Give This Man A Medal

From a lookjed discussion on “social justice education”:

“Social Justice” in this context is a code-word for socialism. Anyone who is on the board of the ULT must realize this. The challenge is to place socialism in a Jewish context. I will point out how socialism differs from the Jewish sense of charity in certain subtle but important aspects. 

In the Book of Ruth… Ruth and Naomi were widows. By justice they had a right to charity. Yet no one chased them down to give them food. They had to make some effort. Ruth went to the fields and walked behind the harvesters, picking up the leavings. It was her right. The harvester was not allowed to pick up what they dropped. It no longer belonged to the farmer. It belonged to the poor, the widow and the orphan. It belonged to Ruth but she had to reach out and make some effort to get it. 

At the soup kitchen I would point out to students that Jewish charity requires a certain amount of effort from the person receiving charity unless they are physically incapable. (Recall Aishet Chayil… “she puts out her hand to the poor [thus they must get up to take her gift] and reaches out to the destitute [because they cannot get up]”) I would ask my students whether the people at the soup kitchen were required to do anything for their meal. Were they required to clear their plates, clean up their area, maybe pick up trash in the vacant lot across the street? 

If they were not making a personal effort themselves, in a sense participating in their recovery, then that kind of charity isn’t Jewish. 

This is the reasoning behind the establishment of ORT: to provide training so that a person can get a job and feed himself rather than simply accept charity day after day. 


Much of United States government help is not Jewish charity. Giving people “stuff” unconditionally is not traditionally Jewish. Government programs require very little effort from people any more. And making government the mode of distributing charity takes the individual giver out of the loop. When the money is taken from me by force (in the form of taxes) even the meager merit of grudgingly giving a few dollars to the poor is taken away from me. What effort does it take for me to vote to take money from someone else to give to the poor? 

Synagogues have given up a major part of their purpose if they are not helping the poor, personally. The merit of helping the poor does not come from voting to give people “stuff.” 

The man who saved my life told me, “Alex. Your personal participation is required.” Ed was a millionaire yet he didn’t write checks to charity. He did something better. He offered himself to people who needed help, real help. People like me. I could call him any time of the day or night, even interrupt his business. I could ask him questions and he would give me tasks that were designed to improve my self. He wasn’t a professional in any psychological sense. He was more like a mentor. I wanted to be like him and not because of his money. He never gave me a dime of his money and G-d knows at the time I really could have used it. I wanted his confidence, his sureness. I must admit, occasionally I longed for his “stuff” but I knew this was a childish desire….unbecoming of me. If I was meant to have “stuff” G-d would see to it and when I no longer needed “stuff” G-d would take it away and give it to someone else who deserved it more. Ed taught that to me too. Ed told me that he owned nothing. It all belonged to G-d. Ed simply got to use it for a short while by the grace of G-d. 

Where did this millionaire learn this valuable lesson of personal participation? He learned it from a multimillionaire, a man now of blessed memory… Chuck. When Chuck died there were tears of joy celebrating his life. Each of those hundreds and hundreds of people were personally touched by Chuck… including Ed… and Ed touched me. Now I touch you. 

Don’t give people “stuff”. It keeps them dependent. This is not the Jewish way. Teach them how to feed themselves and the beginning of that is showing the poor how to work for their charity. Before you give them soup, make them sweep up, pick up the alley, clean themselves up a little. 

Marvin Olasky wrote a book that put him on the map. “The Tragedy of American Compassion”. He goes through the history of American compassion and proves to us that American compassion began with preparing people for work. You chopped wood, carried and fetched BEFORE you received charity. You simply weren’t fed. You had to improve your dress, your manner and your spiritual training. Nowadays people simply give you “stuff” for the asking. Olasky proved this to himself by putting on simple clothes and walking to the nearest shelter. He wears glasses so he put a little tape on them as if they were broken but otherwise was he was normal. He asked for stuff and it was given to him for free. There was never a suggestion that he had to do anything for it nor any question about whether he actually needed charity. He normally takes medicine for a back condition. They gave it to him. He was not asked if he had insurance nor whether he could afford the medicine. 

Personally I met a homeless man who owned a laptop computer and regularly got on the Internet. Only in America… 

Here is a link to Olasky’s book (Note of caution: Marvin Olasky is a Jew who converted to Christianity but he retains his sense of Jewish charity so the book is still valuable to read.)… 

Ed, the millionaire, worked hardest on my spiritual training. He was not a religious man. He wasn’t a nut either but he knew G-d was compelling him… pushing him along in the right direction and he taught me how listen to G-d through prayer and meditation…. and most important he stressed the importance of working with others personally. 

That was many years ago. I am so different than the ugly creature that came to Ed’s attention in 1977. Now I volunteer as a jail chaplain. I make myself available to Jewish inmates and anyone else who wishes to talk with me. I think Ed would be pleased to know I was following in his footsteps. 

One last note of caution: the homeless are not always guys down on their luck. Some of these guys are a little more than grumpy old men in need of a hot meal. I have met men on the street carrying guns. One suggested that I join him to rape a woman coming out of a auto parts store. Naturally, I declined. 

On the bus I saw a young girl, no more than 16 years old, obviously a runaway. I wanted to reach out to help her but she was being watched carefully by two young men using her as bait to trap those charitable people who might stop to help her. I am an old man. I couldn’t fight off two strapping young men single-highhandedly. They got off at a very nice part of town, no doubt thinking they could mug some well-meaning rich people. 

A final warning: one of our community opened her car window to give a beggar some money at the street corner. He stabbed her in the arm. I don’t know why he did that. She couldn’t figure it out either. Just know it can happen. My wife now carries zip lock bags filled with small things and food for such beggars. It is small enough so that she opens the window a crack and slips the bag out to them. 

I have spent some time telling you how important it is to become personally involved but use your head. There is usually a very good reason why the families of these men don’t take them in. Only meet such people in controlled conditions such as a soup kitchen. Don’t meet them alone. 

Alexander Herrera 
[Volunteer Jewish Chaplain, Travis County Jail, Texas]


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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