On a recent flight back from Israel to Chicago I was surprised to see a feature article in the international edition of the New York Times. It was entitled The Beggars of Lakewood. I found it to be a sympathetic portrait of that community’s generosity towards what we call ‘Meshulachim’. That is the Hebrew word for ‘sent ones’. Those who are ‘sent’ by various charitable institutions as their agents to raise funds.

But just as many, if not more, come to ask for charity for themselves. There are the poor and the sick. There are those that have sick relatives requiring massive amounts of money for medical procedures not always covered by Israel’s national health care system. Some simply need funds just to survive and support their families.

In the vast majority of cases, they are truly people in need. The fraudulent ones have been more or less weeded out by a process known as an Ishur  (permit).  It is usually issued by a respected organization (Agudah does this in Chicago) after verifying that their stories are true. (That was not always the case in the past.)

Lakewood has an organization that does the same thing. What was nice to see is how altruistic the community of Lakewood is.  Despite their lower incomes they tend to be more generous as a percentage of their income then many other Jews. They observe better than most of us the Mitzvah of Maaser Kesafim, the Jewish law that requires us to give 10% of our income to charity. Lakewood came out looking very good in that article. At least that’s the way I read it.

But it seems that others had negative reaction to it. They saw it as a stereotyping Jews as money-grubbing beggars.  Here in part is what they probably base this on:

Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine. During the three weeks he typically spends in town, Ehrlich — a white-bearded, black-suited, black-skullcapped, wisecracking 51-year-old — haunts the many local yeshivas, schools where Jewish men, mostly in their 20s, study the Talmud and other texts. Sometimes he loiters around the condominium complexes where students live with their young wives and growing families.

I have seen versions of this fellow many times in Chicago. And the truth is it bothers me.  Yes, giving them charity is legitimate. They do need to feed their families. But I have to ask, why do more than a few of them behave that way?

And why are so many of them from Israel? Is it because there are no jobs there? Is it the case that every Meshulach that comes from Israel has tried to find work and just hasn’t been able to? I’m sure that is true in some cases.

As I said, it is also true that many of them collect for legitimate institutions that are concerned with feeding the indigent; or for Yeshivos and Kollelim. In some cases Meshulcahim are collecting for medical reasons.

I also can’t help wondering why the vast majority of Meshulachim from Israel are Chasidic or Charedi? There are probably as many answers to that as there are Meshulachim. But I can’t help but think that a lot of it comes from the fact that Charedim in Israel do not have the education or training for good jobs.

This does not of course mean that we shouldn’t help them. But I think it does mean that as the population of Charedim and Chasidim in Israel increases, the number of Meshulchim will too. It is not unusual to find 5 or more Meshulachim coming into Shul every morning with their Ishur (green cards) asking for charity.

Wouldn’t the greatest charitable act to these people be to change the way they are educated? As I often say, if there are no secular studies in elementary or high school curricula in Israel, then the only jobs they can get are menial. And even those are limited. There are probably a lot more people applying for even a menial job that there are jobs – by a lot!

It may not eliminate poverty to give them better educations. But I have to believe it would reduce their numbers considerably.

I realize that there are schools cropping up to help Charedim get better jobs. There is for example the Charedi College of Adina Bar Shalom, and various other schools and training facilities that are beginning to educate Charedim for the workplace once they’ve left Kollel. But I don’t believe that the vast majority of Charedim are doing that. Which leaves a lot of them impoverished.

There is another aspect of this that is even more troubling to me. It is the fact that many of these Meshulachim take charity for a living – the see what they do as a job.  And the truth is that many of them actually make a decent living doing this.  I recall an interview with a paraplegic beggar who made a career panhandling on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile – a very posh and upscale shopping area. He was asked how much money he made annually doing this. His answer: in excess of $100,000 a year! (Which is probably untaxed!.)

I don’t know how much Meshulachim that come to Chicago make. But it is probably a lot more than people think.  Look at the price they have to pay for it though. Have they not all lost all their sense of dignity taking purposely charity for a living? This is not the way a Jew should support himself.

I do want to be clear, however, that many of these Meshulchim are not like that. They are ‘one timers’ in desperate need of help – and it should be given with a full heart. And there are those that legitimately collect for institutions and not for themselves (aside from the percentage they take as a fee). But there are many who do what Elimelech Ehrlich does.

We ought to do whatever we can to change a system that produces so many people in need. It’s nice that a community like Lakewood is so generous. It’s not so nice that there is such a great need for their generosity.