Attending a Tisha b’Av morning service at a synagogue in north-west London last month, my recitation of the exquisite kinot (elegies) composed for this occasion was aggressively interrupted twice by “collectors” waving grubby sheets of paper and soliciting cash donations for the supposed charities on whose behalf they were raising funds.
When davening on routine weekdays in New York earlier this year, my prayers and those of my fellow congregants were similarly interrupted by gentlemen who, by their conduct — moving from male worshipper to male worshipper quite oblivious as to what prayers (such as the mourners’ Kaddish) were being recited — demonstrated that, despite their beards and black hats, they knew little about Yiddishkeit and cared even less.
My contact with such collectors is mercifully constrained. In London, Marion and I live a mile or so outside the “Jewish” heartland. In the north-east of England, we have a cottage on the coast near, but not too near, the holy city of Gateshead. Friends of ours who live in deepest Golders Green tell me they are frequently visited by collectors who present themselves on their doorsteps at all hours of the day and many of the night. I hear similar stories from colleagues in Manchester.
What is more, collectors appear to have no compunction about gate-crashing barmitzvahs and weddings. At a wedding I attended last summer, the collectors not only presented themselves at the chupah, but brazenly followed those celebrating into the reception, aggressively importuning guest after guest and waving the same (or very similar) grubby sheets of paper.
From time to time, I demand the right to examine these “certificates”, an insistence that causes no end of consternation and manufactured outrage. The grubby sheets of paper are customarily photocopied, thus making it impossible to verify their authenticity. They invariably consist of the name of a charity — a yeshivah or orphanage, say — that might or might not actually exist, and the professed commendation of this or that rabbi.
Rarely have I seen a sheet that gives an official charity registration number and, in any case, where donations to overseas establishments are being solicited there is little likelihood of my being able to verify such numbers as might appear.
When, in Manchester some years ago, I attempted to write down the UK charity registration number that appeared on the sheet (explaining that I would happily consider posting a donation once I had carried out my “due diligence”) the sheet was peremptorily snatched from my hand.
But I have come across collectors who make no bones about it: they are not seeking a charitable donation to support a charitable institution; they are seeking charitable donations to support themselves and their families. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are begging.
Now the role of the professional beggar – the shnorrer – has a long and not entirely dishonourable place in the history of the Jewish people. The shnorrer — it is said — performs a valuable service by helping us to carry out the mitzvah of tzedakah — charity.
In recent years, I have noticed an increase in the number of shnorrer-collectors — invariably from Israel — who solicit donations to support themselves and their families. The scale of their fundraising is such that, on arrival back in Israel, they are now being asked to fill out revenue forms and pay tax on their overseas earnings. As a result, they and their patrons are up in arms. But I cannot understand why.
The shnorrer who goes a-begging, and especially the modern-day shnorrer who can afford an intercontinental air fare for this purpose, does so in order to earn a living. The state — be it the UK, the USA or Israel — is surely entitled to a slice of this income. I pay tax on my earnings. Why should not the shnorrer pay tax on his?
If he collects on behalf of a bona fide charity, I am entitled to claim tax relief on my donation, but not unless I can satisfy myself — and my tax inspector — that the charity really is legitimate.
So I now routinely refuse to yield to the blandishments of collectors. I take no notice of any certificate, no matter by whom it is issued. I make my charitable contributions by post, to charities whose legitimacy I personally can verify. I advise you to do likewise.