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Historians know the moment when charity began to be transformed into welfare was the moment when the Edwardians decided that poor people needed to have their cases investigated to determine whether or not they were worthy of aid. As I wrote in Return to Charity? the Victorians thought that charity was something one friend did to help another friend. The following generation thought that only the “deserving poor” deserved aid, and the only way to determine who among their “clients” was deserving and who was not was through investigators with master’s degrees in social work “scientifically” separating the worthy from the unworthy. When the Great Depression happened, these social workers transferred their allegiances from nonprofits to the state and welfare bureaucracy began.

One wonders what these Edwardian reformers would have made of the situation in Lakewood, New Jersey. There, according to this highly informative article by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times Magazine,  one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the U.S. has decided to deal with a rising number of Jewish beggars by issuing begging licenses.

The Torah teaches that all Jews should give 10 percent of their income to tzedekah, or charity, a practice known as maaser. In addition, the Torah advises observant Jews never to give more than 20 percent of their income, so that they will not become recipients of charity themselves.

Lakewood is home to Beth Medrash Govoha, a very large yeshiva where Orthodox Jews study the Torah. As a result, other Orthodox Jews moved to Lakewood to be with their co-religionists. Oppenheimer estimates that about half of the town’s population of 92,000 are Jewish.

The reputation of Lakewood extends to Israel, where many Orthodox Jews make a living by going to Lakewood and begging.

Oppenheimer begins his piece by discussing Elimelech Erlich, a father of twelve. Once a year he flies to Lakewood, armed with “a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine.” He spends his days hanging around condominiums where yeshiva students live, or going to the homes of ashirim (or rich men). And Erlich’s patter is profitable; Oppenheimer coyly says that Erlich makes enough in his three weeks in Lakewood to earn “more than enough to buy a Honda Fit, but not quite enough for a Civic.” I take this to mean that he makes around $20,000.

It should be noted that the Talmud teaches that Jews should not turn on any heat source during the Sabbath. The Orthodox interpret this ruling to mean that one cannot use electricity on Saturday. (Reform and Conservative Jews take this to mean that Jews should spend the holy day unplugged from electronic devices.)

If you can’t use electricity, that means you can’t drive to the synagogue for services. So rich and poor alike in Lakewood live close to the synagogue. And Lakewood’s richest man doesn’t live in a gated community, but in a home readily accessible to beggars.

Dr. Richard Roberts took over two struggling pharmaceutical companies his father created. In 2012, he sold the companies (renamed URL Pharma) to the Japanese firm Takeda for $800 million. He then moved to Lakewood.

Dr. Roberts, a strong believer in traditional marriage, says he spends his days studying the Torah and donating to Republicans. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2013 that he was one of twenty residents of New Jersey who contributed the maximum individual contribution of $107,000 in the 2012 election cycle. In addition, Dr. Roberts contributed around $2 million to political action committees.

In most areas, people as rich as Dr. Roberts would live in a gated community. But Orthodox Jews believe that you should not use electricity during the Sabbath, which means you have to be able to walk to the synagogue. So when word spread of Dr. Roberts’s wealth, he said, he “couldn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Beggars would line up at his door at “nine in the morning, 9:02, 9:05, 9:07, noon.”

So Dr. Roberts implemented rules. He now only gives in response to handwritten letters. Anyone who knocks on his door gets a couple of dollars, and that’s it.

The Jewish community of Lakewood also imposed rules. Any man (women don’t come to Lakewood to beg) who shows up goes to the offices of Tomchei Tzedakah (“Supporters of Charity”) is interviewed: How many children do you have? Which synagogue do you pray in? What do you need money for: a wedding, medical problems, or to pay off debts? If they’re raising money for someone else, phone calls are made, often to Israel, to verify basic facts. About 3 percent of the beggars are turned down, but the rest get ishur (or licenses).

One additional rule is that a beggar can only solicit from a donor once. Repeated attempts are banned.

Oppenheimer interviewed Beth Medrash Govoha president Aaron Kotler, who, when asked about the beggars of Lakewood, replied

I think that people of quality want to live in a place that has a flavor of doing chesed (kindness). . . . There’s a certain warmth and trust to it. In a big city, in Manhattan, you see indigent people collecting on the street. That doesn’t feel as dignified as this. Here, a person knocks on the door. And tells you their story.

I agree. Much of the Lakewood story is admirable. But the best charity toward the poor is that which teaches the poor how to get off and stay off the dole. That isn’t happening in Lakewood.

A beggar entrepreneurial enough to take a credit-card reader across the Atlantic for donations is one that should be running his own business.

It’s admirable that the people of Lakewood are so generous. But if a non-Jew can ask a question, it would be this: why aren’t these beggars working?


2 thoughts on “When begging is the question: The Orthodox Jews of Lakewood”

  1. Martin Morse Wooster says:

    Howard Ahmanson: I suspect you are right and the requirement not to give more than 20 percent is in the Talmud. I checked and the mistake is my fault (not Oppenheimer’s) based on my misunderstanding of materials I read while researching this piece.

  2. I feel no obligation to give to beggars. Have these people been rejected by everyone they know, that they should seek out tourists and strangers? There is no record of Jesus ever handing out cash.

    BTW the Torah is in the Bible, and where did it ever say not to give more than twenty per cent? Maybe you meant the Talmud?

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