B Y L A R R Y G O R D O N
This is the time of year when the number of people arriving in New York from Israel to collect money dramatically increases. It is the Hebrew month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur, ten days later.
The equation is that many of them need funds for themselves, their families, or the yeshivas or other institutions they work for. And many of us on this side of the equation are looking to accrue additional good deeds so that we arrive armed with a good case as we petition our Creator for another year of life, goodness, and all its accouterments.
But any one of these individuals is not just “another collector,” as we tend to think of them when we see them standing at the door of our home or office. Sometimes it is just difficult to open that door. Or maybe we don’t care to at a given moment, for whatever reason.
When I feel that way, I remind myself of two things. The first is that it is Elul and this is an opportunity we are being given. The second is the thought of what a difficult and unpleasant situation it is to be in, to ring bells of homes and pray that someone responds and opens the door.
I feel like I am maneuvering myself into a corner here, but I have been intending to do a story on this subject for quite some time. I’d like to get to know who these people are, how they arrive at the decision to come to America and knock on doors, and what the experience is like.
Last Sunday, the doorbell at our home rang in mid-morning. On the security monitor, I could see a man in a large black hat, long black coat, and grayish beard carrying a small briefcase. It was already very hot outside. Over the last few years, one of the deterrents to opening the door has been that the emissaries, or meshulachim, frequently travel in groups. If you were intending to open the door for one, there may in reality be two or three or more people there who will not understand why you cannot just give endlessly to everyone, even if you would like to.
I looked and I hesitated, but then I opened the door. It was probably around 80 degrees outside, but he was dressed for winter. I invited him to step in where it was nice and cool, and he was extremely thankful just for that. He said in Hebrew mixed in with Yiddish that in many houses either no one was home or there wasn’t anyone interested in opening the door. I poured him a large cup of cold water and invited him to sit so that I could find out more about him. I figured that if I was going to write about this subject, this was as good as any place to start.
I had not seen or met him before over all these years of sitting with many of these gentlemen (and on occasion some ladies). I asked him who else he was traveling with, as I am always a little suspicious that once I let him out the door the next person will be standing, or lying, in wait. He had his community permit, which is simply an indication that his authenticity had been minimally vetted.
Then we both got straight to the point. I wanted to know the motivation and purpose of his traveling 5,600 miles from Israel to ring bells on a summer Sunday in the Five Towns, and he apparently was anxious to tell me.
It turns out that his son was getting married the next Sunday. “Have you ever heard of a father not being home a week before his son’s wedding?” he asked. I wasn’t sure of the answer to that, so he jumped in and said that it is never done, but he was in a desperate situation. “I don’t even have money to buy him a rekel,” he said. That is the long black coat that we often refer to as a kappote here.
I asked what his profession was or what he did for a living. He said he had 10 children and that he was a rebbe in a chassidic yeshiva in Jerusalem. He said that the cheder had restarted after a brief summer recess but the administrator of the yeshiva had noticed that he looked distracted and unable to focus on the new school year. He said that the heavy financial burden of the impending wedding and the lack of funds placed him in a very poor frame of mind.
I told him that I do not understand the whole system. “Your son is getting married and this should be a very happy time for you. I don’t understand how your family, friends, and neighbors allow you to become so dejected.” I asked whether there was a support system within the chassidic sect he belonged to for such a situation, and he said there was not. That was apparent, as it was a week before the wedding and he was sitting in my den.
At one point he began to cry. He said he was returning to Israel that night and had nowhere near the amount of money he needed. I don’t know. I gave him a couple of hundred dollars and bade him good luck and farewell. What else could I have done?
• • •
Six years ago we made our youngest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel. At the time, I thought that it would be a nice, modest gesture to help an Israeli family make their son’s bar mitzvah on the same day. That night we wanted to attend this other family’s celebration at the Zhvil Hall in Jerusalem. Once we arrived, the only issue was that there were four different little halls with four different bar mitzvahs taking place, and we were trying to figure out which one was the family we were in touch with.
