Rabbi Yaacov Benamou, the head of Jewish Rockville Outreach Center, was hesitant to go on the record about another, less obvious function of his center, Jewish charity.
The rabbi is in a difficult situation. JewishROC is primarily geared toward Jewish education in areas surrounding the nation’s capital. As a 501(c) 3, most of the rabbi’s fundraising is for these programs. But as an Orthodox rabbi, he feels obligated to give to charity and help the poor. Another important part of his job has become the screening and using part of his discretionary budget to help Jews who come to him looking from financial assistance.
A significant portion of this work involves individuals from Israel, known as meshulachim, who travel to America to collect donations for kollot, yeshivot and chesed organizations, or to support their own families.
“The Israeli government has significantly cut the welfare budget and as a result, a huge number of people’s finances have spun out of control,” said Benamou. “There are over 2 million people under the poverty line in Israel. Most of those people’s needs are being answered in Israel by chesed organizations, but many of them take airplanes and fly out of Israel and literally knock on doors of people.”
Though more frequently seen in larger Orthodox Jewish communities such as in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and parts of Florida, meshulachim often make their way to the D.C. area, frequently stopping by Benamou’s office for guidance and assistance. The demand is so high, that Benamou now sets aside an entire workday each week to interview, evaluate and often assist each meshulach coming to the area.
Once in the United States, the meshulachim go from door-to-door, community to community, asking for donations. A quick search of the term – derived from shaliach – on Google, unearths varying opinions on community forums about the strangers knocking on doors, or soliciting at synagogues’ daily services. These opinions range from sympathy toward their stories of misfortune, to annoyance and often suspicion.
Another greater Washington community member who also assists meshulachim is real estate investor and developer Dennis Berman, who takes issue with the way meshulachim are often treated.
“Tzedakah, generally and historically, means poor people. Whereas in the modern day, most people think of tzedakah as for organizations and not poor people, and in fact, we don’t want to see poor people,” said Berman. “In particular, one thing that we do here is to try to give them some dignity. They come [to my office] and they’re offered water, a little snack to eat, a piece of fruit or a Granola Bar or something like that … they can sit like a mensch – but unfortunately, there are people who don’t treat them so nicely.”
The ad hoc nature of these solicitations has led most communities to regulate meshulachim by requiring them to seek certification from the local vaad (rabbinic court). In northern Maryland, all meshulachim are required to carry a certificate from Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Vaad Hakashrus in Baltimore. Known for their Star-K and Star-D kosher certification, the vaad also verifies applications from arriving meshulachim – checking that they are representing legitimate organizations, or are legitimately representing their family’s need – before receiving a green certificate, a teudah, with their photograph and the reason for their soliciting.
With each certificate, they are allowed to stay and canvass the community for a maximum of two weeks, using address lists they’ve compiled by word of mouth or through the services of drivers, who take a small portion of the money donated to them.
Some make their way down to JewishROC, where they are required to make an appointment for Rabbi Benamou to review their situation. Benamou uses money given to him by donors specifically for this purpose, an agreement the rabbi arranges at the time the donation is given.
“The system is built to handle zero fraud, because if they pass Rabbi Heinemann’s strict screening and they come to me, I’m going to find out about it [if they are not legitimate],” said Benamou.
He added that rabbis receive a daily bulletin from the Rabbinical Council of America which often includes charity fraud warnings.
“It doesn’t mean that there might not be ones who get through who are not honest,” said Berman, “but a vast majority are honest, they’re just in miserable situations.”
Paying for a round trip to the United States from Israel is not an insignificant cost, especially for those struggling to put food on the table, but for these roving rabbis, the amount they can collect in a four-month period going door-to-door in the United States is usually enough to support their family for the rest of the year, according to Benamou.
“You’d be surprised,” Benamou said. “Those people come here, stay here for a long time and live on nothing. They live with kind people who host them for the period of time” and in the more populated Jewish areas, there are organizations set up to provide a free meal once a day.
“If a person has 10, 12, 13, 14 kids, as long as the kids are not 18 years old, they’re going to keep coming,” said Benamou. “Even if they have a steady job, they need to support those kids. I’m not in the position to judge them, why they have so many kids, I’m in a position to help these families with many children.”
According to Berman, an average of 500 to 600 meshulachim visit him and other local benefactors annually. About seven years ago, when the number first exceeded 250, Berman’s doorbell rang constantly and he would take the time to listen to their stories.
“The ones who are collecting for themselves generally have loads of tsuris [trouble],” said Berman. “When I say loads of tsuris, an average one – and we get hundreds – would be that a person has eight children, he works as a scribe, his eyesight is failing, his wife has health issues, one of the children has health issues, and is deeply in debt; please help.”
Some have low-paying jobs but are not able to make ends meet, others have unexpected medical bills which are not covered by Israel’s health care system, while others cannot afford to marry off their children.
“Unfortunately in America, there’s generally a disdain for people who are poor. It’s almost like we don’t want to see them. We don’t want to see them on the street corners,” said Berman. “They talk about cleaning up the city from the beggars and stuff like that. Well, if somebody is truly a beggar, what does cleaning up the city mean? Just getting them out of sight and out of mind. That’s what it means.”