Thursday, July 28, 2005

On Begging and Beggars

Let me start off by saying this: I know that there are plenty of beggars in the frum community. I generally take it at face value that they are all for real. I know that there may be any number of fakers and phonies in the bunch, but I look at it from the other side - best to err on the side of "caution:" If he's fake, so he's cheated me out of a quarter or a dollar; I'll survive anyway. If he's real, then I've made a small difference for the better in their lives.

Furthermore, let me also state that I'm talking about beggars, not charity collectors (many of whom, however, engage in the same kind of behavior that I describe for the beggars). I'll deal with them later in the blog.

That being said, in New York, there seems to be no shortage of frum beggars. You see them wherever you go: in shul in the morning, they make the rounds during minyan. They intercept you in the street and disturb your meals when you're eating out. They hold out their hands at weddings and bar mitzvahs. They knock on the door of your house and approach your car.

I am of two minds about this phenomenon, and I go back and forth between the two. The first is that these people are unfortunate and need money to survive. I don't know what kind of a living you can eke out asking for quarters in the street or making the rounds at morning minyan, but, (assuming that they are genuine, of course) they have needs. I know that if, God forbid, my family were starving and we had no other means of support, I would do whatever I needed to to get food on the table (or at least I'd try -- I'm really not the pushy type. I don't think I'd survive as a beggar). If it meant disturbing people during their daily routine a bit, I can certainly understand that.

But, on the other hand, there is the fact that I don't *want* to be disturbed. For example, I have a limited amount of time for lunch. If I stopped and gave to every person asking for money on the streets of Manhattan that I see during my lunch period, it turns into a significant bother. In addition, I, like most people, would like to eat without being disturbed. Maybe I'm more sensitive than most in this, but when I sit down to eat by myself, I don't want anyone to bother me short of telling me there is a fire in the building. When someone comes to my table asking me for charity, I've got two issues to deal with: 1. I don't want to be disturbed and 2. I find myself feeling slightly guilty because I have and the other person doesn't (even though those feelings of guilt are completely unwarranted). I should have the right to be reasonably free from unwanted disturbances in my daily life.

Of course, the idea is to find a balance between the two - between the fact that the beggar needs to survive and my desire to not be overly bothered. How to reconcile the two? Where does one draw the line? When you go to minyan in the morning, how many people have to approach you before you feel justified in telling the next one "I'm sorry..." How many times do you have to be interrupted at an affair before being able to justify saying to the next one "I'm sorry...."

There are those who would say none; that a beggar has no inherent "right" to disturb you. To some extent, that is certainly true. But, on the other hand, one must (IMHO) take into consideration the fact that these are desperate people and should not be turned away without good reason. In addition, it's a good reminder that there are those less fortunate and that it is our duty to help them.

On the other hand, there are also those who state that we should help everyone who comes along. While that is certainly noble, and for anyone who is willing to and able to do so, it is a wonderful and meritorious thing, it should not be made binding on everyone. For a while, I made it a habit that when I went to a certain shul for shacharis, I would bring along a small pack of singles (usually between five and eight). When a beggar approached, I'd give one. When I ran out of those singles, I ran out... it didn't make a difference if I had more money in my pocket - that was it, no one else would get. One is certainly not obligated to give all his money to charity and a person is also free to give his charity to the people/organizations of his or her choice. I'm not required to give my money to beggars any more than I'm required to give it to Tomche Shabbos, Hatzoloh or any other organization. And, after a certain point, I think that people have earned the "right" to be free from such disturbance. Of course, the beggar has no way of knowing how many beggars came before him, so I suppose this is not really practical, but nonetheless, we shouldn't have to put up with the constant barrage.

So, what's the solution? Where do we find the middle-ground? Of course, in the end, everyone has to make that decision for themselves - there is no "one size fits all" answer. But there should be some general guidelines that we, as a community, can come up with.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Finally someone who is looking for a solution instead of just complaining.

I hate when people just complain and don't try to find a solution. I think if something bothers people, they should try to resolve it instead just talking.

PsychoToddler said...

I really can't stand it either. There are nights when 5 or six people or groups of people will ring my doorbell looking for free money. To the point where I want to turn out the lights and pretend I'm not home.

But I'm afraid of the effect something like that would have on my kids. My daughter once told me how impressed she was with me when, seemingly right after we had had a long discussion about the sad state of our family finances, the doorbell rang and I gave some stranger $18.

Our attitudes towards shnorers (or meshulachs--what you call them is part of the attitude) is easily observed by our kids.

The way I try to look at it now is that I am woefully lacking in Mitzvot, and I'm happy when someone goes to the trouble of coming all the way to my town and my house to enable me to give some tzdakah.

Do I really feel that way? I don't think so. But it's worth a shot.

and so it shall be... said...

"Finally someone who is looking for a solution instead of just complaining. I hate when people just complain and don't try to find a solution."

just luvin' the irony here, aren't I????

