You could fill an entire book with examples of tzedakah organizations manipulating people's emotions for money. One of the most appalling examples I've seen is from an organization seeking to raise funds for, you guessed it, Torah study. This one promised to learn in the merit for people to get a shidduch. The picture in the ad was not of people studying Torah - the cause that they are trying to promote. Instead, it was of a sparkling diamond engagement ring. The message effectively being broadcast was: "Attention all singles - think about how desperate you are to get married! Don't miss this opportunity! Give us money!"
Mysticism provides these organizations with an especially potent tool for manipulating people, and today, the ninth of Kislev, demonstrates a powerful example. Kupat Ha'ir put out the following ad:
For those who can't see the picture, it says that there is a once-in-fifty years opportunity to take advantage of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year in the Yovel-cycle. This full house of nines, according to an obscure ancient sefer, is an auspicious hour for prayer. But why pray yourself, when other people can pray on your behalf? Twenty Gedolei HaDor (I never knew there were that many!) will pray for you - provided that you give money to Kupat Ha-Ir!
And then comes the most manipulative line of all: "Don't wait another 50 years for a yeshuah!" You are desperate for salvation from your problems, and you need to give us money in order to attain it, or you'll be stuck for fifty years! Forget about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - it's this once-in-fifty-years opportunity that counts. As the Kupat HaIr website states: "Doesn’t it make sense to overextend yourself for nine minutes for the sake of your entire life? ... Your life depends on these 9 minutes. Will you be happy? Will you have money? What will your health be like?
How will you be spared unfavorable decrees?"
Yes, they are raising money for a good cause. (At least, to some extent; I don't know how much of their charity goes to perpetuating the kollel system.) But I'm sure that there are many people who truly can't afford to give, but who do so out of sheer terror that they might be losing their chance to get married, to have children, to be healthy. I personally know of someone who themselves fell into dire straits because of this. And Rav Mattisyahu Solomon of Lakewood has decried the fact that single women desperate for a yeshua had contributed all their savings to Kupat HaIr, and turned to him when they didn't get married. He described Kupat HaIr's modus operandi as "absolute theft."
Furthermore, this form of fundraising spreads the idea that charitable acts are done in order to attain personal salvation, rather than to actually help others. And the next person promising miracles will take your money not to give to charity, but for their own pockets.
There is also the problem of the wider context: in the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a
prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular
efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). There is a real risk of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus.
And all this is quite aside from the falsehood in the campaign. No, your entire life does not depend on these nine minutes! Oh, and by the way: due to uncertainties about when yovel actually is, Kupat Ha-Ir ran the very same campaign four years ago, announcing that 1:43pm of November 26th 2009 was the ninth of the ninth of the ninth of the ninth! And they ran it again in 2011, claiming that that was the ninth of the ninth of the ninth of the ninth!
This sick, manipulative behavior all occurs, according to Kupat HaIr, with the backing of the (charedi) Gedolei HaDor. Fortunately, however, there are other rabbinic voices. Rav Shlomo Aviner delivered a lecture in his yeshivah in which he condemns the Four Nines as an attempt to use magic and shortcuts in place of genuine spiritual growth. As he points out, if it is so important, why is it not in the Torah? In the Gemara? In any of the major works of Judaism? Why didn't any of the famous rabbis of history mention it? And what's so special about the number nine, anyway? We need, says Rav Aviner, to focus on the truly important things, such as improving our characters. We should not be attempting to invent new magical shortcuts to salvation.
It's great to give charity. But give it to an organization that works in the right way, not one that tries to take advantage of people's fears. My personal favorite charity is Lemaan Achai, whose "gimmick" is not some mystical mumbo-jumbo, nor false promises of salvation, but rather that they practice charity in accordance with the highest ideals: working to wean people off charity. They don't raise as much money as Kupat Ha-Ir - but what they do raise, is raised honorably.
(Hat-tip to those who sent in the links. See too my post on The Ring Of Power)