September 17, 2019

My year of street tzedakah

When I lived in Berkeley in the late ’60s and early ’70s, walking along Telegraph Avenue could be expensive if you gave to every panhandler who asked for spare change. Not that much has changed in all these years. The number of people asking for handouts is at least as great as it was, and perhaps more so. Given unemployment (mercifully down to 5.8 percent) and the underemployed, the historically low minimum wage, the federal cuts to food stamps for the working poor, and the incoming Republican Congress that is unlikely to act on behalf of the chronically poor and food-insecure people, it is no surprise that people asking for help on the street are ever-present.

What to do? Democrats in Congress who believe that the federal government should extend a helping hand, especially in difficult times, are slogging it out with a recalcitrant, hard-hearted, extremist Republican Party that cares little for “the least among these” (Matthew 25:40) despite their own Christian faith claims.

What about us? Do we give to the people on the street? Something to everyone, nothing to anyone, or sporadically when we feel like it?

I confess that, over the years, I have been alternately generous and tightfisted. Sometimes I open my wallet, but more often I walk by without responding, feeling guilty.

Last year, my friend Letty Cottin Pogrebin sent me a link to an op-ed she had just written for Moment Magazine called “The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah.” After reading it, I felt especially ashamed of myself.

I decided, both for the sake of the person asking for help and for myself, that henceforth I would give to everyone asking me for assistance. Since then, I have given to virtually everyone I encountered who asked me for assistance. I keep dollar bills in my wallet for these people and give everyone $1, not very much in the grand scheme of things (I estimate that I have given out about $250-$300 this past year). The payoff, however, is great in human terms. The opportunity to connect heart to heart and soul to soul with a stranger in need is a benefit for both of us.

In each of the several hundred cases, the recipient usually responded gratefully: “Thank you, brother!” “God bless you!” “Have a great day!” They felt seen and respected. I felt I did the right thing. It was, in a limited way, a win-win, though my dollar gift did little to solve the great socioeconomic problems in our country.

None of those who panhandle wish to be doing so. I remember one young man walking through traffic held a sign that read, “This is humiliating to me, but I am hungry. Please help!”

To those who say skeptically that these people are scamming us, that they can do better standing at a busy intersection than by actually getting a job, I ask only that you put yourselves in their place and reflect on what it would have taken for someone to do what they are doing.

Regarding giving when we legitimately suspect fraud, Rabbi Chayim of Sanz (1793-1876) said:

“The merit of tzedakah is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” (Darkai Chaim, 1962, p. 137)

Maimonides reminds us, “One must never turn a poor person away empty-handed, even if you give him a dry fig.” (Mishneh Torah, “Gifts to the Poor” 7:7)

The obligation to give tzedakah includes everyone, without exception, even the poor who receive community funds and individual handouts (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 248:1). When the poor give, they realize that there are others worse off than themselves. 

According to surveys, the American-Jewish community is among the most generous communities in the country per capita. I am proud that our people give to all kinds of worthy causes, to alleviate suffering here and around the world, to the people and State of Israel, to local, national and international Jewish causes, to synagogues and food pantries, homeless programs, refugee organizations, universities, hospitals, art museums and symphony orchestras. We write checks because we know that Judaism requires it, because we know the heart of the stranger, the poor and oppressed, and in the interest of tikkun olam.

But how often do we give when we meet strangers on the street?

I decided a year ago that I am no longer walking by without giving. I pledged to myself to carry $1 bills at all times, and to give them whenever asked, not just for the sake of the other, but for my own sake as well.

Rabbi John Rosove is the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood since 1988. He blogs at jewishjournal.com/rabbijohnrosovesblog