|Taking it to the streets:
Jerusalem tzedakah tour
By LARRY YUDELSON
Jerusalem - ln an unmarked white Subaru, two Chicago-born buddies-one the talkative "muscle," the other the quiet "brains" cruise the streets of Jerusalem like characters in a quintessential cop show.
Their mission? Dispensing the unique brand of Jewish justice known in Hebrew as tzedakah.
Chaim, lanky and laconic, has been studying in Jerusalem yeshivas for nearly 20 years. He would tell you that tzedakah has less to do with charity or kindness than with giving people what they deserve-what it takes to live in health and dignity.
David, at the wheel, might chime in with the plump gregariousness of a successful shopkeeper about the bottom line, reminding you that even in tzedakah, results matter more than good intentions. Helping people who don't really need it isn't good enough.
That is why when, years ago, Chaim's father first sent him money to pass on to the poor of Jerusalem, Chaim sought out and investigated potential recipients with the intensity he would apply to a complicated Talmudic passage.
Today, a network of informers made up of rabbis and corner grocers, old women and city social workers feed him tips. But Chaim checks out each case himself. After a day studying in yeshiva, he's on the phone until late in the evening, gathering information. And for two hours each afternoon, six days a week, he makes his rounds and dispenses tzedakah on the streets of Jerusalem.
Fixing a Hole
David describes the case while parking before a small, nondescript apartment building ill It midd1e class neighborhood: The mother is totally blind, the father partially so, and their two girls are seven and nine. He's having problems holding a steady job; she works as a switch. board operator in a government office two buses and an hour away.
'She has this amazing will," says David. "It's incredible."
The mother opens the door and beams when she hears who her visitors are. The apartment is crowded, just two small rooms and a kitchen that can't fit the refrigerator.
David pulls two balloons from his pocket and blows them up for the girls to play with. A bag of balloons has accompanied him on his rounds ever since he asked a seven-rear-old boy to select a toy-and all the child wanted was one balloon. The two delighted girls prove David-and the boy-right.
A couple of minutes of polite chit-chat, and the father gets to the point: "The bed broke. We need a new bed. " .
Chaim and David already knew; that's why they came. They lift up the thin mattress, revealing a hole in the plywood board that rests on the bed's cheap wooden frame. Maybe one of the kids was jumping on it. The family had patched the hole with another piece of wood, "but it's no good. We can't sleep."
"What do you think?" David asks Chaim. "Can we get another piece cut to fit? How much would a new bed cost?" David and Chaim assure the family they'll take care of it.
"What about the cheder receipts?" asks Chaim, who had convinced the parents to withdraw their girls from the neighborhood public school so they could_ get a religious-haredi-education. Chaim helps pay the tuition and stays in contact with the girls' teachers, who pass on glowing reports of progress.
On one visit, Chaim bought the girls a Casio musical keyboard to entertain them after the family acceded to his suggestion and got rid of their television, "a bad influence."
As Chaim and David leave, the grateful mother forces a bag of ftuit on them. "Please," she insists.
Over the years, the more Chaim investigated, the more legitimate needs he discovered. Back in Chicago, the word spread that there was someone who, with no overhead, would put your tzedakah money in all the right places.
David grew up with Chaim in Chicago, later moving to New York, where his businesses in Borough Park and the Lower East Side flourished. David sent generous checks to his friend, until he was able to sell out and retire to Jerusalem. Here, while he could no longer give as much money as in the past, he realized he
could help in a different way. So, in addition to studying Torah and going to the Kotel (Western Wall) for the sunrise minyan, he chauffeurs Chaim -who had relied on buses-around town. A car is more comfortable, but for Chaim the important thing is that cutting travel time lets him visit more people.
With more time to help, Chaim found more people in need. David assists there too, raising funds on his annual trips to check on his investments back in the U.S. In Jerusalem, he solicits in hotel lobbies, drawing on connections from his days at Baltimore's Ner Israel yeshiva and on his salesman's smile and grip.
This year, Chaim received three quarters of a million dollars to distribute. Some of the money goes toward buying electric heaters for cold apartments, paying medical bills, buying a washing machine for an overburdened family.
David proffers a report of 50 cases, each with a specific amount of money needed, prepared for a major New York donor who gives on a case by case basis. The stories are similar, in part because the philanthropist for whom they were selected is partial to illness. They tell of families who just manage to scrape by-until something unexpected happens.
