Elder Abuse – Distorting Judaism and Shaming the Avos

04 Dec

There is a shameful form of Tzedakah (charity) growing in today’s Jewish world that should sicken us all. Individuals and organizations prey on people’s fears and troubles, and “guarantee” miracles in return for donations.

I had considered calling this week’s Sermon “Prostituting the Avos (Forefathers)”, but I felt that that would be too disrespectful.  However, a charity flyer I received recently leads me to think that that is exactly what is being done. It’s a fabrication and an outrage.

I recently received a glossy 16-page magazine that was published to encourage people to donate money to a particular religious institution.

It tells the story of a particular religious Jew (whom we will call “Reb Weinman”), an impeccably observant Jew who maintains close ties with a prominent Israeli Rabbi (whom we will call “Rav Stein”). Here is an excerpt from the story.

“One time, he called Rav Stein with a seemingly overwhelming problem – he had become entangled with the IRS, America’s Internal Revenue Service, and was under criminal investigation. The most optimistic experts informed him that, if he were lucky, he’d end up spending “only” several years behind bars. The IRS had succeeded in infiltrating his staff. These talented undercover policemen wormed their way up to prominent positions in the company, where they had access to sensitive information, and then used that information to put together a seemingly clear-cut criminal case.

Reb Weinman’s world had caved in on him. He felt that there was no hope for the future. All was lost – his family would be destitute and he’d end up behind prison bars. Rav Stein listened carefully as Reb Weinman described his predicament. As was his custom, he paused for a few moments to think and then said, “Mama Rochel [Rachel our foremother] can help – she always helps, in every situation!” Reb Weinman, sitting at his desk in New York, was totally confused.

What was the Rav trying to telling him? “The government has issued a restraining order, making it impossible for me to leave the borders of the United States,” he pointed out. “It’s impossible for me to come to Israel, so how can I possibly daven at Kever Rochel [cave/burial place of Rachel]?”

“You don’t have to go personally,” the Rav responded. “There’s a tzaddik who will go for you. He’s a talmid chacham with tremendous self-sacrifice for Mama Rochel. Helping him in his holy work for Mama Rochel is a sure investment, even when everything appears hopeless.”

The Rav paused for a few seconds and then continued, “This tzaddik’s name is Rav Hirsh. He has arranged for groups of tzaddikim to daven at Kever Rochel around the clock. I suggest that you cover the expenses of the minyan that learns there each night at midnight. If you do, I am sure that you will have a yeshua [salvation]. I know from experience that it works.”

So Reb Weinman called Reb Hirsh and arranged the donation. The story continues…

As Reb Weinman told us the following part of the story, his face became flushed with emotion and he had to pause for a few moments to compose himself. The very next morning, he received a phone call from the IRS, requesting his presence at the main office in Manhattan. Reb Weinman was petrified. What did they want from him? Were they going to send him straight to prison, without even the benefit of a trial? Instead, the unbelievable happened. The clerk smiled (yes, he smiled!) and informed Reb Weinman that the office had decided not to take the case to court. Instead, he was asked to pay a fine and then his case would be closed.

Reb Weinman’s accountant was astounded. Such behavior was unprecedented; in his several decades of working with the tax authorities, he had never seen them close a case of this magnitude before.

At this point, the relieved Reb Weinman takes the first flight to Israel, where he met with his Rabbi.

Rav Stein turned to him and asked, “And what about your daughters?” He was referring to Reb Weinman’s three unmarried daughters – the youngest was already twenty-eight. “Take advantage of this opportunity,” the Rav urged him. Reb Weinman grasped the significance of the Rav’s words, and immediately made out a check to the Kever Rochel Foundation, to cover an additional three months of support for the Midnight Minyan – one month for each of his three unmarried daughters. Three weeks later, Reb Weinman celebrated the engagement of his oldest daughter. Eight weeks later, the second daughter became a kallah [bride]. And one day before the end of the three months, the Weinman’s youngest daughter also got engaged.

In the zechus [merit] of Mama Rochel, and of tzedakah given to Mosdos Kever Rochel, Reb Weinman was saved from prison, and, as a bonus, each of his three daughters found their b’shert [intended soul mates].

Where does one even begin?

This is nauseating. This is selling the holy avos and imahos (forefathers and foremothers), like cheap, grubby [I don’t even want to write the word] … ready to bail out any old ganav (thief) for the right price.

Chalilah! (G-d forbid!). We should cry when we read this, because this isn’t reverence. There is nothing holy about this. Torah study and davening may, or may not, be more effective when done at Kever Rochel than other places, but the notion that supporting it guarantees immunity from prosecution from the IRS is too vulgar for words.

I have no problem with Tzedakah – the opposite – Tzedakah tatzil mimavet (Charity saves from death). I have no problem with Kever Rochel, no problem with seeking blessings.  If I faced personal difficulties of these, or any other, I would try anything I could to find help.

And that’s the problem.

There are people who are ready to try anything. And there are people ready to sell them salvation.

