A guest post by JS:
Maybe it's the holiday spirit, maybe it's the ubiquitous ringing of the Salvation Army bells, maybe it's the deluge of mailings and phone calls asking for contributions, or maybe it's just the last opportunity to get in your charitable donations before the end of the year, but it seems like the theme of "charity" is omnipresent this time of year.
I think charity is one of those subjects that people are very uncomfortable talking about. Maybe it's because of its relation to personal finance, and, as such, talking about how much one gives away is as verboten as talking about how much money one makes.
Perhaps the only exception to this general rule is public auctions or after one receives an aliyah in shul where people gleefully stand up and announce how many multiples of chai they're donating. I'm very conflicted over whether donations should be advertised or not. On the one hand, I think it's in very bad taste and smacks of arrogance to advertise how much money one can afford to give away and may create much ill feeling in a community. On the other hand, maybe it will serve as an impetus to others to give more and more people will be helped. Personally, I never give any money publicly - I give privately, but not anonymously. If I were ever in a position to give a serious amount of money though, I think I would do so anonymously, I wouldn't want to be honored or given some plaque or dinner.
I also, at this point in my life, don't give ma'aser (10%) of my take-home income to charity. Maybe my attitude is wrong-headed and selfish, but I think if I gave ma'aser, I wouldn't be able to save for many of the things I want in life. Additionally, this lack of savings would probably mean that, when the time comes, I would not be able to pay full tuition to yeshivas and would thereby become a burden to the community.
Lastly, I'm well-aware of the halachically accepted order for giving money - but, again, I find myself conflicted and don't follow these norms. For example, I never give to anyone I see on the street or to anyone who approaches me, be it after I leave a kosher restaurant or someone who comes to my door. I also never respond to any mailings asking for money whether it's for some poor orphaned family of 8 that needs to put on a wedding or hatzalah. I never give money over the phone either. Personally, all of my tzedaka money goes to organizations that help feed and support the poor - I don't give to anything else. And for whatever irrational reason, I give to organizations in Israel that do this and not those in America. Also, if there's a terrible disaster, I don't differentiate Jew from non-Jew (e.g., the tsunami or Katrina).
I used to feel guilty about turning a blind eye to those who directly ask me for money. In particular, I worried if maybe I was just cold-hearted or stingy. But the other day, I saw a sign on the subway that begged people to NOT give money to anyone who approaches directly for money and to instead donate to established charitable organizations. There was then a statistic that money given directly to people is more often than not misused whereas reputable charitable organizations make better use of the money in helping people. Not sure if this makes me feel better though.
I welcome any and all thoughts or feelings on this subject. I'm curious what people's attitudes towards charity are and whether it's in line with accepted halachic norms and how they feel about public vs private or anonymous donations. I'm also curious if people give regularly throughout the year or give according to Jewish holidays and/or secular deadlines.
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