"Mother is not feeling well and she cannot care for her newborn and the other six children without help," reads one terse account. The remedy is simple: a helper. But at $300 a month, that's an unaffordable luxury for a family already cutting every corner.
Other cases involve children needing physical therapy, or an apartment that needs to be insulated, or an appliance that has broken down.
Chaim suggests they look for someplace to live in a religious The biggest expenses are medical. "It's a myth that since there's national health insurance, you don't know from medical bills," says David. "It's a fairy tale. If you want care, you have to go private." Some operations, such as liver transplants, can only be performed abroad-and patients regularly beg in the media for the tens of thousands of dollars needed.
Even operations performed in Israel-such as open heart surgeryare delayed for months due to the shortage of nurses. One prominent cardiologist, in Knesset testimony published in the Jerusalem Post, said 100 people die each year from delays in the public health system.
In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, individuals needing money for such operations will beg, presenting appeals with the signatures of prominent rabbis attesting to the individual's worthiness.
But some of the letters are forged.
Chaim doesn't pay out the money until he see the bills and speaks to the doctors. The legwork pays: not everyone comes out kosher from the investigations.
While David drives, Chaim gives directions. He's the one who knows all the streets of the city, and he's the one who keeps all the details of the cases-mostly in his head, with some help from files.
They both have trouble finding the next address on the day's rounds. The large apartment blocks, built in the '50s on the southern and eastern limits of Jerusalem to house new immigrants, don't seem to be numbered. David finally parks while Chaim gets out to track down the building.
A candle burns in the apartment,
and no lights are on. "They found this apartment abandoned," Chaim says later, "They're squatters. " The father had owned4i grocery store; it went bankrupt. Like many others, he hasn't been able to find full-time work. Unemployment is currently above 9 percent.
This family has another tension: the mother has returned to religion and her husband hasn't. He wears a tee shirt -and smokes a cigarette; she dresses modestly, her hair in a kerchief. She pours cola for the visitors, apologizing that it's warm. There's no electricity for the refrigerator.
The woman says she has a plan: she has started going to a Torah study group at the home of Rebbitzen Deri, wife of the interior minister. Next week she'll ask her new friend for help.
Chaim suggest they look for someplace to live in religious neighborhood. The husband is skeptical.
Are David and Chaim trying to make ba'alei teshuva, to bring people back to Orthodoxy? "The good will influences," answers David. "We attempt to persuade them it's the best thing for the kids.
"We've saved families. We've had cases where the oldest kids went on a bad path. The parents saw there was no escaping, and came to our way of thinking, sent their kids to cheder. The rest of the kids grew up to be okay. Functional, non-drug users."
As he continues, a trace of gloating enters his voice: "Some of the worst criminals are from the Yemenite families they broke up." "They," to David and Chaim, are the secular Zionists, the kibbutzniks, who told the religious Yemenite immigrants 40 years ago that in the land of Israel there was no need for sidecurls, no need for kashrut, no need for Torah.
In the yeshiva world of Ner Israel and Brisk, in the haredi half of Jerusalem, any shortcomings of the Zionist dream are seized upon with glee, as proof of the contention that "a secular Jewish state is a dichotomy." It's as though the soul of the Jewish people was a hard precious jewel to be fought over, not a fabric which could grow or unravel from either end.
"We give to everybody," David says, proud of his tolerance. "Satmar, Chabad, Hasidic, Sephardi, converts, ba'alei teshuva. Even nonreligious people."
Does he fund kolelniks, the married men learning Torah all day in yeshiva?
"Some people only give us money for that. They want an Issachar Zevulun arrangement," he says, referring to the mid rash which explains Moses' blessing-"Rejoice, Zevulun, in thy going out; and Issachar, in thy tents" -as meaning that the former tribe supported the latter in learning Torah, the two splitting the rewards of commerce and of Torah study.
Chaim himself supports his wife and five children with a $2oo-a" month kolel salary, and $200 more from the state welfare system, says David. "He won't take anything else."
Two types of Jewish neighborhoods boast graffiti: among the poor, anti-Arab, pro-Kahane slogans mar the walls; among the haredim, the spray-painted slogans from last year's elections remain. In Beis Yisrael, a neighborhood next to Mea Shearim, one sees both.
