Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aware of what actually differentiates a good charity from a bad one.
Last year, an explosive piece of investigative journalism in The Marker revealed that in the high-profile campaigns about how so-and-so has kidney disease and suchlike, only about 10% of the donations actually go to the recipient - in one case, only 2%! The overwhelming bulk of it is divided between the activists behind the campaign, including journalists, broadcasters and procurers of rabbinic support. (Thank goodness there are newspapers and magazines that do proper investigative journalism - something that does not exist in the frum world.)
Of course, everyone would agree that this is scandalous. This is why organizations such as the Vaad HaRabbonim promote their charity by claiming that 100% of the proceeds go to the poor, with gifts such as magic challah knives having been separately donated. (Of course this is somewhat disingenuous, since doubtless the person who spent a fortune on magic challah knives would have given this money to the charity's general funds had there been no need for magic challah knives.)
But the problem here is that giving all the money to the poor is also very far from the ideal, and this is a harmful message to send. In part, this is because every successful charity needs funds for professional administration and fundraising. But it also relates to how modern society is different from traditional Jewish society.
For thousands of years, Jews followed the values expressed by the Torah and Chazal. Doing one's part for the nation was critical, and there was no way to get an exemption. Being self-supportive, and raising one's children to be self-supportive, was generally seen as the ideal. Living simply was praiseworthy, but living off charity was shameful. The concept of the food that a poor person receives being called nehama d'kisufa, "bread of shame," was so obvious that it became a metaphor for other things. And learning Torah was not seen as a valid reason to idealize or even justify such a way of life (though teaching Torah was, by most authorities, considered acceptable).
Nowadays, it's entirely different. The rise of the welfare state has made it possible for many people to live in a state whereby they are poor by modern standards but do not starve to death. The opposition in some circles to Zionism has created an isolationist mindset which causes some people to not care at all about the impact of growing poverty on the national economy. And the innovations of mystical-charedi theology have entirely negated Chazal's value system, leading hundreds of thousands to believe that if you are in kollel then living off charity is not only not something shameful, but actually a privilege to which they are entitled, and to which they should raise their children.
With such a situation, when you have funds to distribute to the poor, and you just hand out all the money to the sort of people described above, this only alleviates the problem of their poverty in the very short-term. In the long run, it does not help at all, and may even make things worse. When these people are encouraged to believe that their lifestyle is both noble and manageable, they have little incentive to change anything for the next generation. And so in the next generation, the problem is many times bigger. If you're wealthy person supporting ten families in kollel, each of whom has four boys that they are raising towards a kollel lifestyle, are you so sure that your own children will have the desire and ability to support forty such families?
The Jerusalem Post, in a recent article relating to this topic, quoted Prof. Yuval Elbashan, who founded and directed the legal department of YEDID – The Association for Community Empowerment. In reference to charities that give hand-outs, he stated that “The aid of the charities is problematic because it is actually about giving paracetamol, something that reduces the distress a little but really does not treat the root of the problem."
As Rambam writes, the highest level of charity is to ensure that the person does not need to live off charity in the future. In previous times, that could generally be accomplished with monetary gifts or loans, since the recipient was motivated to try to get himself out of poverty. But today, when there is an entire society which presents the lack of self-sufficiency as an ideal, and most jobs require some sort of education or training, charity needs to be done smarter. Instead of just giving all the money to the poor, it is important to invest in professional assessments and training programs to enable the poor to become self-sufficient - and to spread a message that this is what poor people should themselves be aiming for. Supporting poor families to preserve their kollel lifestyle, or helping a young couple get married when the husband has no intention of working to support his wife, is not acceptable. Charity dollars need to be prioritized for helping either those who are unable to help their own situation or those who are trying to do so.
Many community charities promote themselves by talking about how many families they help - because this is what is effective in fundraising. But we should all be making it clear that this is not the sole or ideal metric by which a charity's value should be measured. What counts even more than how many families they help is what proportion of the families that they have helped in the past no longer need to be helped, because of the work that the charity has done.
That is the standard set by the community charity in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Lemaan Achai, whose motto is "Smart Chessed." It should serve a model for community charities everywhere.
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