Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Against Ban Harassment & Threats

This is a joint statement by many bloggers about the recent ban on VIN and the actions taken against VIN and the companies that advertise on the site.  Kudos to R. Gil Student for drafting this statement and to the other bloggers who were primarily responsible for pushing the effort forward.

A little over a month ago, a number of rabbis signed onto a ban that forbade advertising on or otherwise working with the website VosIzNeias. This ban singled out one website without addressing other websites or public forums like newspapers or magazines. The singling out of a solitary website raises many questions, particularly when newspapers in the same community regularly publish arguably libelous stories and online discussion forums for the community are essentially unbounded by civility. Additionally, VosIzNeias has publicly stated that it has already raised its standards and is willing to do even more with rabbinic guidance, provided the same guidelines are applied to its competitors.

Bans of this nature are generally brought into fruition by activists and this one is attributed to a specific activist who seems to have business and political interests in this ban. He ignored VosIzNeias’ request to meet with the rabbis in order to explore ways to satisfy their concerns. With this ban, the activist is threatening the commercial viability of the VosIzNeias business.

We have now received reports of continued harassment by this activist, who is threatening to publicly denounce people, companies and charitable organizations who continue to cooperate with the website. He has also reportedly threatened to remove the kosher certification of companies that fail to adhere to the ban. However, on being contacted, the activist behind the ban denied all knowledge of this harassment and attributed it to someone acting without authorization. We are, therefore, making no formal accusation as to who is conducting this campaign of harassment.

To the best of our understanding, this activity is illegal. One individual told us he reported that harassment to the police.

Harassing good people with threats is illegal and inexcusable. We call on rabbis and people of good faith to denounce this behavior, and we encourage victims to respond to this activist as follows:

If he calls or e-mails you or your organization, thank him for bringing the ban to your attention and say that you will decide how to proceed after consulting with your rabbi or other advisor. And because of rumors that there is harassment involved in this matter, you regret having to tell him that if he contacts you or anyone else in your organization again, you will have to report him to the police.

We have a copy of an e-mail forwarded to us by people involved, which includes a pseudonym and phone number, and we have been told of intimidating phone calls. Note that at this time we are withholding this activist's identity. If he continues harassing people, we will have to be less discrete.


The Wolf (along with many other Jewish bloggers)

If you agree, please feel free to sign in the comment section and post this on your blog as well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

No, Rabbi, They Don't Need A Guilt Trip.

An interesting article appeared in the Palm Beach Post about a Florida Chabad House that has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  According to Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui, the wealthy patrons who used to fund the Chabad House stopped contributing when the market crashed in 2008.  Now that the market is up, however, the contributions have not resumed. 

Part of the problem is that the business model of the Chabad House makes it dependent on contributions.  According to Robert Furr, the bankruptcy attorney for the Chabad House, Chabad Houses do not charge regular membership dues like many other shuls do. This leaves voluntary member donations as the main source of funding for the Chabad House.  Anyone who runs an organization financed primarily by donations from the wealthy must be aware that when an economic downturn happens (and it always *will* happen -- markets tend are cyclical), that voluntary donations will drop off as well.  I don't know if Rabbi Ezagui curtailed his operations when the recession hit (so as to slow down his burn-rate) or salted away some of the donations from the good years for the lean years (a lesson learned from Joseph), but at this point, he has run out of money and has loans that are due. 

What struck me most about the article was Rabbi Ezagui's sense of entitlement to the charity dollars of others.  Here's the money quote (pun intended):

Ezagui said wealthy people are making excuses not to give.

"The Jewish people who have the money should feel a guilt trip.  They have plenty of money," he said. "I see them in their Rolls Royces, I go to their million-dollar houses and they say, 'I don't have the money, Rabbi.' "

 Apparently, Rabbi Ezagui does not understand that sometimes one can be what is colloquially referred to as "house-poor."  A person can have a lot of their wealth tied up in non-liquid assets that are not easy to dispose of or leverage for additional cash.  In addition, even if someone has a million-dollar home that is completely paid for, you have to take into account that they are actually living there.  So, what is Rabbi Ezagui asking them to do?  Sell the home and move to fund a Chabad House?  Borrow against it to fund a Chabad House?  Do either of those sound realistic or fiscally responsible?

But hey, let's even say (for the sake of argument) that they have cash sitting around.  Even so, Rabbi Ezagui is *still* wrong.  No one *owes* a contribution to the Chabad House.  The last time I checked, people are free to give their tzedaka money to any charity that they wish.  They certainly don't have to give to the Chabad House, nor do they need to be made to feel guilty about where they choose to contribute. 

I known nothing about this particular Chabad House.  For all I know, they are a very worthy institution where wonderous work is done in Jewish outreach.  For all I know, Rabbi Ezagui may be a tireless worker working to bring Yiddishkeit to the masses of Palm Beach.  But he has to learn two things: 

1.  He has to find a new business model that does not rely so heavily on donations from wealthy patrons and is not as susceptable to economic downturns.

2.  His organization is not automatically entitled to other people's money.  He has to learn that there are other competitors for people's money, which include discretionary spending, other charitable options or even basic necessities.  No one needs to feel guilty because they don't contribute to *his* cause.

The Wolf