Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Joys of Mishulachim

I'm sure most people sympathize with the mishulachim (poor people) that come collecting in town, but posts I have seen in the Jewish Blogosphere could be misconstrued as disparaging towards them. While the posts deal with the issues involving collection, and not the mishulachim themselves, it is important to state that distinction outright.

Since the press on local mishulachim is generally negative, I thought I would elaborate on exactly why I generally like mishulachim and why the make me happy (that sounds so dorky). Just as a disclaimer: I have never had a bad encounter with a mishulach (ie, asking for more money, etc), and I would imagine that doing so would put a sour taste in my mouth - perhaps the same sour taste that others seem to have for them. Furthermore, I have always been overly sympathetic towards the poor - even from a young age - regardless of whether the person was a crackhead on the streets of inner-city Baltimore, or a frum guy that can't afford to feed his family. Sure, if I would look at the different life choices that the crackhead made to put him in that situation, I would probably be far less sympathetic. However, I am unable to do that and I can't get past the fact that for whatever reason, they ARE poor NOW, and need help. Finally, living in an apartment, I receive about 1 mishulach a week. It is highly plausible that if I were to receive 2-3 a day, as some locals report, I would be more perturbed. Anyway, I have elaborated on a couple reasons why I enjoy seeing/helping mishulachim.

  • They put life in perspective - I often receive mishulachim between the 5-7 o'clock hour, which is not too long after I have come home from a 2.5 hour round-trip commute, which I complain about daily. It is usually at that point where I lament the fact that I must drag my tooshie to the gym to work out, followed by a chavrusa, followed by some interaction with my wife, followed by bed; all to wake up the next morning to the whole thing again. Life is draining. But when a guy comes to me can't afford to pay for food for his children, wedding for his daughter, salaries for his teachers, it makes me realize that the schedule that I have is just one luxury after another.
  • Nothing greater than making a poor person happy - Again, I have never had an interaction with a meshulach where he wasn't grateful. I usually sit the guy down, shmooze with him for 2-3 minutes before I even get to the details of what he is collecting for. I try to make the meshulach feel like a person, not a poor person. When giving a person $$ whole-heartedly, and not just wipping out your checkbook, giving the standard $10, giving it to them with no eye contact, etc, it is something that is most appreciated. Offering scotch (offer has never been accepted - maybe they're "chosheish" for sherry casks), a piece of fruit, or a drink only gladdens the person more. And don't think they don't notice when someone is being sincere - I recently asked a mishulach where he liked collecting more: in New York or in Baltimore, to which he responded, Baltimore. He explained the in Baltimore, people may not necessarily be able to give as much, but at least here they give whole-heartedly and sincerely.
  • I get to practice Hebrew - I am somewhat proud of the fact that I managed to master the Hebrew language to a somewhat-proficient level while taking 24 credits (yes, that's almost 1/4 of a degree) of the language in college. I am used to having to speak hours of Hebrew a week in my courses - but now that I have graduated I have far less opportunity to speak Hebrew. I feel as if many who feel negatively towards these collectors may do so, partly because of a language barrier. And they can usually appreciate a good spoken Hebrew.

I am more than willing to give generously from a bank account that wouldn't be used for other purposes anyway. I would highly recommend setting up a special maiser checking account that you can write checks from directly. This way, it won't seem as if you're spending your food $$ on the meshulachim.

Sure, there are problems with every system to dealing with these individuals. Sure, some are going to be rude. Sure, some are going to be greedy and ask for more. However, my dealings with mishulachim have only been positive - perhaps this is because I talk to each one of them expecting my interactions to be positive. Maybe if I approached each one as a burden and just "one more thing" to add to my busy day, my outlook would be different.


Blogger SephardiLady said...

It is great that you have had positive experiences and can share them.

Out of curiousity, what percentage of your funds do you keep local and what percentage do you send away? As you know, I've been trying to get my hands on some of this data and it is near impossible. Since you have a checkbook dedicated for that purpose only, maybe you could give me an idea.

8:38 AM, June 28, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

I'd say about 70% local, 30% mishulachim.

8:45 AM, June 28, 2006

Anonymous donny said...


I too have a separate Ma'aser account which I use exclusively for this purpose. Pyschologically, it really is a lot easier to just pull directly from this account when writing checks for tzedaka, knowing that you wouldn't be spending this $ for anything else.

I am also glad that you wrote this necessary post. I too was getting a bit perturbed by all the negativity I've seen on different blogs regarding this special mitzvah.

While in yeshiva, I had the opportunity to go to different communities to collect for a Jewish day school in Israel. I got to see first hand what these meshulachim go through regularly. I had experiences where I came to large, extravagant houses where I heard fathers telling their children from the back room to "tell the guy that I'm not home." Now I am not to judge. Maybe the guy can't afford to give too much tzedaka as he has spent all his money on his fancy house and sportscars in the driveway. But what are the chances that his children will grow up to respect the mitzvah of tzedaka?

I had other people glare at me while answering the door and after asking where I was from, say "Why are you bothering me? Go collect in your own community!"

The experience was very humbling. I could not help but think that the meshulachim I see at my own house are probably feeling 10x worse than I was.

On the other hand, I truly appreciated those people who treated me with dignity, sitting me down, offering a drink, asking about the school I was collecting for, asking about my own schooling, how I was enjoying my stay, etc. It was these visits that made the trip more bearable.

