An Overstretched Safety Net

Ultra-Orthodox charity committees like Kupat Ha'ir raise and hand out millions of shekels to hundreds of desperately needy families. The money is collected one shekel at a time from the local residents of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, many of whom are quite poor themselves. But this system may also be in danger of collapse.

It was close to midnight and one of Kupat Ha'ir's [City Fund] distributors entered the office, his face shiny with perspiration. His conscience was clearly troubling him. It was the Saturday night before Purim and the distribution of charity envelopes was at its height. The rabbi was not at home, he reported apologetically. His son had opened the door.

"Heaven forbid you should give it to the children," thundered David Schreiber. "That's all we need, that they see that their father is receiving an envelope from us."

The yeshiva student pulled out the envelope from his coat pocket. He had not taken any risk. Schreiber let out a sigh of relief, patted him on the back and sent him home.

Before the holidays, volunteers from all levels of society and of all ages, both Hasidim and Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox, rush in and out of the office throughout the night. David Schreiber, one of the two directors of Kupat Ha'ir, the large charity organization in Bnei Brak, answers never-ending calls on his tiny mobile phone. Schreiber, whom everyone calls only by his surname, is an ascetic fellow, who looks about 35 years old, the father of five. He dashes about quickly, a jest always on his lips.

His partner, Avraham Schprinzales, who is responsible for the financial management - the banker, as Schreiber calls him - answers the phones and records all the contributions made by credit card. The unruffled Schprinzales, 30, a large man whose beard and sidelocks grow wild, is the exact opposite of the neatly attired Schreiber. He has six children. His 10-year-old son, who had trouble falling asleep at home, is hanging around with the distributors.

The two married yeshiva students belong to the Lithuanian stream of ultra- Orthodoxism. During the day, they study in a yeshiva and their wives are the main breadwinners in the family. They work for the Kupat Ha'ir charity as volunteers. During the weeks before holidays, they hardly see their homes. "My wife knows me only over the phone," laughs Schreiber and relates that when they came to ask for Rabbi Elyashiv's blessing, his gabbai wished them a happy marriage.

Schreiber founded Kupat Ha'ir less than three years ago under the supervision and guidance of six rabbis that are deeply involved in Bnei Brak life. It is a nonprofit charity organization dedicated to the city's poor. So far, some 2,700 families have received assistance from the charity, many more than once. This last Purim, 1,400 families received help. The assistance is provided regardless of the degree of religiousness of those seeking help - however, the vast majority of those receiving support come from the ultra-Orthodox community. The support of rabbis such as Rabbi Nissim Karelitz and Rabbi Yehuda Silman, the heads of the city's rabbinical courts, means a constant stream of contributions, as well as voluntary work force.

And in truth, Kupat Ha'ir's business is flourishing. A ramified network of family and community ties has turned it into a lively and animated organization with some 200 volunteers raising funds, distributing envelopes and maintaining contact with the beneficiaries of the organization's assistance.

Aggressive marketing

Kupat Ha'ir is one of three institutionalized charity organizations active among the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. Two other nonprofit organizations, the Rabbinical Committee for Charity and the National Family Rescue Committee, are active in Jerusalem. Each organization has four fundraising drives a year - before the High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. The drives are preceded by extensive advertising by means of fliers placed in mailboxes accompanied by requests for standing bank orders or one-time payments via credit cards.

While these organizations rely on the public's generosity, to be on the safe side, they use aggressive marketing techniques to encourage the public to contribute. The Rabbinical Committee, for example, published a letter in which Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Fisher, the head of the Eda Haredit's rabbinical court, asked the community to support the committee before his death.

The fliers sent out by the organizations are filled with heart-wrenching stories. "A young yeshiva student, a prodigious Torah scholar, whose intestines unfortunately have become blocked," begins one. "She is an unfortunate young mother who in a period of just a few years lost four of her offspring," is another typical tale of woe. "Human wrecks, shocked and distraught, frantic with grief and sorrow - that is what is left of the parents of four children - but despite their bereavement are strong in their faith."

Kupat Ha'ir is more conservative in its approach: It offers donors a blessing from the sponsoring rabbis.

