Monday, October 20, 2014

Faith Goes Begging in Jewish NJ

Beggars can't be choosers.

Unless they're Orthodox Jews, apparently.

Chart this one up to the price of being religiously devout.  According to a recent exposé in the New York Times, a modest city in the middle of New Jersey may be the capital of the world when it comes to professional begging.

And it's Orthodox Jews doing the begging from Orthodox Jews.

Ever hear of Lakewood, New Jersey?  Well, it's home to the largest yeshiva (a kind of college for students of Jewish religious texts) in the United States, Beth Medrash Govoha.  And, like what happens in a lot of college towns, a considerable number of graduates and other Orthodox Jews have established their homes near the yeshiva.  In the process, they've created their own unlikely cultural community in Lakewood, populated by a few wealthy entrepreneurs, but many more poor yeshiva students, their wives, and their many, many, many children.

Large families easily characterize Orthodox Judaism, and explain how this sect's numbers have grown exponentially in America's northeast during the past few decades.  Orthodox adherents believe they need to have large families to be religiously faithful.

However, just because they have large families doesn't mean they can afford them.  There's not a lot of demand for highly-educated graduates of schools specializing in theological interpretations of Judaism's holy texts.  Unfortunately, the job market for yeshiva graduates is probably about as robust as the job market for sociology undergraduates.  But devout adherents of Jewish Orthodoxy don't let the lack of a high-income job thwart their procreative efforts.  Indeed, as this Times article comments, the poorest town in America is the predominantly-Hasidic hamlet of Kiryas Joel, in New York State's Orange County.  Kiryas Joel also has the largest average family size - nearly six people per family - of any community in America.

So much for the wealthy Jewish stereotype.

When it comes to begging, however, it's not really the poor American Jews who go begging in Lakewood.  There are plenty of civic charities in town for them.  No, the beggars come from upstate New York, yes; and Wisconsin, and Israel.  All told, about 1,000 people beg in Lakewood every year - and the city's population is less than 100,000.

How does Lakewood know how many beggars it has?  Because the city forces its beggars to officially register themselves.  Otherwise, Lakewood would be over-run, and its residents wouldn't know if their magnanimity was going to valid causes.

To be a valid beggar in Lakewood, it's almost a prerequisite that you're Jewish, because you have to provide contact information for the rabbi of your synagogue.  The town will call your rabbi - even if he's in Israel - to verify your legitimacy before you're given a permit to go and solicit funds from Lakewoodians.

Some of the people begging are advocating on behalf of Jewish organizations, but many others are seeking to pay off personal debts, or are raising funds to help another Jewish family pay off their debts, or pay for medical care, or pay for a wedding.  And with all those kids, they have lots of weddings for which to pay!  One professional beggar interviewed by the Times - an Israeli citizen who flies stateside in the summers to make the rounds in New Jersey - earns roughly $16,000 each summer he's over here.  And even back in Israel, all he does is beg for a living, so he can support his twelve - yes, 12 - children.

Of course, beggars like this Israeli father of 12 don't usually make a huge haul off of one or two people.  Lakewood's yeshiva students are quite poor, and most only give one or two dollars each.  But multiply that by the thousands of students in town, and then by the hundreds of beggars they're likely to encounter each year in town, and you can see how generous they're being, even as they are living on a shoestring themselves.

Amazing, huh?

It's all part of an old Jewish tradition based on helping the poor and needy.  And Orthodox Judaism thrives on historicity, customs, and ritual.  Technically, none of the Old Testament books of the law - the "Pentateuch," or the first five books of the Old Testament, which are sometimes called the "Torah" - stipulate that begging is an honorable job, or that God's people are required to support beggars.  Poor people don't necessarily have to beg, and as this Times story shows, not all beggars are poor.  Historically, however, both the Talmud and the Torah have been interpreted as legitimizing begging as a way to demonstrate charity, deepen one's allegiance to God, and build community amongst fellow Jews.

In other words, beggars have become an integral part of helping Orthodox Jews live out their faith.  To be cynical about it, however; it also means that giving money to beggars has become a hoop to jump through, an expectation that cannot be ignored, and a practice that helps secure God's pleasure in you.

Jews may give grace to each other, but in a way, they have to buy it from God.

To evangelical Christians, it all sounds works-based and law-infused, which of course, it is.  Especially since it doesn't appear that beggars beg of other beggars, so beggars can't benefit from whatever giving to beggars supposedly brings the giver. 

Still, before we get too carried away with the temptation to mock Lakewood's Orthodox Jews for their gullibility, when it comes to the basic practice of asking other people for money, aren't there ways we Gentiles do the same thing?  For example, aren't non-investment-related crowdfunding initiatives a form of begging?  I've seen couples create online accounts for themselves when they want to adopt a foreign baby, which admittedly is a costly undertaking.  However, if prospective parents can't even afford the adoption costs on their current income, how does that translate into their ability to financially provide for that infant when they get it back home?

Meanwhile, in the rest of non-Jewish America, we tend to scowl when we see panhandlers and other beggars on the street, in mass transit, or along the side of the road.  Granted, Lakewood's beggars aren't the drug-addicted, decrepitly-dressed, dirty-skinned people we normally associate with begging, but they're still not really providing a service in exchange for the money they're receiving.  Unless you count Jewish begging like the IRS does your contributions to your church:  a donation in exchange for intangible religious benefits.

Nevertheless, no economy can thrive if begging is a major component of it.  At some point, there needs to be a financial exchange of goods to balance the socioeconomic order of things.  However, the extent to which begging exists usually also stands as a testament to the imbalance that exists in the economy in which it's being conducted.

Except in Lakewood's case, of course, since the city has become the go-to place for hundreds of professional beggars every year.  And it seems obvious that Lakewood's Jewish community rather relishes its notoriety, even if it's simply to prove how much holier they are than our Gentile communities where begging is far less honorable.  For Lakewood, begging is not a leading economic indicator, but a leading religious indicator.

Too bad that good intentions pave roads going in the opposite direction from where so many religious people think they're headed.

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