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


Sean Ben Noach said...

Although I disagree with the guilt slant in his quote. I think it's important to remember that ALL of christianity is operated by charitable gifts in the same way Chabad is... They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves by that model!

In christianity, it's expected that if you attend a church, that you give your tithe there. You're welcome to give charity anywhere you please but after you take care of your home church first.

I'm not sure why Chabad would be any different... If you choose to attend Chabad as your main shul, why wouldn't you treat your donations the same as dues? Do people think they're off the hook because it's not "required" of them? I would be frustrated too!

I knew many people growing up that did just as you jokingly suggest, they remortgaged their homes or even downsized so their church could afford debt free expansions.

BrooklynWolf said...


If that's the way it's to be run (i.e. that you're expected to support your shul -- a concept I don't necessarily disagree with) then why not just have regular membership dues, like most other shuls?

The Wolf

Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem with the Chabad model isn't that it relies on donations. It's that the donations are spent on people who don't contribute.
The Chabad shaliach spends his days shlepping around town raising funds so he can throw parties and programs for students or locals. Because he doesn't charge at the door, these people learn they can freeload for a meal or several drinks and never feel an obligation to give back a few dollars. So when the big donors dry up, they simply leave to find another party.
Not a good model for the long term.

Anonymous said...

The Chabad shliach does not only "throw parties and programs for students or locals" -- he also hosts people for Shabbos and Yom Tov, helps arrange Bar Mitzvahs and brissin for people who never had them before, learns Torah with people who never had an opportunity to do so before etc etc. Donations received go to offset the costs of all of the activities done, not 'only' the so called freeloading activities, which, in most cases, have value too.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

We are also forgetting that the Chabad is in many supporters' eyes a luxury, not a necessity. Many of those supporters are often not observant Jews. Ultimately, on a weekly basis, they figure they can daven and even learn somewhere else just as well. In fact, many supporters often do belong to and support other synagogues, schools, etc. The Chabadnik thinks he is irreplaceable; but in the eyes of his supporters that is rarely the case. He thinks he represents the ultimate model for Torah; but in to his supporters this is another franchise (albeit interesting, enjoyable, different, etc.) - a MacDonald's among Burger Kings, Wendys, etc.

So his basic problem, more basic than his business model, is his belief that he is so special that nothing else compares. While to the rest of the Jewish world, that isn't the case. And even to us observant folks, we are often as happy or happier to daven in a more standard or mainstream Orthodox shul.

Miami Al said...

You guys don't actually understand Palm Beach. Palm Beach deeds are restricted, you can't sell property to Jews (this hasn't been legally enforceable in 70+ years). There is a famous picture from the Palm Beach Country Club that said "No Jews or Dogs allowed."

Jews started to move in in the late 70s, but it wasn't under the current Orthodox Shul opened up that there was ANY organized Jewish religious presence on Palm Beach Island (the informal name for the city of Palm Beach, not Palm Beach County which includes Jewish-heavy Boca Raton).

I don't know that it's a Chabad House per se, it seems like this location is a second presence on Palm Beach, IIRC the original synagogue, that hired a Lubavicher Rabbi, was in Southern Palm Beach.

To call the congregation unobservant is generous. Until VERY recently, Jews moving to Palm Beach weren't Jews that happened to go to a non-Orthodox Shul, they were Jews moving to a city that legally prevented them as long as possible, then socially prevented them as long as possible. Stories abound of contractors that worked with Jews being boycotted, Realtors that sold them property being boycotted, etc.

And calling the homes there "million dollar homes" is insulting to the homes that are worth much more... though perhaps in the down turn, some of the homes might be down to a million dollars.

The Wealthy New York crew that summers in the Hamptons also winters in Palm Beach, it's Bar Mitzvahs and parties, it's a seriously different type of city.

IIRC, the first Synagogue in the Hamptons also hired a Lubavicher Rabbi for their congregation, and they were also a non observant set.

Avram in MD said...

Miami Al,

I am not sure how your comments about Palm Beach relate to R' Ezagui's shul, which is on the mainland in North Palm Beach, a different municipality from the town of Palm Beach.