The buildings, built toward the end of the last century, will always look poor. The defensive architecture abutting the dusty street was designed to keep out the marauding Arabs from the wilds outside the Old City. The apartments open in the back onto the central courtyard; all passersby see are the windowless walls of yellow-white stone, broken only by the iron shutters of storefronts closed for the afternoon siesta. The neighborhood is reminiscent of the emptied streets of the wrong parts of New York City after dark.
Riding along in the Subaru this afternoon is a rabbi from Miami. David had recognized him on the street in Mea Shearim and offered to show him the rounds. It's a good -_technique, more successful than hundreds of fundraising letters and testimonial dinners could ever be. Participants on the "tzedakah tour" can join in the mitzvah, verify that they're not being conned and, perhaps as important, realize that at the other end of the checkbook are real people, each with his or her own story, own life and own unique problems.
Paint is peeling in the hallway outside the first apartment we visit. No one answers the door. At the next stop, a check is handed to a girl whose mother is out. (Chaim doesn't use fancy letterhead stationery; the envelope for the check, salvaged from some dusty warehouse, reads" Jerusalem-Labor Youth-Palestine.")
At the next apartment, David hands out balloons to a five-year-old while the mother gives him bills that had collected over the past weeks. Her husband, who had beaten her for years, has at last left and agreed to divorce.
However, she is pregnant. "She wanted to have an abortion," David said, "but we talked her out of it."
She would be in her fifth month and David's not sure she looks pregnant. "What do you think?" he asks.
"Did she have an abortion'?" Chaim, who didn't go in to see her, says not to worry. As long as possible, he'll give her the benefit of the doubt. In yeshiva, the teaching of Ethics of the Fathers to "judge everyone on the side of merit" is taken seriously.
The next house is approached through a courtyard with grass sprouting through its stone pavement. The small residence looks as though it, too, hasheen silentlyeroded by the years. A childless elderly couple live here. The bedroom is filled by two beds and a table. In the kitchen nothing seems to have changed since 1948, except for the new refrigerator purchased by Chaim.
What stands out about the house are the cats. The rulers of the alleys and garbage cans of Jerusalem have found a roof. There are cats on the table and cats in the window, even cats ih the bathroom. It is like a children's picture book of a world gone to cats.
"The kittens come and I feed them," says the white haited old woman. "What can I do?"
With the cats and the sparse, dreary furnishings, the house feels long abandoned, as if the old people, like the cats, are only passing through.
Not long ago, it was worse. "You should have seen this place before we fixed it up," says David.
Across the courtyard, a young woman, hair tightly covered by a kerchief, comes to the door. She speaks English, but the accent doesn't match her Mea Shearim look.
"Would you believe," says David later, "that she grew up in a mansion, with horses, in Connecticut? Her father is a federal judge, a goy. Her mother was a librarian, also not Jewish, who started reading. She decided that there was one truth: Torah. So she gave up the mansion and became a ger, a convert. She was joined by her daughter, who also converted. The daughter now lives in this small hovel in poverty, married to a kolel student who studies some and works some."
The clients that Chaim shows visitors are carefully selected: only those who won't be embarrassed. During two afternoons of rounds, he would sometimes duck into abuilding alone, saying, "Stay in the car for this one."
Some regular recipients he doesn't visit at all, leaving their checks in an empty shoe box in a Mea Shearim shoe store. Such cloak and dagger kindness is recommended by Jewish tradition to avoid shaming the poor.
A Friendly Word
But Chaim knows that in urban Jerusalem, anonymity can be part of the problem. Some of his stops are just to say hello, a friendly word to ease someone's loneliness. A woman, legs swollen with elephantitis, is overjoyed when David comes by. First, she thanks him profusely for his help. And then she talks, about her husband's hernia (and the expected wait before he can have surgery), about her ailments, about her son. She wants sympathy more than money, and happily shows a stranger an old French medical text describing her condition.
The woman lives in Kiryat Yovel, a largely secular neighborhood across town from Beis YisraeI. Just about halfway between the two sits the Knesset.. There, politicians are debating next year's budget, deciding who will pay more for bread an4less for videos, whose taxes will rise and whose will fall, whether inflation or recession or stagflation will prove the weak point in the country's troubled economy.
Chaim doesn't involve himself with the decisions or the demagoguery, the hard choices or the flashy rhetoric. As
Israel's politics and policies of taxes and welfare continue to fall short of the messianic, Chaim and David make their rou:1ds, investing their time and their friends' money in bandaging wounds.
"The state of Israel is existing on the hesed, the lovingkindness, of the back streets of Jerusalem," says David.
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