Defending Jonathan Rosenblum

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No, this is not a defense of THE Jonathan Rosenblum article, the one that decried the cavalier attitude that some in the haredi community display towards the way their less laudable actions will be perceived by the rest of the world. So that there should be no confusion, I will say that I salute him for the content of his remarks, and his courage in writing them. As is the case so often, I wish I had done it first.

Rather, I rise to defend him regarding his piece about deception and tzedaka, in which he described how some people mulcted him out of some cash by fabricating need, and how he accosted them and demanded the return of the money.

A reader of Hamodia chided him for this, and opined that once money has been contributed, it is not our task to be judgmental and ever ask for its return.

I believe that this attitude is terribly in error, and damages the institution of charity rather than elevates it. Many people effectively “write off” their charitable funds, arguing that they have no real bond to them, because the money is “lost” to them anyway. Therefore, they can afford to be somewhat looser with tzedaka funds, since they have no vested interest in them other than seeing that they are aimed at something that looks like a deserving enterprise.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We have even greater responsibility towards our monies earmarked for tzedaka than we do for our personal funds. We own the latter, but are only custodians of the former. We can look the other way in regard to what is ours, but we must be demanding and punctilious about what belongs to others. Once Jonathan had determined that the con-men had no right to a donation, he had no choice but to demand the return of the money. To do otherwise would have been a gross dereliction of duty.

Learning that the fellow you just handed a check to is a phony is a relatively rare occurrence. A far more common situation in which we ought to exercise more discretion – precisely because the money is not ours to squander – is choosing between competing destinations for our tzedaka dollars. Assume, for the sake of argument, two tzedakos vying for donations, each catering to the poor of Yerushalayim. One spends 34 cents of each dollar on administration and overhead, while the other spends eight cents. If the two enterprises were business looking for investment, would we not look carefully at how much bang they were delivering for each buck? Why should our charitable contributions be different?

Scratch the surface of charitable organizations, and you will find disparity between their efficiencies. Many won’t allow you to, by keeping their books closed from the public. They can only do so because givers are not more demanding.
If we truly believe that we hold our tzedaka funds in trust for the poor, we will try to be more vigilant about their interests. We will protect them not only from fraud, but from waste.

Perhaps we ought to be asking more questions when we give.

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15 Responses

  1. Yisrael Moshe says:

    OK. Dr. Ed has not answered me. Is there ANYBODY out there who can tell me how to get reliable information regarding ZAKA?

  2. Yisrael Moshe says:

    Dr. Ed writes:

    “social service mosdos (e.g., ZAKA, Hatzala)”

    Dr. Ed, I have search high and low for any financial information for ZAKA. Can you tell me where I can get it?

  3. Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz says:

    Rabbi Oberstein’s comment about money leaving the community points to a good reason the Baltimore Agudah has Tzedakah scrip. The collector gets the face value from the Agudah as a lump sum when he has finished collecting. The scrip purchaser, pays a 20% surcharge. The Agudah distributes the surcharge to the local Mosdos (the purchaser can specify which school his donation will support).

    These help as well in a number of practical matters. Since the purchaser can get as much scrip as possible in advance by check, his records are clear for both Maaser and the IRS. Since the collector does not get actual money until he has finished collecting, he is safer than if he must keep track of a lot of small bills. Since he is dealing with the Agudah, the Agudah can check his honesty and that of the organization that he represents.

    If other communities would take up this idea, perhaps some of the problems would be alleviated.

  4. L Oberstein says:

    Kudos to both Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Adlerstein. we Jews are known as charitable people. Even the secular institutions are funded by Jews far out of our proportion of the population. Some people are unwilling to help institutionsm, only poor people. Others prefer institutions that are open to inspection. Here is the problem, in Baltimore and I am sure in LA and elsewhere. At whatpoint does the volume of money leaving town cause the local schools to suffer> My experience is that the schools in Baltimore come crying to the rabbis all the time that people are giving a huge amount of money to out of town institutions and not helping their children’s schools with their tzedakah. If you pay tuition, does that free you from donating to the school. many think so. On the other hand, there are many worthy institutions that collect out of town and need that support to serve Klal Yisroel.It is a tough nut to crack even without the charlatans.

  5. David says:

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion regarding this……on the other hand you have statements from some venerable Rabbis saying,in effect, if you don’t judge the recepient harshly, then Hashem will not judge you harshly. I would love some clarification.”

    Good and important point raised.

    The ‘venerable Rabbis’ attitude is perhaps a midas chassidus (for extra-pious people), but not necessarily required in all cases. In some cases such an attitude may even be an aveira, when it encourages fraud.

    Comment by Mordechai — February 14, 2007 @ 4:36 pm

    The problem with this ‘midas chasidus’ is that you are taking away money from legitimate causes by not properly checking out fraudulent cases. Most people have a certain finite amount that they have in their maaser account. If you give to one, another necessarily loses out.

    Another problem with saying that it’s midas chasidus is that you’re going against halachah with that approach. My interpertation of midas chasidus is that it’s beyond the call of duty, but still within the boundaries of halacha. For example, it’s not midas chasidus to withhold critical information about a shidduch if the laws of loshon harah say that it should be spoken. To withhold it would be an aveirah of lifnei ever.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Where the collectors are also poor, I don’t mind some reasonable percentage going to them.

  7. SephardiLady says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein-An excellent article on a subject near and dear to my blog (Orthonomics).

    I like to think of the tzedakah dollars I give as an “investment.” I want to invest in institutions that further the interests of our community and I want to help poor people in a way that does not encourage dependency, but rather furthers independence.

    When we treat our tzedakah dollars as “money down the drain,” we invite unscrupulous collectors and invite secrecy. I’m sure most organizations and private collectors are honest. But I’ve heard enough stories of dishonesty to write a book and that is sad.

