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Elchanan Poupko
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Israel’s holy beggars

Make sure your money is reaching the right hands, of course, but give generously; it never hurts us to accord dignity to others
Illustrative photo of a woman begging in Jerusalem. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

With his hand held out, asking for donations, an older Haredi Jew has become the source of a powerful conversation in Israel. A young Israeli snapped a picture of the man, with his black hat and jacket, asking for money on the streets of Ramat Gan and posted it on social media: “This is what happens when you do not have proper curriculum.” This tweet went viral, and the man’s identity was revealed. He served in the IDF for 18 years, is a Yom Kippur War veteran, has children who served in elite combat units, endured a mental health crisis after his wife recently passed away, and has gone begging in the streets. These revelations led the person who posted it to delete it and apologize, but they should also be teaching us a powerful lesson about the beggars among us. Between the OECD ranking Israel highest in cost of living, the weakening shekel, the approaching holidays, and mental health situations — be kind to your beggars. 

One of the things I miss most about living in Israel is the beggars. Living in America’s suburbia, it hurts me that there are no beggars at my door. Growing up in Jerusalem, every beggar had a story, every beggar was holy, and every beggar deserved more. It hurts me that I do not get to show my children what the proper way to give is. It hurts me not to smile at someone, wish them a Shabbat Shalom, and give them some money for Shabbat. It hurts me not to have the opportunity to give dignity to those whom life deprived of the dignity they deserve. 

I miss Israel’s beggars. I will never forget the old Yemenite woman who would come to our door every Thursday night, the special treatment, money, and whatever medications she needed that my mother gave her. The woman’s insistence on us children coming to the door and being blessed by her. I miss the beggar who always sat in Jerusalem’s Kikar HaShabbat square, who was rumored to have a PhD in English literature and could always share a great Shakespeare quote. I miss seeing how eager my grandmother was, even in her old age, to make the extra walk to Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda Shuk so she could give money for Shabbat to those who might need it. I miss arriving in Israel on an airplane in the morning, coming to synagogue, and realizing that no matter how much I tried to blend in, the beggars there knew I had just arrived from overseas and asked me if I had brought with me any donations. I miss the beggars who insisted on sharing a Torah thought with me and would not just take money, and those who insisted on giving me a blessing and asking what it is that I need a blessing for most. They are all holy people who add so much to what Israel is. 

Sure, there are also charlatans, people who take advantage of the kindness of others, ask for unworthy causes, misrepresent what they are asking for, or those who ask for money when they could be getting a job. But more than that, there are people who do not go out to ask for money, even when their families are penniless and hungry. Of course, everyone should use their judgment and discernment to make sure their money is going into the right hands, but make sure that money does indeed go. No matter what you think of the cause or the person asking, no one was ever hurt by according dignity to others. 

In his viral 2013 commencement speech at the University of Syracuse, George Saunders famously told graduates: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than Try to be kinder.”

 

As the Jewish holiday season approaches, as the cost of living in Israel ranks 27% above other OECD countries, as the shekel’s value takes more than a 10% hit, as the world is dealing with increasing mental health crises, remember your holy beggars.

Remember to be kind. Remember this week’s beggar, who is only one example who we found out about, his beautiful family, his sacrifices in the IDF and the Yom Kippur War, and everything he has done for Israel, and consider how many other beggars have such stories behind them. Give generously, or give just something, but more than anything, give dignity and patience. They are all holy, they all have a family, they all deserve dignity. They are our holy beggars.  

 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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