Two men who are elevating tzedakah to a whole new level
By Gavriel Horen
"Mishpacha" 12 Tishrey 5767
It wasn't your typical tour of Jerusalem-at least not for me. My two guides, on the other hand, seemed to be in their element as we drove from alleyway to alleyway throughout Jerusalem's diverse neighborhoods, dashing in and out of impoverished dwellings, each more decrepit than the last. My guides were no strangers to these alleys, and especially not to the inhabitants who dwell within these homes. We ran from door to door as if driven to fulfill our task-and a crucial task it was: we were en route to deliver checks of as much as $2,000. My guides were none other than Jerusalem's now famous duo, Rabbi Chaim Goldberg and Rabbi Dovid Leib Cohen, both of them humble as ever.
R' Chaim has been handing out tzedakah funds in Eretz Yisrael for thirty
years. 1t began in 1968, when Rav Chaim, then a young avreich, came to learn in a Brisker kollel in Jerusalem, and heard about someone who needed help paying for an operation. R' Chaim asked his father in Chicago to help raise money. He and a friend, R' Dovid Leib's father, also a native of Chicago, collected a substantial amount and sent it on to R' Chaim. Seeing the success of their endeavor, the two fathers looked at each other and asked: "Why stop here?
Let's keep sending money and Chaim can find worthy people to give it to."
Although it started with a few thousand dollars a year, today over three million dollars are distributed to more than 3,000 worthy recipients. "One hundred cents on the dollar that we collect reach their target," R' Dovid Leibsays with pride. They don't take any overhead for themselves; they work on a strictly volunteer basis.
Expenses come out of their own pockets. As for the organization, the website, the letterheads, and the posters-there are none. This is a two-man team and they work by word of mouth alone.
"We try to help people across the board," R' Chaim explains, "without checking their tzitzis. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, chassidim, Yerushalmim, Ethiopians, Russians, secular people. We look for those with specific problems: orphans and widows, people suffering from medical conditions. We help them with whatever they need." During the hour in which I merited tagging along, we visited about a dozen families in three Jerusalem neighborhoods, some with seven children or more living in two small rooms: a bedroom and a tiny kitchen. Many families also had numerous medical problems which meant outstanding bills, difficulty working and taking care of children, and need for outside help.
R' Dovid Leib Cohen joined the operation when he moved to Israel twenty five years ago, after retiring from running a successful business overseas. No longer able to contribute financially to his childhood friend's tzedakah efforts, he offered to help in other ways. Although he claims to be merely the chauffer and the "schlepper"-he drives R' Chaim on his daily missions-he's also the operation's main fundraiser and public relations man. His outgoing, direct nature makes him ideal for the job. R' Goldberg on the other hand, a soft-spoken talmid chacham, is the hands of the operation. After learning morning session in kollel, he goes out to the streets-every single day.
R' Chaim follows a huge master list, choosing a different neighborhood each day, but many of the names and addresses are store4m.his memory.
"I wish I remembered my Tosafos as well as I remember these people's names," he says. He investigates each case firsthand to deter mine who is truly needy, and delivers the assistance personally. And it isn't only money that he provides. From all accounts, Rabbi Goldberg doesn't just sign checks and go. He tries to set the family on their feet again from every aspect.
"Everyone wants an honest gabbai tzedakah working for him," R' Dovid Leib explains. "But what's needed is a guy who's not only honest but who sees clearly and is prepared to do proper research. He doesn't give a check just because he hears a wonderful story and sees documentation. We've seen false documentation and false stories. Chaim takes the time to check it out, so that 100 percent of the money that gets raised goes to the right addresses And maybe he's endowed with ruach hakodesh, radar, or sixth sense-he's able to ferret out those cases that are not at all legitimate even though initially, they seemed to be very much so."
R' Chaim feels that in order to really fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah completely, one has to be personally involved with the needs of the recipient: "The last pasuk in Megillas Esther says 'doresh tov l'amo-seek out good for the people.' Rav Chaim Brisker says that means to go out into the streets, knock on people's doors, and see what the problems are. To see lacking, what people need, to find out what is true and what is only half true. You come into a house in the winter and you see that they have no heat, or in the summer and you see that the fridge is broken; then you can know that something is true.
"Just sitting behind a desk is wonderful; there are a lot of people who do chesed like that. But you never know how many times you're being fooled by fake claims. I've seen fake letters claiming to be from Hadassah hospital, saying that they have cancer-if you want to know how far a person will go to make a buck."
R'Chaim explains that there are many cases where a family can't manage money properly, so they have to buy the family exactly what they need: a new refrigerator, heater, or beds. If a paint job is needed, they call the painter; if it's groceries, they pay the grocer themselves and give in structions that the money be used only for nutritious food. R' Chaim even researches who the best doctors are for the family's medical problems.
This year hundreds of heaters, refrigerators, stoves, and washing machines were distributed. R' Chaim and R' Dovid Leib work with R' Yitzchak Kitay, who runs a carpentry shop just outside Jerusalem, where yungeleit are trained in this vocation. The shop produces over 200 high-quality items a year for tzedakah, - everything from beds to bookshelves and wardrobes. Goldberg and Cohen supply the money for materials; Kitay supplies the labor.
Goldberg and Cohen's efforts are concentrated on those who are working hard to support themselves, not on those who are regularly on tzedakah or those who can find help on their own. He seeks out those who, due to unforeseen circumstances, are unable to make ends meet, who can't manage to get help on their own, or are too proud to do so. Very often, when asked, many of these families will claim to already have everything they need. Only a home visit reveals at a glance that this isn't the case. Rav Chaim periodically checks up on the families to make sure all is well.
