Monday, March 19, 2012

Tzedakah is Tzedakah and . . . .

Back in the mid-1990’s when my son was in elementary yeshiva, I attended a PTA meeting where fund raising was discussed. The discussion turned to the yeshiva’s various ways of squeezing out the last drops after milking us dry with tuition (see Ovadiah 1:5). A woman present asked why she should be expected to pay a dollar for a fifty-cent candy bar (remember, mid-1990s). Her protest ended with, ”Tzedakah [charity] is tzedakah and candy is candy.” A similar situation exists today with “Jewish” races that I would like to run in but cannot because I lack or don’t want to spend resources that are wholly unrelated to putting on the race.

I have been running for some 35 years and remember races being simple events whose very simplicity attracted people into the sport. No fancy equipment, no twenty-dollar jerseys with fifty-dollar athletes’ names on them. The only item we had to spend significant (not exorbitant) sums on was our running shoes, and we all knew that in our sport you cannot economize on the health of your feet. You paid a nominal entry fee, you showed up, you dressed (or undressed, depending on how you look at it – in summer you came dressed to run) and you ran. Then somebody came up with the idea of running for charity. You signed up friends, neighbors and co-workers as “sponsors” and they gave a specified amount to whatever charity the organizers selected if you completed the race. We runners were asked to add to the entry fee a donation to the charity, but there was no coercion. If you did not donate, you were still welcome to run. A large turnout raised awareness for the cause.

Fast-forward to two or three years ago. Large numbers of observant Jews suddenly discovered the benefits of running. Jewish organizations started putting on races to serve them and, at the same time, raise money for Jewish charities. The races are gender-segregated so the rabbis would not object (read: so they would not hire cheap labor to plaster every light pole in town with silly broadsides banning the race). That’s okay with me; I was never sexually aroused by a woman in a race but a race put on by a Jewish organization is not a public bus. However, I strenuously object to a new twist these organizations add to the “charity race” concept. The runner commits himself in writing to raise a certain amount of money and gives the organizers his credit card number. If he fails to raise the specified sum, the organizers charge his credit card for the difference. See here, for example, and click on “I commit to raising.” Poof. They just added compulsion to a polite request to support a worthy cause. I do not like monetary commitments. They sound too much like nedarim (halakhically binding vows), especially when they are legally binding contracts as these commitments are. I do not commit myself to charity callers over the phone for a specific amount (“Send me an envelope and I’ll send you whatever I feel is appropriate and within my means.”). I do not even pledge for synagogue appeals. I don’t need my name called out along with how much I pledged. I just quietly write a check and mail it to the synagogue; the U.S. Postal Service still functions. And if I forget I haven’t committed a serious aveirah. I suppose I am one of those “who fear to vow” (Kohelet 9:2).

The same applies, even more strongly, to schnorring (begging) from people I know. My father ע''ה inculcated in me from a very young age that schnorring is shameful and a schnorrer is a shady character that one best avoids. I do not have wealthy friends and co-workers; nobody becomes a teacher to get rich in anything but headaches and aggravation. I am not comfortable with imposing on people I know with requests for money, no matter how worthy the cause. What if they are suffering financial hardship and feel obligated because I asked them? What if they pledge, and then both of us forget? And you never know what can happen in a race. What if I pull up lame (it happens, hamstrings get pulled and ankles twisted)? Are my “schnorrees” still obligated to cough up money? It would be very embarrassing to ask them to redeem their commitments when I did not “redeem” my commitment to finish the race. As for me paying the full amount, I don’t have a money tree in my back yard. Plenty of worthy charities solicit me, and I have to be judicious. Two hundred dollars or such to any one charity is out of the question.

These Jewish organizations need to follow the secular charities, which are much more experienced with charity races, and get rid of the binding contracts. Tzedakah is tzedakah and running is running.

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