This is not about segulos, per se – the notion that by doing a particular action on a particular day, e.g., saying a specific chapter of Tehilim (Psalms) on a specific day of the week, that help may be given to you. Segulos are complicated. This is about something much worse.

This is about people who are trying to tell us that salvation can always be guaranteed … for the right price, to the right cause.

The fact is that the example I gave above is one that I find most offensive – because I cannot imagine that Rochel Imaynu, whom we meet in this morning’s parsha, is on call 24/7 to arrange bail for anyone prepared to slip her kollel a few dollars. But it is far from unique.

It has almost become a standard approach in fundraising in the orthodox world.

Perhaps you missed the advertisement that appeared in certain frum (religious) publications for the silver “segulah ring”? This is a ring that, when made in a certain way, out of pure silver, engraved with certain verses and names of Hashem, is held to be effective for helping  people in all sorts of situations.

Now to be honest I am skeptical about these kinds of segulos, but I accept that there is an approach to Judaism that finds room for them. Perhaps, nowadays, that’s even the mainstream approach. Maybe.

But here’s the thing. I checked out the source for the ring, in one of the books of the great mystic the Chida. And, indeed, he mentions it. But he doesn’t go so far as the advertisement that appeared in the Jewish media last year.

After claiming that it is successful in, at least, 90% of cases, the advertisement goes on to warn that:

“Additionally, it should come to your attention that [name] was granted the patent to manufacture this segulah ring; no one else in the world is allowed to manufacture it at this point in time. Copying it would be against secular, as well as religious Jewish, law and legal and/or rabbinical action will be taken in the event someone is caught committing such a transgression. Nor could any help from the segulah be expected when doing something of that nature against it.”

And finally:

“Also, importantly, despite being mentioned after everything else, the ring cannot be lent to anyone else other than a very immediately close relative – wife, husband, and children. It is certainly to be kept in mind that no help could be expected from a ring that has been borrowed from a non-immediately close relative – cousin, uncle, and aunt – or from a friend.”

So there you have it. This segulah will work. But only if you pay me.

The naked self-interest is, at least, refreshing as it is not dressed up in the pious cloak of tzedakah.

You know what this is. It’s a scam.

And it’s disgusting.

And the advertisement brings what it claims are testimonials from people attesting to having been helped by this ring in every imaginable area for shiduchim (marriages), health, parnasah (livelihood) – you name it.

Oh – and just one thing – there is a warning that if you are one of the unlucky 10% – you are not getting your money back.

These are just two examples of people – perhaps for worthy goals, perhaps not, preying on people’s darkest moments’ worst fears.

When the doctors have given up hope, the experts given up hope, when it seems that your davening is hopeless – someone will sell you hope.

Commenting on one organization that stated in its promotional literature:

“… all who contribute to [this charity] merit to see open miracles.”

The great Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshiva, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, was reported as describing it as “nothing short of gezel gamur, of pure theft.”

Why this matters, and matters to us (perhaps a more skeptical crowd, although not totally) is as follows:

We are all looking for shortcuts. Sell me an app to get my prayers answered and I’ll take it. Show me the way round the hard work, the effort, the uncertainty, and I’ll pay any price.

But, at its root, that idea is heresy.

Do you really think there is a shortcut? That if illness or tragedy strikes your life, G-d forbid, that if Hashem has decreed an outcome for us, that you can break the system.

We know about prayer, tzedakah, teshuvah (repentance). We know that an evil decree can be averted. But it’s not magic and it’s certainly never ever guaranteed, and I can guarantee no one can sell it to you.

Beyond a laziness, a looking for shortcuts, a workaround, is a perverse scale of value systems that says, somehow, the Almighty can be tricked by the right incantation into giving you what you want. And that’s not Judaism, but it’s what many frum Jews have come to believe.

In this week’s parsha we meet Yaakov Avinu (our forefather Jacob), fleeing from home. Alone, and afraid his world has come crashing down. He has no money, no home, he has nothing. He dreams a dream and Hashem promised him: “Jacob I will guard you wherever you go, I will bless you, I will never abandon you, I will bring you home.”

And Yaakov woke up and he prayed to G-d and made an oath, and beseeched Hashem, for bread and clothing.

אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלִֹקים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ.

Hashem just promised him every type of bracha (blessing) and now he’s asking for the basics of human existence. What’s the matter?  Has he lost his silver segulah ring? Why is he worried about not having bread to eat?

Because, as chazal explain, in life there are no guarantees. The Torah promises nobody an easy life. S’char mitzvah bu hay almal leka, there is no reward for Mitzvos (good deeds) in this world. No one, even the most righteous, are ever guaranteed that things will go easy for them in this world.

That’s what Hashem wants from us in this world – loyalty, devotion, work, but most of all faith. Faith that even when things don’t go well, that He is with us even as we suffer, and that we are not alone.

To imply otherwise – worse, to claim you have a shortcut that exempts you from what Hashem wants of all of us – is wrong. To seek to cash in on people suffering is a perversion.