The emotional squeeze is effective. Before Purim, the Rabbinical Committee collected about 5 million shekels; Kupat Ha'ir collected NIS 4.5 million and the National Committee slightly less. The amount of money distributed to families and individuals before the holidays is not uniform. The Rabbinical Committee distributed NIS 8,000-25,000; the National Committee - about NIS 3,000-4,000. In Kupat Ha'ir, the format is different: some of the families receive one-time sums of up to NIS 25,000 and the rest receive five monthly payments of NIS 500-1,400. Some of the money is given in the form of food vouchers.

Each of these organizations also conducts individual fundraising campaigns for families visited by tragedy. This is a completely separate fundraising channel. Usually, the cases involve families in which the father has died under tragic circumstances leaving the family with no means of support. In ultra-Orthodox terms, this means that there is a widow and orphans whom it will not be possible to marry off.

Fliers with the family's heartrending story are distributed and within a short time, a huge sum is collected, up to half a million shekels. The money is deposited in the bank and the monthly interest goes towards the family's regular budget. When the time comes and the children reach marriageable age, appropriate sums of money will be withdrawn for the wedding and apartment. Kupat Ha'ir manages 60 such funds for widows and orphans, and in Jerusalem, there are about 100.

In recent years, ultra-Orthodox charity has undergone a fundamental change. If in the past, people gave money to those that knocked at their door and asked, or contributed money before holidays, now there are more standing bank orders and the entire matter has become more institutionalized, if not commercialized. It is viewed as a kind of charity tax that has to be paid to the community, the ultra-Orthodox version of National Insurance Institute (NII) payments.

Expert on the ultra-Orthodox community, professor Menachem Friedman explains that the charity organizations arose in response to the increasingly deepening economic crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community. "A man who studies in a kollel [a yeshiva for married men] does not have NII or a pension. It's a sad story," sighs Friedman.

Friedman is convinced that the organizations are planned and directed from above and in an absurdly socialist fashion, to create a form of "equality of poverty," because the donors for the most part are not very well-off themselves. "Mutual charity means a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved," says Friedman. "It is a form of charity against a time that perhaps I might need help. Meanwhile, it works, but the question is when the rabbis will reach the conclusion that this lemon can't be squeezed any more."

The weakening of another institution the ultra-Orthodox community relied on, the free loan society, is testimony to how bad the situation is. Yehoshua Pollack, who is active on the National Committee, explains, "In the past, when people needed money, they took a loan from a free loan society. Today, they don't have the money to pay the loans back. The only ones who can afford to take loans belong to the middle and upper class."

Friedman has been warning for years of the imminent collapse of the religious learning society, criticizing ultra-Orthodox society for not being productive and not planning for its future. Of the charity committees he says, "They are a paragon of community organization," but adds that there has yet to be an attempt to resolve the problem at the root, by providing mass professional training for the married yeshiva students.

"Ultra-Orthodox society organizes itself on the scale of the Jewish village," says Friedman. The widows and orphans that are the beneficiaries of the aid are indicative of the situation in which so many yeshiva students with wives and families have neither a pension nor life insurance. Ultra-Orthodox society, says Friedman, has not adapted itself to the capitalistic world, and now it is too late.

Fake beggars

Anyone present at the fundraising campaign in Bnei Brak on Purim this year could not help but sense the latent yet intense competition among those asking for charity. They pushed themselves between cars on the main street, stopping the cars with their bodies, shoving their heads into the car windows, asking for money. More loudspeakers on cars than in the past blared out the cry of widows and orphans in order to take advantage of the special Purim mitzvah of giving money to the poor. Everywhere, the fear of the imminent government budget cuts in child benefit allowances and yeshiva allocations could be felt.

But the charity business does not always run smoothly. About ten years ago, in the wake of repeated cases of fraud, the Rabbis' Committee, the oldest among the three organizations, was established. Stories about poorly run charitable foundations and fundraising for nonexistent yeshivot using forged vouchers made the rounds in the ultra-Orthodox press.

The founders of the committee, a group of rabbis headed by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam of the Eda Haredit, sought to place the entire subject of contributions under the authority of well-known rabbis so the donors could be certain that the money they were giving would reach its intended goal. The Rabbis' Committee is run by Moshe Haim Gafner, a veteran Jerusalemite.

