Opinion // The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
There are many reasons not to give to the homeless, but we should do it anyway.
When I was young, it was axiomatic among radical leftists that one should resist the humanitarian impulse to give to beggars because handouts “postpone the Revolution.” Only when the poor become utterly hopeless and destitute will they rise up and rebel.
I haven’t encountered that reasoning for awhile—nowadays, political arguments against giving to the poor are more likely to come from Paul Ryan and his cheerleaders in the House and Senate. But I’ve heard plenty of excuses for not giving money to homeless people on the streets:
· “I can’t give to everyone, can I? There are just too many of them.”
· “How do I know they won’t blow the money on drink and drugs?”
· “I prefer to give to social change organizations that work on a macro level.”
· “I don’t believe in tossing someone a fish; they need to learn to fish.”
· “We pay taxes to maintain city services like shelters and soup kitchens. Why don’t these people use them?”
· “That young panhandler looks fit and strong. I’m sure he could get work if he tried; maybe he’s just too picky.”
· “It’s obvious the guy with the crutches is faking his injuries to get sympathy.”
· “I hear stories from subway beggars that break my heart: he lost his veteran’s benefits; someone set fire to her apartment; their kids are sick. I never know what to believe so I don’t give to any of them. I give to the Red Cross.”
· “Some chutzpah to ask me for spare change when he’s wearing $200 sneakers I can’t afford myself!”
· “I get annoyed when I see this woman in front of my office building with a German shepherd lying on a ratty blanket at her feet. If she can’t afford to feed herself, she shouldn’t own a dog.”
A few of these thoughts were familiar. Until three years ago, I used to calibrate which beggars seemed most worthy and genuine and which ones might be exploiting the kindness of strangers. But in 2011 on Rosh Hashanah, with evidence of the economic downturn still visible every day, a congregant at my Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, delivered a short commentary that changed the way I saw things.
Longing to feel God’s presence in his life, the speaker remembered that when God called to Abraham, Abraham answered, “Hineini”—“Here I am”—signaling his willingness to trust and his readiness to act, and thus his entry into the relationship we call “covenantal Judaism.” The congregant, whose name I never knew, told us he had decided that the presence of homeless people on the streets of New York was God’s way of calling out to him and that by changing his response to panhandlers, he, too, could say, “Hineini.”
From then on, in addition to his regular charitable donations to organizations with IRS bona fides and boards of trustees, he resolved to give a dollar to any human being who asked him for a handout. However many beggars might cross his path in a week, that’s how many dollars he would give out that week. He would stop judging, stop trying to distinguish the authentic needy person from the phony, stop worrying about enabling alcoholics and drug addicts or being scammed or hoodwinked. Of everyone with a hard-luck story or an outstretched hand, he would assume the best, not the worst.
Somehow his remarks struck a deep personal chord, and right then I made the same Jewish New Year’s resolution. My motives, I’ll admit, were not entirely selfless. Deciding to give in this across-the-board, quotidian, non-judgmental manner liberated me from an image of myself that I deplored. I’d always felt guilty about sizing up beggars before giving them money. I loathed the cynicism that fueled my suspiciousness. Who was I to second-guess the truth of another human being’s circumstances? What if I were wrong in my assessment and the person really was hungry, the shelter was a scary place, the dog was the person’s only source of love, the apartment had really been torched? Could I even imagine what I would do in the face of similar desperation, fear and loss?
Since making that resolution, I can’t count the dollars I have deposited in upturned caps and open palms. Because I live in New York City, where nearly 65,000 people are homeless, 22,000 of them children, and one child in six suffers from hunger or “food insecurity,” it’s a rare day when I don’t tap into my supply of singles. On an average stroll through my neighborhood, I’m likely to be asked only three or four times. But when I walk around other parts of town, I may have to cash a $20 bill to make good on my promise. A buck, obviously, isn’t even a drop in the bucket for most of these needy people, and I wish I had the means to make each dollar a five or ten. But for me, giving each dollar is an act of consciousness and an affirmation of human dignity. The point is to never pass a beggar without stopping, to look the person in the eye, to make conversation if possible and to give without judgment, resentment or disdain.
Practicing this minimal but unwavering street tzedakah has had a relatively small impact on my cash outflow, but it has returned to me a thousand blessings—literally. When I give, I almost always get three words back. Not “Here I am,” but “God bless you.”