Kever Rochel is, indeed, a beautiful place. Made all the more resonant by the fact that she lies buried at the side of the road, in order, as the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) tells us:

רָחֵל, מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיהָ

Rachel is crying for her children, begging the Almighty to bring redemption.

Perhaps if we spent less time asking Rochel Imaynu to keep tax cheats out of jail, and more time davening that Hashem should hear her cries, we would merit to see speedily the true and final salvation.


15 responses to “Elder Abuse – Distorting Judaism and Shaming the Avos

  1. nopeanutz

    December 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    major pwnage, Rav!
    It is only too bad that all of the gedolim or yiddin who could benefit from your words have outlawed blogs, and will never read them (unless, of course, it is from their own personal blackberry)- as anyone who has seen youtube clips of this year’s Agudah conference knows.

  2. Abbie Cohen

    December 5, 2011 at 10:32 am

    This reminds me of the automated calls in Yiddish I have been getting for the past year in Rockland County promising opportunities to win a suitcase of money or something equally fantastic if I enter a lottery or do something else that will give Heaven a chance to express its concern for me and my family.

  3. Kurt

    December 5, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Seriously? Can we see a copy of this “tzedaka” magazine?

  4. Harry Maryles

    December 5, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. This Segulah really works and is well worth the investment. I was actually dead and buried for several months. My body was decaying – worms all over. But my brother who refused to accept my death – went to this very same Rav who told him to do the very same thing as in this story and I am now alive and well… and here to tell you about it. I will be celebrating my 106th Birthday on December 21st. How dare anyone question this holy cause?!

  5. YZBZQ

    December 5, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    That is strange. I had a friend who gave to this Tzedakah in order to get a zivug. On the way to his next date he was obliterated by a Chinese bus on its way to Atlantic City. While many of those passengers, who were delayed for about an hour while they investigated the accident, did go on to greater winnings than usual, this was of no benefit to my friend. Meanwhile his date, who was not informed of his squishy demise, started to talk lashon hara about him to her friends, all of which, including the jilted date, subsequently developed a strange skin rash. One of her friends was so bothered by this she went to the local Drug store where she coincidently ran into one of the aforementioned Chinese gamblers and started a conversation. Rachmana l’tzlan she started dating, and eventually married this man, who won incredible amounts that night, which was one of the reasons she was swayed into this profane relationship. After a few years, at the bris of her first son, her husband converted and due to his winnings and subsequent investments (which always made his mother in law, who while publicly disavowing the match always maintained a friendly relationship with the couple, to claim he had a Yiddische Kopf) he was able to spend his days and nights learning in Yeshiva. I think what happened was that my friend, being dis-incorporated so completely by the bus, had his zchus from the Tzedakah transferred to the Chinese and caused them to win more than usual and to, eventually, result in the zivug of this Chinese man and his Jewish wife who live in Mea Shearim and have 8 kids, with more on the way. So it really did work!!!

  6. zach

    December 5, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Why is everyone afraid to say “Kupat Hair” and its ilk.

  7. Joe in Australia

    December 6, 2011 at 12:05 am

    When I find myself in times of trouble
    Mama Rochel comforts me
    Asking for donations,
    Donate to me

    And when the brokenhearted people
    You recommend to turn to me
    We’ll pay you a commission,
    Donate to me

    Donate to me, donate to me
    Donate to me, donate to me
    Mama Rochel’s waiting, donate to me

    In their hours of darkness
    Our phone center can take their call
    Asking for donations
    Donate to me

    Here’s a great “mofes” story
    It proves the point, I’m sure you see
    So send in a donation
    Donate to me

    Donate to me, donate to me ….

    Though it’s not guaranteed
    Success will come if you believe
    And send in a donation
    Donate to me

    Donate to me, donate to me
    Donate to me, yeah, donate to me
    Mama Rochel’s waiting, donate to me

    • nopeanutz

      December 6, 2011 at 9:50 am

      /slow clap.

  8. jrs

    December 6, 2011 at 8:47 am

    Not bad, Joe!

    May I respectably suggest “Give to me” instead of “Donate…”—it works much better, rhythmically.
    (No co-writing credit necessary)

  9. Yossi Ginzberg

    December 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    The big unanswered question is, if these amulets and blessings work as advertised, why are their promoters asking US for money instead of just davening for it?

    I suspect that the same people behind these scams are those behind the fund-raising for the “Boys in Japan” and other pidyon shevuyim fund-raising, which again raises the question of why don’t they just give to Kupat Ha’ir.

  10. Tanisha

    December 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Thank you, I have been hunting for details about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far.

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  13. Joe Izrael

    December 13, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Great article!
    Many people have been cursing at this issue for a long time. Those flyers/mags are becoming more disgusting by the day, often using the rabbis the same way secular mags use pinup girls – for advertising.
    The sad part is these tzdakah orgs usually do a great job helping people in distress, but when the focus shifted from stories about the recipients (i.e. how sick people & their families were helped by that org) to stories about the donors… feh. I’d rather stop right here.

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