Zoe Strickman said...

This issue also bothers me to no end. Some frum communities, however, have given the beggars certifications so that we know they're legit. I am still bothered by the whole thing and I wish they didn't have to beg.

This was a very well written and thought-provoking article.

Anonymous said...

SW, I know what you're saying, they should find a way to support themself, other than begging.

What I'm saying is that I read in a couple places, people talking about poor families living off of their parents or the government. But I don't see people thinking of solutions. If they are going to rant about it, they should give a solution so it's l'toeles

Anonymous said...

wolf, good post. And your right, while we should give to those who come to us, we also don't want to keep being bothered. And the balance question is very good. Hopefully we'll find a way to balance it.

Orthoprax said...

There are legitimate organizations which exist just for helping out the less fortunate. Give money to those groups and not to individuals. That type of system is immeasurably better than the one on one that goes about today.

The people in need would get regular monetary help in accordance with their need without spending the hours and hours needed to beg. And during that time, they might even be out looking for work or working. These systems should be a way for people to get out of this rut, not keep them in it.

On the other side of it, good-hearted givers like Wolf, here, won't be disturbed during meals.

It's actually bad for the beggar to give him money directly. I don't want to sound demeaning, but it's like animals who depend on human handouts and then cannot survive in the wild on their own. It's much better to teach a man to fish, y'know...

This doesn't mean that if you truly see a starving person that you shouldn't feed him, but that third party truly involved organizations are the best way to help out the less fortunate.

BBJ said...

I am--or was--in a town with plenty of people asking for money, but not frum ones. (I once presided over a religious-school class where we were making Chanukah decorations. A kid asked me if they were taking them home, and I explained that the synagogue was taking them to give to people in a homeless shelter so they would have a nice Chanukah too. The kid looked confused and said "But they're not Jewish." I told the story to a gentile friend who looked almost as confused and told me she had never considered that people in a homeless shelter might be Jewish.)

I have some basic rules. People in the neighborhood, who I know, get. Women get, women with children get folding money. I don't give after dark, I'm small and female and it's a big city. I used to make it a habit to find one person to give a fairly substantial sum to before going home for Shabbos, I should start to send that cash to a shelter or some other organization, since I no longer work downtown.

In my neighborhood we don't have beggars coming to the door, or at simchas (frei living has some advantages), so I can't advise you there.

It's not an easy thing to solve, is it?

Anonymous said...

At the moment I'm working through Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged,' which as you know, is very interesting, but is also based in a very black and white world. I like her basic idea- that it is competence that should be rewarded, not need. That the perfect society is one in which each man has a craft and can trade in his effort and work for the goods that others may give him, where each man is dignified and need not rely upon others, upon charity.

What Ayn Rand fails to take into account, however, are those who don't fit into this black and white spectrum. People who are not able-bodied, such as people who lack a limb or vision or hearing. People who are born metally challenged. People who can give back to the world, but not in the same way she expects the businessmen and characters in her work to give back.

I suppose the idea I like best is to support the man who really desires to work, but cannot- either because his opportunities are limited through no fault of his own, or he is truly unable to support himself due to certain difficulties/ challenges- again, not his own fault. But supporting people simply because of their need, people who have the ability to work and who deliberately choose not to- that idea rubs me the wrong way.

When I was in New York this past summer (I attended Summer@YU) we went into a pizza shop, outside of which a Jewish woman sat, holding a sign that proclaimed her to be poor, and holding out a pushka. I had no money to give her. It made me feel uncomfortable- every person who walks into or out of this resteraunt will see her. And on the one hand, I understand why she does this, but on the other hand, I resent the fact that she has decided she has the right to make me feel guilty, and to take advantage of that guilt to make me give to her. Since she's sitting outside the pizza shop, we all immediately feel that we had something to eat, but she probably didn't, and then we feel guilty, so we give.

I really don't think that's the best way to give tzedaka. We shouldn't be giving based on need or because we feel guilty- we should be giving because we realize the person wants to work/ can work/ can contribute to the world, he only needs some help--a loan-- to stand on his own two feet again. Giving someone a job is the highest form of tzedaka- provided he can do that job.

So yes- I like the idea of giving to those who I feel will use the money, if possible, to somehow improve their situation. I don't think I should be giving based off of my own guilt, or my own shame. I like the idea of panhandlers who play music- because it's almost a trade- you give them money, but they are playing an instrument for you.

I don't think I've really answered your question, only written my own thoughts. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Beggars should be able to beg, but there is, I believe, such a thing as begging etiquette. I found it extremely rude when a beggar came up to my table when I was eating to beg for food every five seconds (literally--she would walk up to my table, leave, and come back a moment later). I would have bought her food, too, if she hadn't stuck her hands into my food (she was pointing and went a bit too close). If you need to beg, do it in a public place, but do not invade anyone's personal space. A more effective and less invasive technique would be sitting at an empty table near a door and asking those who pass for food or holding a sign.