I probably had that from-another-country lost look on my face, so one of the guests—a chassidish man who spoke a little English—asked whom we were looking for. I explained the situation to him, and he helped me find the right room and the family we were looking forward to meeting.
At some point—and I do not specifically recall how—the person who directed us took my phone number, and lo and behold, a few weeks later he called me to say he was in New York and wanted to meet me in my office. I was happy to hear from him, and I agreed. He informed me that he was collecting money for a yeshiva in Geula, and I gave him what I could. He seemed happy and appreciative, but then he started visiting every three months or so, seemingly expecting the same donation. The odd thing is that not only did he become a regular visitor, but the father of the bar mitzvah boy whose party we attended that night in Jerusalem also began coming either to my home or office two or three times a year.
I’m not complaining, and I thank G‑d that I am able to do my small part to assist them in whatever it is they do. I know that the man whose son was bar mitzvah that night in Israel has 18 children and is a rebbe in a yeshiva, so it can’t be easy.
But the real story here is what happened next. The first man, that is the one who directed us to the right bar mitzvah, stopped coming to New York after a couple of years. Instead he would call me before yom tov; in fact I am expecting a call from him prior to Rosh Hashanah. I’m not clear on the details, but a few years ago he was stopped at JFK by immigration, and for some reason they did not allow him into the U.S. and they put him on a plane back to Israel.
Since then he has suspended all his efforts at trying to come to the U.S. He has no family here, is a native-born Israeli, and I thought that was the end of that. Then a few weeks ago he called to tell me the good news—that his brother was coming to the U.S. in early September. And last week he did indeed arrive.
The brother is a few years younger and much softer-spoken. I guessed that they were ten years apart, but he said he was only three years younger. The difference apparently is that the older brother has ten children and the younger has three.
This brother brought a two-volume sefer he had just completed after 12 years of work. The book, Ha’check B’halachah, explores from every conceivable perspective the use of checks and credit cards according to Jewish law. There is a review book of the two volumes that has been printed in English as well. The books explore the nature of the commitment when one writes a check, what happens if you write a check to charity but it never gets deposited, and a complicated analysis regarding paying interest on credit cards, and so on.
So, I inquired, “You are working on this sefer for 12 years; how is it that you make a living?” He responded that he is a shadchan in Geula and Meah Shearim. I’m always interested to hear about shidduchim, and over the years people have shared with me how the system works deep inside the chassidish community.
So I asked my new friend, “Is it true that a boy and a girl can meet in the morning and be engaged by the evening of the same day?” He said that it has happened, though that is usually not the case. He added that what holds up the process, more often than not, is working out the details, between the parents, of who is going to do what for the young couple. Without that dimension of negotiations prolonging the process, most shidduchim would happen after one or two meetings between the young man and woman.
He said that most of the boys start dating at 19 years of age, and the girls at either 18 or 19. And once they are engaged, the wedding can be as much as a year later while the young man continues intensive studies in yeshiva.
I bought the sefer and it is, for now, on the bookshelves in my office. I told the author that it was very nice to meet him and that I was certain we would meet again soon.
• • •
If there is a season for giving, it is in Elul. Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Tanya that giving charity brings about peace and harmony throughout creation. One act of tzedakah is rewarded with peace and temporary respite from the inner struggle of good versus evil, and the “toil” of tzedakah has a much deeper, long-lasting effect.
Giving charity is frequently referred to as “the mitzvah.” There are many other important mitzvos detailed in the Torah, but tzedakah is in a special class of its own, because when people set out to make a living to support their families, they are doing so with the totality of their beings. It may be hard physical labor or one’s full intellectual abilities, but when you give tzedakah you are actually, in a sense, genuinely giving of yourself.
There are several more personalities from Israel (and some from here too) that I would like to tell you about, but I will leave them for another day. So next time someone rings your bell and you’re not sure you want to answer, you may have very good reason, but also bear in mind they are real people with real stories. v
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