By: Rachel Dayan
A new organization, Charity Endorsements, aims to provide collectors with well deserved dignity while imparting donors with unprecedented confidence in their “investment”.
Michael is torn. In his office, listening to a horrific tale of sickness and debt, of hunger and deprivation, he wants so badly to help the man standing before him. But then, a faint voice in the back of his head whispers, “How naïve are you? This guy is taking you for a ride. No story that dramatic could be true.” Michael’s doubts and suspicion overwhelm him, prompting his hands to reach for spare change instead of his checkbook. The poor man leaves dejected and hopeless, off to yet another office where he again receives a pittance. At this rate, he will return home a truly broken man. His last hope has failed. If only there was a trusted local contact he could have called upon to vouch for his situation.
Recognizing a Dire Need
This scenario has played out thousands of times and unfortunately, continues to this day. Tragically, many suffer as a result. As a community that has been truly blessed, it is sometimes difficult for us to believe that the kind of hardships, hunger and severe deprivation which are described to us in urgent appeals actually exist. But real poverty does indeed exist, both here and, especially, in Israel, and the current economic climate has raised the poverty rate to staggering proportions. Many of the individuals who collect charity within our community have no place to turn, having already exhausted all other options. Some find themselves deep in debt. They come here looking for the legendary kindness and compassion of the Syrian-Sephardic Community who can lend them a hand to lift them out of their sorrows. But after a few isolated (but famous) cases of charlatans and imposters posing as charity collectors, many of the otherwise generous donors they meet, react with jaded suspicion.
For years, donors have been searching desperately for a way to bridge the gap between logic and emotion, to enable wholehearted giving without any nagging doubts, with only the genuine feelings of kindness and concern that lie within their hearts.
Corrupting an Honorable System
Fraudulent fund-raising does more than just deplete the already-strapped reservoirs of charitable funds. Phony collectors bring dishonesty into the honorable system of charity collecting, and even those philanthropists who have never been duped are wary of fakers based on stories they’ve heard. Regrettably, this tiny group of deceptive collectors cast a bad reputation on the whole establishment. The average meshulah (collector) may be treated as “guilty” until he proves his innocence, which he will rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to do. Though still relatively rare, the number of bogus collectors has unfortunately risen considerably over the last 10-15 years. Sadly, some of them are not even Jewish.
For a meshulah representing yeshivot and other large organizations in Israel, there is some respite. Congregation Shaare Zion has, for years now, been running a program to locally certify the authenticity of their mission. Through a system involving a live interview, documentation requirements (including proof of funding through the Israeli government), and follow up checking, meshulahim can obtain a certificate from Shaare Zion verifying their legitimacy. Many other large Jewish communities in America have a Vaad Hasedaka for this purpose, as well. However, smaller establishments, as well as private collectors raising money for individual families, who cannot produce this kind of documentation, are ineligible for this certification through Shaare Zion. Ascertaining the credibility of each of these meshulahim would require painstaking investigations and often, contacts on the ground on Israel. And therefore, no one in our community has taken responsibility to offer such certification to these meshulahim – until now.
Restoring Lost Dignity
This problem has vexed Rabbi Maimon Badush, who, for the last five years, has been overseeing the distribution of charity for a philanthropic community member. Over the course of his work, Rabbi Badush has personally encountered several phony collectors and saw the mistrust they sow among donors. These experiences led him to consider various solutions, and all their possible drawbacks.
After extensive consultations and planning, Rabbi Badush teamed up with Rabbi David Antebi and Rabbi Eli David, to realize the goal of restoring the dignity and respect owed to meshulahim. Even the great sage Hida (Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 1724-1806), he notes, was a sedaka collector. Certainly, there should be no shame in collecting for charitable purposes – yet unfamiliar meshulahim are frequently greeted with suspicion.
“Fraud hurts the good collectors,” Rabbi Badush observes, “because many wealthy people [who are unsure about an individual’s honesty] reduce their donations, or close their doors to unfamiliar people altogether.” His objective is to restore donor confidence by independently verifying the situations prompting collection and thus, helping the overwhelming majority of genuine meshulahim raise money respectfully and more easily.
A System That Works
Much thought has gone into how to best verify the authenticity of meshulahim. In his extensive experience, Rabbi Badush has covered practically every aspect of the process, in order to give prospective donors full confidence that the certified collector is soliciting for a genuine and pressing charitable need. At the same time, Rabbi Badush’s system ensures that the application process will be convenient and dignified for the sedaka collector. The sedaka collector applies for a certification letter one or two weeks before he intends to leave Israel. The office in Bnei Brak records all pertinent information and takes a photograph of the collector. Verifying documentation, such as bank statements and references are examined discretely by a professional. The staff then corroborates the information by paying an unscheduled personal visit. This visit is carried out regardless of where in Israel the collector or the organization he represents may be located. Rabbi Badush insists that a physical visit, rather than just a phone call, is necessary for determining the accuracy of any claim. This level of investigation is what sets this system apart from any other verification program.
Once the claim has been verified, the office in Israel sends a report, including a photo ID, to the office in Brooklyn, where a letter of certification is then prepared. This certificate includes several lines describing the cause and a picture of the meshulah, and generally will be valid for a period of one month. Special precautions are taken to ensure that the certificate cannot be easily duplicated or forged. When the collector arrives in Brooklyn, his certificate is ready and waiting for him. Although the Vaad Hasedaka is a non-profit organization, a minimal fee will be collected to help cover operational costs.
With the help of many participating rabbis in our community, including Rabbi David Ozeri, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Haim and Rabbi Haim Benoliel, this certification promises to significantly streamline the fundraising process for these meshulahim. Many community shuls have already expressed their intention to allow entrance only to collectors certified by the new Vaad Hasedaka beginning around May 2010. Among prominent rabbis outside the community who endorse the Vaad Hasedaka are Rabbi Aaron Schechter, Rosh Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Admor of Novominsk.
An advertising campaign is already underway in Israel and in several business offices in Manhattan. Flyers are being distributed informing meshulahim about the Vaad Hasedaka, and advising them to apply for a certificate for visits after May 2010. Closer to the official launch, ads will also be circulated in Israeli newspapers.
A Sedaka Revolution
Rabbi Badush’s certification program is just one part of a greater “Sedaka Revolution” which he seeks to promote. Once the Vaad Hasedaka is established and running, Rabbi Badush plans to create a comprehensive sedaka information website, CharityEndorsements.com. The site will feature, among other things, a publicly accessible listing of all currently certified collectors. For major philanthropists who require deeper access, a password protected area of the site will be opened for a nominal annual fee, to enable members to access additional information and send out alerts to other members, warning of possible charity fraud. Over twenty leading community philanthropists have already expressed interest in being part of such a network.
Committed to restore the respect owed to our Jewish brothers who work tirelessly on behalf of the neediest members of our nation, Rabbi Badush is dedicated to the project and believes that this united effort by our community can ensure that the sincere meshulahim receive the honor they deserve, and the donations that our impoverished brethren so desperately need.