone I know well, who made aliyah seven or eight years ago. I see he's now the financial counselor. He's a first class mensch. Your description was already compelling, seeing this individual part of it makes it doubly so.

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  2. Do you have a post anywhere on your archives explaining why the Rambam took tzadaka from his brother (before he died at sea) and was not financially independent?

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  3. He didn't take tzedakah from his brother. His brother invested Rambam's money on his behalf.

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  4. Thanks. Do you have a source for this? if i am not mistaken in the kook version of Rambams Letters it seems the diamonds and all the wealth that got drowned on that fateful journey actually belonged to his brother, and Rambam bemoans how his "brothers" wealth was lost. i dont remember reading the Rambam writing "our wealth"

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  5. I don't remember... maybe check Herbert Davidson's biography.

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  6. I have been a resident of RBS for quite a while.
    There us definitely a campaign among certain factions to marginalize Lema'an Achai.
    Otherwise intelligent people arrive here and rather than making educated decisions they are instructed how and what to think including where to give Tzedaka.
    Couple this with rampant peer pressure in the Charedi world and this makes Lema'an Achai's job even more difficult.

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  7. Normally I'm a very big fan of yours. But I find it incredible that you write the following:
    "Collecting money to provide people with a Purim seudah made a lot of sense in an era where the basic requirement was food. But today, when paying utility bills and solving other problems is more fundamental to peoples' needs..."

    You think the problems are over of people having enough to eat in Israel? You haven't read about the numbers and the percentages of people who simply don't have enough to eat every day, let alone on Purim? And how many of those are children?!

    Please rethink this and rewrite it.

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  8. No, I didn't mean that. I meant that instead of getting 400 NIS for a seudah, it's better to get 200 NIS for a seudah and 200 NIS for other things!

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  9. I guess I should rewrite it to make things clearer.

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  10. Do you know which tzedakah is missing from Rambam's eight categories?

    Giving to yeshivos!

    When charedi yeshivos that don't serve in the army come collecting, just tell them that you're willing to do something much more valuable for them than material hishtadlus. Tell them that you'll learn in their zechus!

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    1. Good response. I wish more of us across the board would change the terms of the debate this way.

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  11. Wonderful post. Great time of year for it. Do you know if any women are involved in the decision making or, despite serving a diverse populations, is the organization still constrained to the ideas of menfolk?

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  12. Solomon,

    Lema'an Achai has been very proud to have women serving on the board as well as in top decision making positions from day one!

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