Kupat Ha'ir has volunteers that call on potential recipients of charity to verify the requests. Yehudit Silver of Petah Tikva, a social worker without formal training, makes three such visits each week. She makes her reports after having seen the rooms, questioned the candidates and opened the refrigerator. If it appears that the family is unable to control its expenses, it is provided with a counselor who explains to them how to manage their budget and where they can buy things more cheaply.

The organization's rehabilitative approach is also reflected in the fact that unlike other organizations that merely transfer one-time payments, Kupat Ha'ir has some that have been receiving monthly payments for two years. Schreiber believes that sometimes a family can be saved from falling into poverty by giving it a one-time payment or loan and individual counseling until the crisis passes.

Kupat Ha'ir recently gave NIS 100,000 to a man (who is not religious, they emphasize) with five children living in a rented apartment in a poor Pardes Katz neighborhood. After he was fired from his job, his debts piled up and he fell into a depression. Kupat Ha'ir closed his bank account, gave him an interest-free loan that he promised to repay in monthly installments and told him to purchase food only at a branch of a well-known, cut-rate ultra-Orthodox supermarket chain. His telephone was blocked for outgoing calls and the entire family was placed on a budget and began to make small repayments of the loan.

A NIS 9 bank order

Schprinzales and Schreiber become emotional when they recall the early days of their organization. "Once a schnorrer [beggar or fundraiser], always a schnorrer," says Schreiber of himself, who in his youth was active in charity matters too. He and Schprinzales cooperated on a number of individual fundraising efforts for people who had lost loved ones, until one day Schreiber said, "We have to help the living too."

In order to get the organization going, Schprinzales wrote the first check for NIS 9,000 - a huge sum in relation to his income then and now. "My hand shook," he recalls. But that same week, they received a generous donation and they set out on their way.

At present, Kupat Ha'ir has a turnover of about 15 million shekels a year, not including the special foundations. Schreiber and Schprinzales say the money comes from the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel; contributions from abroad are rare. When asked how this poor community will be able to continue to marry off its orphans and support its widows, Schprinzales looks to the heavens. Not everyone is poor, they say. A random examination of the lists of donations show that in most cases, the sums are small - NIS 80-100; sometimes they are absurdly so, for example in the case of a standing bank order for NIS 18 or even 10 or less. But occasionally, there are sizeable contributions of a thousand shekels and more. The highest sum received in the Purim drive was NIS 3,600.

According to Schreiber and Schprinzales' logic, the worse the situation, the better the charity business. "Our community is generous and willing to make do with very little," they note. Schprinzales is willing to use his own monthly budget as a case in point to show how it really works. As a married yeshiva student, he receives a monthly stipend of NIS 1,400. His wife, a teacher in the Beit Yaakov school, earns NIS 6,000. With child benefits, they arrive at a monthly income of NIS 10,000. He gives 20 percent of this sum to charity, almost NIS 2,000 each month, and even manages to save NIS 600 each month too.

Nonetheless, in the conversation with Schprinzales, like with other members of the ultra-Orthodox community, the rhetoric appears to have changed - there is no longer talk of the importance of Torah study. Now everyone is talking about the recession and unemployment. "At my age, with six children, who will give me a job?" wonders Schprinzales. "I would be unemployed. That means that from a purely economic point of view, it is better for me to remain in the yeshiva. If I go to work in a bank, for example, my wife will not be able to work because she will have to stay home with the children. And how would I be able to learn Torah?"

"He's absolutely right," says professor Friedman. "There is no reason to condemn him. He is a representative of a lost generation. He really does not have any other option. He has no training and has children he has to support. Consequently, he says to himself, `It's better for me to remain in the yeshiva. If I leave, I'll lose everything.'"

Yehoshua Pollack understands the conflict represented by the charity organizations as well as the genuine economic problems behind them, but he believes that the government should find a solution for the ultra-Orthodox and should certainly not cut the NII payments. "The ultra-Orthodox are the ones that balance the demographic picture. The State of Israel should compensate them for that," he says. Nonetheless, he is willing to agree that "the ultra-Orthodox should be allowed to go out to work and in the future, the rabbis will have to provide a response on the matter of recruitment in the army."