I have this small bowl at home, sitting on the window sill, where I keep small change, mostly half-shekel and 1 shekel coins. Every morning, before leaving home for the synagogue, I put a few coins in my pocket. Three of them go into the synagogue’s charity box (during ויברך דוד) and a couple of spare coins for the charity seekers that will invariably turn up at some point during Shacharit. I do not go to the same synagogue every day; depending on when I get up, I can choose between 4-5 different minyamim. But no matter where I go, there will always be at least one, sometimes two, people who will come into the synagogue asking for money.
This morning, a personal record was broken. At the entrance to the synagogue sat a woman in a wheelchair holding a cup. Ten minutes into the service, a middle-aged man came in and did the rounds, holding a worn out letter of recommendation from some rabbi. Halfway through the service a regular came in (he’s already so familiar, he stops to exchange pleasantries with some congregants). And finally, a few minutes before wrapping up, two charedi youngsters (mid twenties is my guess) came in and walked around with outstretched hands. That’s four people in half an hour. I ran out of coins with the regular guy and gave nothing to the men in black.
There is no argument that charity is an important mitzvah. As the old saying goes: may we always be the one giving and not the one asking. But the frequency with which these mendicants show up seems to be increasing. Some of them – not many, I have to say – really seem in need: old or disabled people, those in need of expensive medical treatments or those upon whom some tragedy has befallen. But others seem to be nothing more than “professional” alms collectors.
Take these two black-clad youngsters this morning. They seemed perfectly healthy looking; one even had a jovially rotund figure. They didn’t bother to say what they were collecting the money for and did not produce any document to validate their claim for charity (not that I place much confidence in these “letters of recommendation”, but still). There was not a modicum of shame or embarrassment in their supplicating postures. It almost seemed as if they were in a hurry to finish the rounds in this establishment and move on to the next.
A few months ago, a similar young looking charedi came to my synagogue asking for money. One of the congregants asked him if he was healthy and able, and got a positive reply. “So why don’t you work for a living?”, was the next question. The refreshingly honest answer from the young panhandler was: “I was not brought up to think about working!”. Which is, of course, exactly the problem.
A frighteningly large number of young people in Israel are brought up to choose a life of unemployment. A life in which others carry the burden, a life of handouts and schnorr. As I’ve written here previously, about 70% of charedim aged 35-54 are unemployed. Living in a mixed religious community I see these young people all the time, spending their days in the yeshivah studying (or warming the benches) and not acquiring the minimal skills necessary to support themselves and their future families. The only “business ventures” they are exposed to are the various fundraising activities their teachers and rabbis engage in. They are encouraged to marry young and have as many children as possible.
When asked how they will cope, invariably the answer is: “God will provide”. Make no mistake. God, in this case, is a euphemism for my tax shekels and that bowl of change sitting on the window sill in my house.