The Israeli government recently offered an eighty-five percent discount to poor
families to buy the government owned houses which they're cur
rently subletting. For around $10,000, these families can now purchase a house worth nearly ten times that. Golddberg and Cohen have so far distributed $900,000 towards this project, enabling seventy families to buy homes; they have another $300,000 waiting to be distributed.
The two spend erev Shabbos visiting the far reaches of Eretz Yisrael, from Tzfas and Haifa in the north to Beer Sheva in the south. On Shabbos, R' Chaim davens early and then walks through Bikur Cholim Hospital looking for people who can't afford the medical care that doctors are recommending.
"We're always looking for tzuris," R' Dovid Leib explains. "A week after helping one family move out of the dingy basement they were living in, Chaim will return to that same basement; whoever moved in is probably in just as bad a situation as those who moved out. He's looking for people who are suffering in silence; we track them down. Every neighborhood has its gabbai tzedakah. That gabbai might know that your neighbor in the beautiful apartment next door has fallen on hard times and doesn't have food for Shabbos. He has a spy network all over the country reporting to him. He gets access to the most serious cases and dispenses help accordingly."
R' Chaim is on call twenty-four hours a day; he's even had to work Yom Kippur. "My phone numbers aren't listed," he says, "but I think I get more calls than the prime minister!" As we walked through the back alleys of the Bucharim district and Geula, everyone recognized him. Small children ran over with notes from their mothers, begging for help. A man came over to us and asked us to help someone down the street. We were already headed there.
How did you decide to make this your calling?
"The Vilna Gaon says that if a person does a certain action in life and is successful, it's a sign that he should continue with it. I'm not working in raising money; there are people out there who are doing that. My specialty is just in the distribution, to make sure that the right people in the right places are getting the right money to get them what they need.
There are always people with complaints: 'Why did you give that guy?' or 'Why did that guy stop getting?' It's very not easy. But you know that you're helping people, saving people.You always look at the good side. The Gemara asks, 'What should a person do to be saved from the birth pangs of Mashiach? Y'aseik b'Torah u'gemilus chasadim-be absorbed in learning Torah and doing acts of kindness.' People came to the Chofetz Chaim and asked him for a brachah. He said, 'You want a brachah? Be oseik in chesed - get involved in doing acts of kindness. Make it your aisek, your business.'
Is it hard to deal with all the suffering?
"Over the years, we've hired various people to write up some of the stories of problems that we deal with. Each writer stopped after a short time. It was too overwhelming for them. I've been called to run out in the middle of a yeshivah lecture, to the bedside of someone who's passing away. It's all part of the chesed that you become involved with.
"It's a life; it's not just sitting in an office. Sitting in an office is also nice but it's not the highest way to help people. We work with them on a one-to-one basis. You have to work on yourself so that it doesn't get to you; it's not easy. But I know how much good is going on. We also get invited to the simchahs! You're going in the derech Hashem, 'mah Hu rachum, af atah rachum, , just as He has compassion, so toomust we have compassion.
"The chesed comes back, too. There are people we gave to who now give to us. Other times, we've given money to help pay for an operation. In the end, money came in from someplace else and they returned .the money to us, though they could have kept it for another purpose.
"A Russian lady with cancer came to us for help. She had a blind husband and a teenage daughter. Unfortunately, the lady was niftar, but we continued to help the girl and her father. We tried to help her go to a good, frum school. At one point, we thought she was starting to go off the derech; she wanted to go to a school that wasn't the best. I went to Rav Yitzchak Zilber, the Rav of all the Russians and he said "Chaim, you may be smart and know how to help with tzedakah, but I know Russians. I'm telling you, at the end of the day it will be okay. In the end, she got back on the right derech and married a man with a good job, and now she sends us money for tzedakah twice a year. We also get our nachas!"
Rav Paysach Krohn has made famous a story about two families that Rav Chaim sought to help. One was a childless family looking for work and the other was a family with many children that couldn't care for them properly. Both were struggling to get by. Rav Chaim worked out an arrangement that would be beneficial for everyone: the childless wife would help the second family by doing housework, and would be paid for this b'kavod, in a respectable way. In the end, when the woman received her money, she gave it to the family she was working for. It was a circle of chesed.
Mrs. Levy, now a successful professional, and her family received help from Rav Chaim over a ten-year period. Soon after they made aliyah, moving into the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, they discovered that their newborn daughter was suffering from a life-threatening illness. In addition, they suffered a financial loss of a huge sum of money that they'd been planning to live on for the year.
Erev Shabbos, a week after the birth, just when the situation was looking its darkest, there was a knock on the door. There stood Rav Chaim Goldberg. He handed them a 2,OOO-shekel check and left. "He came at just the right time, like Eliyahu HaNavi. We stood there with our mouths open asking, 'Who was that?' We had no idea how he knew about us."
A few years later, they were in another Jerusalem apartment, again in a desperate situation financially. "Same story. Friday afternoon, no food for Shabbos, everything's melting down, total hysteria. There's a knock on the door. We never knew how he found us again." This was repeated four more times over the years, though the family had moved to other cities. Rav Chaim always arrived at the perfect time, when all seemed lost.
Finally, ten years after their first encounter, their situation improved and they were able to buy their own apartment; they even had a separate guestroom, where a recent widow was living. One Friday afternoon, there was a knock on the door. There stood Rav Chaim. "You?" he exclaimed, looking very surprised. "I have money for the widow who lives here!"
"It was a whole long journey," Mrs. Levy says. "He tracked us down and followed us to every single place we went, all six moves! When we were finally okay, he came for the person that we were helping. It had come full circle."
As Succos ends and we move back to the comfort of our own homes, let's not take for granted all the good with which we've been blessed; let's try to remember those who don't have such luxuries, or even the bare necessities. There are some gute shalichim out there ensuring that our gift goes where it's needed most.
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