'Pay for me and I'll pray for you'

This charity’s use of deprived children is a form of spiritual pimping

By Nathan Jeffay, October 14, 2010

'Children are pure-hearted; they haven't sinned; their prayers are unlike yours or mine", declares the Orthodox author Tziporah Heller in a video for an extremely troubling Jewish fundraising campaign.

Here is the deal: go on to the website of the Israeli charity, Yad Ezra V'Shulamit, input the name of a person in need of divine assistance, make a donation by credit card, and the impoverished children for whom it provides hot meals will intercede with God from the Western Wall on your behalf.

"Yad Ezra V'Shulamit can change things for you," promises Rebbetzen Heller. "Could you imagine what merit having children pray for you at the Kotel will have on your life?" Yad Ezra V'Shulamit is a great charity which provides meals and educational help for poor children, food packages for poor families, and operates soup kitchens. But the end does not always justify the means and this particular fundraiser, originally a High Holyday campaign but still open for business online, is truly outrageous. Entrusted with children who need to be cared for, this organisation, it seems to me, is nothing less than spiritually pimping their young charges.

This rent-a-soul arrangement exploits both sides. It unashamedly targets people with problems. As a marketing agency email that popped into hundreds of in-boxes just after Rosh Hashanah put it: "Please forward this to anyone in need of a prayer - for marriage, children, prosperity, work, health, etc." It plays on the fears and hopes of the vulnerable and promises the undeliverable. How can this Orthodox-run charity make the pledge that it "can change things for you", when Judaism teaches that we cannot know with any certainty what effect praying, giving charity, or performing any other mitzvah will have on our well-being?

Judaism does not require an intermediary with the Almighty. Sadly, many do not understand this, and ask people more religious than themselves to advocate on their behalf. The new Yad Ezra V'Shulamit campaign exploits this misunderstanding, offering a message, alien to mainstream Judaism, suggesting that "pure-hearted" children have special access to God to broker divine favours.

While it is reasonable for charities to utilise the people they serve in fundraising contexts, this surely has to be done tastefully and responsibly. Shipping impoverished kids off to the Western Wall, reminding them how needy and dependent on charity they are, implying that they need to repay their benefactors and that, in their sorry situation, the only thing they can give is their soul, falls well short of these considerations.

It could be argued that all this is "empowering" the kids, turning them from takers into givers. But this won't wash; telling the children that they have this direct line to God and asking them to pray to people who have parted with money on this premise is too much to rest on young shoulders.

To earn their keep, these children will feel they must put their utmost into their divine petitioning. But what if they don't do their best when computer-printed lists of names are thrust at them at the Western Wall? What if they have doubts about the existence of God? Does this mean that they have failed to keep their side of the bargain, and are therefore undeserving of the hot meals these prayer-clients are providing?

What if they get distracted and their minds wander - as almost every child's mind does during prayer? Should they feel responsible for singletons remaining single, childless women remaining childless and invalids remaining ill?

While this pounds-for-prayer campaign is the most outrageous I have seen, there are many Orthodox-run charities that promise all sorts of miracles and divine interventions for donations. The religious media are full of charity ads making fantastical promises. One Israeli charity has recently been offering bottles of wine blessed by a renowned rabbi, the drinking of which will bring you all kind of unimaginable benefits.

Interestingly, Yad Ezra V'Shulamit has highlighted the urgent need for the Orthodox charitable sector seriously to discuss red lines and come up with a statement of ethical campaigning principles agreed upon by charities.

Let us hope that this happens and that the red lines exclude Yad Ezra's own current campaign. Otherwise, the competition for donations will degenerate into a contest to see who can offer the best package of wonders and miracles in return.

Nathan Jeffay is a journalist living in Israel

Last updated: 11:34am, October 14 2010