    Unfortunately most of us don’t have huge sums to invest in our community and in the people in our community which may play into the attitude that the money is “lost.” In a way I wish that it would be possible to team up with people with similiar interests so that we could have access to the records of certain tzedakah organizations so that we know our money is getting a big enough bang for the buck.

  8. Mordechai says:

    “Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion regarding this……on the other hand you have statements from some venerable Rabbis saying,in effect, if you don’t judge the recepient harshly, then Hashem will not judge you harshly. I would love some clarification.”

    Good and important point raised.

    The ‘venerable Rabbis’ attitude is perhaps a midas chassidus (for extra-pious people), but not necessarily required in all cases. In some cases such an attitude may even be an aveira, when it encourages fraud.

  9. Dr. E says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein brings up a good point about the “openness of the books”. Given that tzedaka and related institutions are based on a public trust, the public has a right to know. Chazal are replete with references made to this as well as the criteria for who may be a guardian of these public trusts. Unfortunately, the frum world falls short in terms of this openess, which invariably will lead to ignorance (by the givers), cynicism, and at worst scandal.

    While from the giver’s perspective, it may all be Maaser Kessafim, the truth is that “tzedaka” is not a monolithic enterprise. There are different categories of causes. There are the poor and distitute vs. the local poor and destitute, the organizational vs. the individual, Eretz Yisrael vs. local vs. other needs, the sick vs. the healthy, the starving vs. the well fed, the educational (day schools, Kollelim) vs. social service mosdos (e.g., ZAKA, Hatzala)–and there are probably other distinctions. It’s up to the giver to look at what/who the recipient is and make informed decisions accordingly. And he/she should not be made to feel guilty for not being as “spontaneous” as the collectors would like.

    Rabbi Adlerstein also mentions “overhead”. Professional fundraisers will probably argue that it takes money to make money. But, I think we have seen scenarios that border on being over-the-top in terms of their pomp and glory. Is renting out expensive concert halls in big cities really necessary? How much of one’s tzeddaka dollar is actually reaching the hands and mouths of the needy pictured in glossy brochures or video productions. Are these images merely means of exploitation in helping people rationale what would otherwise be a night out on the town? One could argue that boring parlor meetings and in-person appeals made by people past their prime just don’t cut it anymore for the current generation. I don’t mean to slam the above events with a broad brush. I just think that more openness should exist in terms of the ratio of overhead costs to the money landing where it needs to be.

    Finally, I will add another pet peeve of mine. That is aggressive tactics which are often unscrupulous at best. I’m talking about the boiler-room operations that call you at dinner time thanking us for our “past support of $xx”, asking us to buy raffle tickets (does anyone really win those things) when we have never heard of the organization. Whether done by mail or by phone, it’s all the same (only phone is far more irritating). [And on the individual collector level, some have a bit to much “attitude”, for my tastes.]

    In many ways, tzedaka has become to too commercialized in the higher overhead organizations. I truly believe that there is a disconnect between those closer to the action (often the Rabbinic endorsers) and the “Fundraising Department”, which is left to its own unchecked creative devices. The best place to start may be with some internal accountability.

    Tzedaka is a great and important mitzvah. Let’s not squander it.

  10. easterner says:

    inre bob miller’s comment, i would suppose that since many haredi people have their parnassa as a rakeoff of what they collect for an organization, those mosdos would inherently be unlikely to want to publicize that fact. also, one wonders if there is any data as to whether the tzedakos that rely less on collectors and more on mail or other methods are more cost effective. but , again , many institutions would not want to be listed as ‘low’ or non -cost-effective. so presumabely this data will not be available.

    there are some online lists of charities that are IRS deductible that list some data, but probably not to the point of transparancy….

  11. David says:

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion regarding this. On the one hand, you have Halacha stating that a person has a responsility to make sure that the recipient is worthy of receiving funds, but on the other hand you have statements from some venerable Rabbis saying,in effect, if you don’t judge the recepient harshly, then Hashem will not judge you harshly. I would love some clarification.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Which, if any, reliable monitoring organizations exist to offer figures on the efficiency (“$ given to the poor” as a percentage of “$ taken in”) of Orthodox Jewish charities? That is, the charities that provide this information.

    Perhaps, the prominent rabbis who endorse charities (as in ads and flyers, which often show their pictures and signatures) can make transparency and open books a condition of their new or continued endorsement. This could have immediate impact.

  13. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Thanks to Yitzchak. And I certainly agree with what he says. But contrary to what that letter writer seemed to believe, my article was not about fake tzedakah collectors, it was about the damage we do to our entire social fabric, which is built on trust, by lying, and the importance of instilling in our children an acute awareness of falsehood as something disgusting.

  14. Joel Rich says:

    A reader of Hamodia chided him for this, and opined that once money has been contributed, it is not our task to be judgmental and ever ask for its return.

    I believe that this attitude is terribly in error

    I would be meyashev (reconcile) the 2 opinions – if someone comes to you for a donation for an individual/organization who you can not authenticate (this is an area where the kahal can be of great help but it takes committed time and people to have a group that vets), to the extent you can give a small amount, it’s a good trait. For larger amounts don’t be choshed kshairim (suspect those who are trustworthy) but at the same time kapdeihu vchashdeihu (or as a former US President said – “trust but verify)

    Kach mkublani mbeit avi abba

    KT

  15. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    While I agree with everything my friend Yitzchok writes, I had a more fundamental objection to the objection of the Mishpacha reader of that particular article. The article was not about fake tzedakah collectors but about the damage done by lying to our entire social fabric, which is ultimately based on trust, and the importance of conveying this lesson to our children.