I personally feel that the mitzvah of tzedaka is an amazing mitzvah that we should fully embrace. So a meshulach asks you for a bit more money! You can politely decline, while still treat him like a mentsch. You have still fulfilled the mitzvah! I think it very commendable that you strive to do this mitzvah correctly, appreciating it for the opportunity that it is, instead of looking at it like the burden so many others do.

9:05 AM, June 28, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

Thanks for the comments. I do think that the average person reading the Jblogs will think that us frummies view this mitzvah as one we do because we have to.

However, we disagree on the "asking for more money" point. The reason, I believe, that these guys feel 10X worse than you did when you were collecting is because they feel horrible a) because they, often times, have to collect for their families and b) they feel are causing an imposition. Because they should feel a sense of imposition, to have the chutzpah to ask for more money would be even more of an imposition.

But, perhaps I am wrong in assuming they feel as if they are imposing. If I were collecting, I would certainly feel as if I was. I'm super nice to these mishulachim, but I can only imagine what a schmuck I'll become if I ever get asked for more money. However, I usually give fairly generously due to the fact that I rarely do get mishulachim and, therefore, have more $$ to give.

9:20 AM, June 28, 2006

Blogger SephardiLady said...

but I can only imagine what a schmuck I'll become if I ever get asked for more money.

In a former community, my friend called me very upset. A collector asked them, after looking around the house of double the money that they had given. Then, he went down the street to a family with a beautiful home ($400K price tag--ah, the good old days) and demanded $1800.

The mitzvah of giving is a beautiful one, but I imagine that many people who are struggling themselves have been made to feel cheap and those meshulachim that do so should be sent running since they are ruining it for all of the other meshulachim.

10:07 PM, June 28, 2006

Anonymous Donny said...

Ok here is how I look at it.

So you keep kosher. You are very careful to only eat food that has a proper hashkacha on it. One day, while eating some baskin robbins ice cream, a man comes over to you and says, "hey, why don't you keep cholov yisroel!? What is wrong with you!"

You may be insulted be this comment. You may think this guy to be extremely rude. But would you say something like, "I'm really not so sure I'm going to follow through on this kosher thing. This guy is really ruining the whole mitzvah for me."

Of course you wouldn't say this. Why? Firstly because people look at kashrus as more of an obligation whereas tzedaka there is always room to rationalize. This is a mistake. The mitzvah of tzedaka should be taken seriously as well. Secondly, people look at kashrus as a mitzvah that is between themselves and Hashem. What this guy says won't affect that relationship!

The same should be true by tzedaka. There is both a bein adam l'chavero aspect and a bein adam l'makom aspect to this mitzvah. If we look at tzedaka as a way to develop our relationship with Hashem, I think the giving will be a lot easier. The insensitive comments of some meshulachim won't bother us as much. The nice, mentchlich meshulachim will be an added bonus.

We are not giving tzedaka to feel "good" about ourselves. If that were the case then everyone's negative comments would be valid.
If we were to change our way of thinking about this mitzvah, I think people's complaints would disappear.

9:13 AM, June 29, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...


From a halachic standpoint, the fundamental difference between Kashrus and Tzedaka is that by kashrus, every time you DON'T keep kashrus, you're in violation, whereas, by tzedaka, every second that you aren't giving tzedaka, you aren't in violation. Therefore, of course I wouldn't say that I would chuck kashrus if someone suggested I keep cholov yisroel - I'd be in violation! By opting not to give the guy more money when he asks for more, I would be in violation of no such prohibition. That being said - I do hear the general sentiment of what you are saying.

I totally agree that we should view tzedaka as not only bein adam lchavero but also as bein adam l'makom. I hope my post and other comments have made it clear that I hold this mitzvah in high regard. However, let's say that I give X amount of dollars a year to tzedaka. This amount is going to change whether I give it to people that are grateful or those that are constantly asking for more. I see no problem with refusing to give to those who aren't grateful with what you originally gave them. Basically, I believe that one could have this opinion while keeping in mind that this mitzvah is bein adam lmakom.

9:28 AM, June 29, 2006

Anonymous Donny said...

Very good points Laz,

I guess I was focusing more on the thought process that I try to utilize when it comes to giving. Of course I agree with you that if a meshulach asks you for more, you should feel absolutely no obligation to comply.

I was focusing on the statements of those that feel certain "rude" meshulachim are ruining it for the "good" ones. I'm saying that it is the same important mitzvah either way. In fact, one is probably getting more schar for giving to the guy who does not seem to be as grateful.

I just feel that because a mitzvah may not always make us feel all warm and gushy (yes I used the word gushy) inside, it doesn't mean we should abandon it until it seems more rewarding.

Also, I am aware of the halachic distinction between kashrus and tzedaka. I guess I was trying to illustrate how ridiculous it is for the comment of an average person to impact the way we perform a mitzvah that strengthens our connection between us and Hashem.

9:42 AM, June 29, 2006

Blogger AlanLaz said...

Yeah, I definitely think its ridiculous to say that the greedy mishulachim are ruining it for everyone else. I would view (I say "would" because I have never had someone ask for more) an instance of this nature as an isolated one and not something that could ruin my mostly positive interactions with other mishulachim.

9:52 AM, June 29, 2006

Blogger Jewboy said...

I thought Fetuslaz was not making any more appearances on this blog.

1:58 PM, June 29, 2006

Blogger Ricky Ricardo said...

Thank you for this post. Its really positive.

1:27 PM, June 30, 2006


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