Monday, October 27, 2014

The real beggars of Lakewood

A guest post by Shragi

Over Yom Tov, when the New York Times thought no one was looking, it ran an article titled The Beggars of Lakewood, but we dug it out of internet obscurity to bring it to you.

The beggars in the title are not local beggars, although they are mentioned in passing, rather the focus of the article are the meshulachim who come from overseas, primarily from Israel where the self-hating Jewish government is on a mission to keep Hareidim out of work.

The problem of poverty and how to deal with it is a very difficult one without a single cause and without any simple solutions, and I felt that the article painted a sympathetic and fairly accurate picture (except that Yiddish in not spoken prominently in Lakewood). I'm not sure though where the reporter got the idea that Lakewood is the first, and possibly the only, place that requires meshulachim to receive permission to collect with its borders; Baltimore does it, I believe Chicago does and Cleveland has discussed doing it, but probably due to politics it never came to be.

But then there was this line: "It would be a mistake to think that anyone in Lakewood idealizes begging. The injured scribe notwithstanding, door-to-door begging is generally for out-of-towners. So the local poor are supported by local charities, dozens of them." And the reporter goes on to list all the various gemachim and tzedakah organizations that locals rely on ending with this: "The specialization of the gemachs and other services is so thorough that no one ever feels as if he’s begging." Well, whether they feel that they're begging or not, they are nonetheless begging. And more glaringly; not a mention of government programs. Reading this article one would might get the idea that Lakewood is populated by a middle-class yeshivish crowd that distributes tzedakah in its spare time.

The author makes an astute point about the cost of receiving tzdakah in Lakewood: "The cost of admission to this world of generosity is privacy. Even the beggar’s application asks for the name of a home rabbi — and he will get a call, even back in Jerusalem. Lakewood is a town that defeats anonymity. For out-of-towners reduced to knocking on doors, the price of all this charity is, as everywhere else, uncomfortable exposure. For locals, there is an effort to preserve dignity — but even then, the system presumes that there’s always someone who can attest to the family’s dire need." And this lack of privacy goes even further than this. Before the big yomim tovim when they distribute food at an event called Moadim B'Simcha, people have to show up in person to receive the food. Granted that some people pay for it (a very reduced price) while others receive it free of charge, still, I've been to this food and paper goods handout and no one looks embarrassed to be there. The fact is that being on the tzedakah rolls is not embarrassing, especially if you're in kollel or are a rebbe, it's part of the lifestyle.

Finally, reading this article and feeling the ambivalence I usually feel when thinking about the intractable problem of poverty among Hareidim in Israel I was reminded of something I wrote last year.

For extra fun, and to see how the general population perceives all the chessed going on in Lakewood, check out the comments on the NYT article.

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