Stephen Eskin

Charity vs. Subsidy

Words are powerful.

I recall hearing a statement a few years ago, “The standards of a civilization are lowered first by the lowering of accuracy in the words used to convey truth.”

There are a multitude of examples when language is modified to enhance or lower pain/shame/embarrassment when describing a job, a stance, or an action. It is often used to add significance to previous menial or degrading connotations of certain jobs (thus Janitor becomes “Custodial Engineer”, Secretary becomes “Executive Assistant”)

In general, words will fail us when we use them to convey falsehood rather than truth, (which clever revisionists have discovered is a way of inserting malaise into the soul), then are repeated until they gain general acceptance (very quick these days!).

So let’s try something. Let’s try to redefine with a single word, a concept, from recent political memory and see where it takes us.

“Avreichim (Rabbinical students) to receive subsidies”

The word “subsidy” has traditionally applied and aptly used to convey an addition of support in the service of future accomplishments, for example a business which receives subsidies to help develop a product, or a researcher whose work is subsidized. At some point there is an expectation that there will be a return of something to the public good, which will benefit all. (As a medical student I also received some subsidy from the State of New York for medical studies, in which at some point I was expected to serve in a physician shortage area, an example of “personal subsidies”)

The giving of funds based on personal needs alone is not a subsidy. The word used for that is CHARITY.

So let’s revise the above headline in light of these distinctions to:

“Avreichim to receive charity from public funds”

While learning Torah is a noble and worthy pursuit (as well as a religious obligation), there is no real mechanism in place to measure the “accomplishment” of Torah learning, when referencing for the sake of “subsidies”. As such, “charity” is a more appropriate word, since there is no expectation of a public return. Ah, so the religious answer is “Klal Yisroel benefits in general from our learning”. However, as previously stated, an accomplishment should be quantifiable to deserve a subsidy, from the hard working public. (When I was in Hesder Yeshiva years ago, a Rabbi of mine joked “I know guys who sat in Yeshivat Ponovich for 7 years and never learned a thing.” He shall remain anonymous to avoid FrumCancel culture.)

In the past, I would, while walking through Jerusalem (my home since Aliyah) encounter people begging for money. Sometimes they were 30 years younger than me, athletic and with an overall appearance of health and prosperity. I would usually think to myself “anyone willing to humiliate themselves enough to beg, must need it, and by that humiliation alone, are deserving of Tzdaka).

I never considered though, what happens in the mind of the receiver when they believe they are entitled to never try to be anything but a beggar, and is in fact entitled to other people’s money to serve their personal needs. They would surely prefer to see this as a subsidy, rather than as charity based on pity, which is the true nature of the act. It IS charity, but do they see it that way? Clearly not, as begging is humiliating (unless you have a political lobby with the power to morph the word “Beg” to the word “Demand”, which is much more classy! Then we speak not of your “needs”, but your “rights”, hence, again, the use of the word “subsidies”.)

Conversely, does the giver of charity feel the same satisfaction when their hard earned cash goes to people who are needy by choice?

The answer is likely, No.

I know I would rather feel I am giving charity then “subsidizing someone’s personal needs” (unless we’re talking about subsidizing my daughter’s college tuition, for example).

Is the truth better served (and us by inference) if “charity‘ is used instead of  the word “subsidy” ?

Well, lets see..

Maybe, since the working public is giving “charity” to the tune of billions of shekels, we can devise an income tax deduction based on our contribution, (maybe the total amount divided by amount of “working” households. I am not a tax specialist, but I’m sure a formulation can be devised.) Maybe, even if not a huge deduction or rebate, it can help remove some of the sting by making it known that the receivers are receiving charity, not Payments/Subsidies/Honoraria or any of the other respectable terms used to describe to “free” money.

Subsidies for Yeshivot/exemption from army service and other Chareidi demands, have been an open sore for many years which recently have been scratched and irritated by a feckless and short-sighted minority, to a point where working Israelis are pulling their hair out in anger.

The myopia of UTJ and Agudas Yisroel in their lack of consideration of this public frustration have actually generated a resentment much more powerful than the preceding one, leading to never previously uttered solutions of local municipality “secession”  to try to arrest the fury of the working public.

So what would constitute the type of “accomplishment” that deserves a subsidy?

It would need to be a quantifiable action aimed at the public good. Since these learned men are now learned, maybe volunteer to teach Torah without payment (or reduced payment) at institutions that are short of teachers in the public school system. This would also be a mitzva and a service. There are many other “public” mitzvas they could do.  Maybe get someone for the circumcision approval problem for converts I’ve been reading about…(If they need guidance, they can ask the Lubavitcher, who are experts on helping ANY Jew).

I’m sure we can think of something.

Lastly, maybe if we can change the public discourse on the matter and get working Israelis to refer to public charity, rather than to public theft, it would be a helpful start in assuaging the anger of those who work hard for a living and would NEVER take charity.

About the Author
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Stephen Eskin MD has lived in Israel during the 70's, 80's, and finally made Aliyah in 2018. He has attended Akiva Hebrew Day School (Detroit), Himelfarb High School, Yeshivat Hakotel, (Jerusalem) University of Michigan, (Ann Arbor MI) majoring in Judaic studies and Premed. He did post graduate studies at Columbia University, and is a graduate of Tel Aviv University Medical School and completed Fellowship in Gastroenterology at Columbia U. Since Aliyah, he works locum assignments in GI, and in Israel is involved in volunteer work , using his "Rocdoc" program, (Health info-tainment) performing in schools and ganim, in association with NGO in Israel devoted to prevention of Diabetes in children . He has a wife and two daughters who are proud Israeli citizens.
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