Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another ethical question

A guest post by E. Fink

I am the Rabbi at the Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. Venice is home to a wonderful community of Frum and not so Frum Jews, all who are welcome in our Shul. Venice is also home to a huge community of homeless folks. The area is very lenient in its restrictions on the homeless and believes strongly in everyone's rights. A lot of these people live on the beach or in their old vans on the street. (Sure beats a cardboard box in Phili, right?)

The Shul is literally on the boardwalk. The doors are open to the foot traffic on the beach. Our Shul has welcomed many homeless men and women, hardcore drug addicts, transvestites from the Venice boardwalk and others who found their way into our shul for services and Kiddush. We don't push them away, nor do we push anyone else away, unless they are clearly, high, drunk or appear dangerous.

There is a fellow who comes from a Chabad family in Montreal, who is not Frum himself, but grew up in the Chabad tradition. Back in the day, he made a lot of money with the Bugle Boy Jeans Company. He traveled the world spending half a million dollars over the course of his travels Now he is in his 50's and penniless, living in his classic van on the streets of Venice. He gets by selling beautiful prints and canvasses of Jewish photographs that he took in his travels around the world (when he had money). Since I have become the Rabbi in Venice, he has been coming to the shul more often and we have developed a bit of a rapport.

He's a very nice guy, he does look homeless and usually smells like cigarettes but is a good guy overall.

Here's the issue. Business is not good. The artwork is not selling. He used to pull in around 1K over the weekend. Now he's luck y if he gets $60-$80. The Venice boardwalk can be a violent place. He has been subject to a couple of attacks and his car has been vandalized. He wants out. He is not a citizen, nor can he get a green card. If he returns to Canada, he gets the benefits of their robust welfare system and can get himself back on his feet (theoretically if he wants to). Now he is scraping by, living in his van, eating bread and milk (- that's all) and showering at the Y.

He has been asking me to purchase some artowrk for our shul to help him "get out". Every time he tells me his predicament my heart goes out to him. Call me a softy but I cannot bear to see his dire situation. Plus, the look on his face of utter defeat tears me up inside.

He needs 16 tanks of gas plus food to get back to Canada. It's about $1000. Let's assume he has no other viable, realistic quick-fix options. Am I crazy if I give him Tzedaka funds? Is there any way he actually uses it to do what I say? Even if he does, does he deserve Tzedaka money? What should I do?

The Shul has a Tzedaka fund and can afford to help this guy out with either a gift, loan or by purchasing some pricier artwork. This post is about what the appropriate course of action is at this time. What do you think we should do?

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