Give and Let Live?
Go to any large synagogue in downtown Jerusalem on a weekday, and you’ll be sure to see a similar picture. To an outsider, it’s probably a strange sight. The congregants are in contemporary dress, wearing jeans and colorful polo shirts, pressed khakis and classic button-downs. They pray with their cell phones on the table in front of them, or with them clasped to the belt buckles on their waists. Listen, and you’ll hear prayers conducted with the Sephardic pronunciation, the taf of modern Israel rather than the suf of Eastern Europe. You would rightly guess that these people are overwhelmingly professionals; doctors and lawyers, hi-tech workers and scientists, accountants and businesspeople (and retirees). Surely this is a Dati Leumi congregation.
But interspersed amongst these prayer-goers are dozens of other people, likewise in varying modes of dress and decorum. Some are attired in classic black coats from head to toe (although their socks do tend to be white), while others wear the signature gold and black striped tunics of their communities. These individuals do not seem to be members of the congregation- they are ultra-Orthodox. So what is it that these ultra-Orthodox people are doing? Have they come to join for early morning Shacharit prayers? Not quite. They pace up and down the aisles of the synagogues, hands outstretched as they jingle their fistfuls of coins and whisper “Gut Shabbes,” “Gut Yontif,” “Hachnasas Kallah”, or whatever the appropriate greeting may be that inspires congregants to open their purse strings to these beggars. They go from person to person, with eyes cast downward and an occasional smile. They are unabashed at their requests of money, knowing that their modern (read “wealthier”) brethren will assist them. Many of the individuals will spend their mornings going from synagogue to synagogue in order to raise as much money as they can. To cope with the onslaught of alms -seekers, several of the older congregants have a custom of laying out a pile of coins on the table adjacent to where they are praying. Rather than having to search one’s pockets in vain or interrupt one’s prayers to give charity, now the beggar can silently grab a coin and continue to the next person.
I was first bothered by this phenomenon in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of young Shira Banki, hy”d, at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. While not intending to stereotype all members of a particular society, I wonder how many of these charity collectors silently condone her death. How many of them believe that gay people are a curse and a disease and need to be obliterated or suppressed? How many of their rabbis and roshei yeshiva, perhaps without saying it, believe that Yishai Schlissel’s actions were honorable and that the holiness of the city of Jerusalem was restored through the murdering of an innocent girl? How many of them came out and condemned the attack, or joined the subsequent protests that swept the city? And as I think back on those days and the mighty and outspoken divisions created between secular and religious, Dati Leumi and Hareidi factions in Israeli society and especially in Jerusalem, I know that these beggars kept coming through it all. To be completely fair, one could argue that these individuals are ill-informed and innocent members of a greater community, too caught up in their own hardships to worry about or to get involved with larger issues, but I find such claims too dismissive and forgiving to be truthful.
My uneasiness grew after reading a September 30th interview with city councilor Hanan Rubin in the Times of Israel. Born and bred in Jerusalem, Rubin talks about the importance of maintaining Jerusalem as a city that belongs to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. While he himself is an observant Jew, he hails the rise of secular activity in Jerusalem because he understands the need for the city to be pluralistic and tolerant of all. He supported the opening of Yes Planet Jerusalem, a movie theater that is controversial because it is open on Shabbat. He applauded the decision to have a café that would be open on Shabbat located in the heart of Independence Park. Both of these endeavors were hotly protested by Haredim, under the guise that they desecrated the religious nature of Jerusalem. While I am sympathetic to their reasoning, and have personally found it difficult to watch Jews eat at restaurants and drive on Shabbat, my overwhelming feeling is that this is not my business. I cannot control other people, and it is not my place to do so. Each person is entitled to live life as he or she chooses, and a city cannot simply exclude or discriminate against a major part of its residents. The efforts of Haredi residents to restrict the freedom of other residents is simply deplorable to me.
But there is a full host of other issues that our two communities disagree on. What about mandatory army service, for example? Why is it that every Jewish male citizen of the State of Israel must risk his life defending the State and its inhabitants, except for members of the Haredi sector? Why are their 18 year old youths free to study and live with their families and relax and enjoy life whilst their counterparts suffer and toil defending these very people from our enemies? How do their leaders continue to besmirch the good name of the State and its army by refusing to force their students to enlist, and how dare they accept government money to support their yeshivot but deny the country any reciprocal payment?
And despite all the differences between us, they keep coming to our synagogues, and we keep supporting them. How do we explain this? I’ve watched as some of these individuals answer Amen, or murmur a prayer along with the congregants. This display of unity and love is truly heart-warming. But others, I’ve seen scamper away just before the start of Kedusha, so as not to be forced to join with the heathens in our holiest supplication. Still others will continue their journey in between congregants, oblivious to what passage of prayer the congregation has come to. Perhaps our prayer is not their prayer. Perhaps our Torah is not their Torah. Perhaps our beliefs are not their beliefs. But our money? Our money is their money, and our money is good enough for them.
And in most cases, we’re happy to give our money. At my minyan one morning, a congregant assaulted a beggar by asking him, loudly, so that everyone could hear: “How old are you? Too old to work? Why can’t you get a job and support yourself that way? Why do I have to pay for you?” The young man he was addressing simply smiled smugly, and said nothing. Maybe he acknowledged in his heart that there was something strange about this, that his livelihood depended on people he would otherwise have nothing to do with, but that wasn’t going to propel a change in his actions. The young man walked away, and continued his collecting. Yet this type of outburst is rare. Most of us will give a coin and carry on, with our prayers, with our Torah, with our beliefs. I, for one, was embarrassed and ashamed at the boldness of my fellow congregant. This is not what we do. We give, and we don’t think about it or ask questions. We give, and we don’t question to whom we are giving to, and why.
It is laudable that we are willing to give to whomever comes to use with hands outstretched, and that we deny no one money that they so desperately need, especially when we have money for giving. But by supporting them, are we also approving their lifestyles and their beliefs? When we give a coin, are we essentially saying, “Here. Please continue to fight against the desecration of the Sabbath and against those who do not act in accordance with the Torah. Please continue to protect your children from the influences of the outside world and of the Modern Orthodox and to protest our community’s values. Please continue to have nothing to do with us, except as your chief benefactors”?
Please don’t take this as a call to action. What, indeed, would happen if we only gave charity to those of whom we approved? Would we give only to men, or only to women? Would we deny anyone who is in traditional dress, or who is modernly dressed? What about Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives? Maybe we should only give those whose outlooks on life align with our own. Maybe we should only give people with families, and not those who are single. Maybe only older individuals are deserving of our money, and not the young, able-bodied ones. It is quick to see how this could get out of hand. And the bottom line remains the same: a needy Jew is a needy Jew, and we have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate. But perhaps we need to be more aware of what we are doing, and of the message we are sending. Should charity be given in a vacuum, or do we stop to consider exactly to whom we are giving our hard earned money?