Opinion // The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah

By | Dec 31, 2013

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.”

9 thoughts on “Opinion // The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah

  1. hi letty,

    i find it interesting that your responding to a “hineini” moment is through tzedakah and hesed. however, what i would like to share is that there are deep-rooted jewish sources for why, how, when, etc to give to beggars. my teacher, danny siegel (long-time tzedakah expert) worked with arthur kurzweil who wrote an amazing article about giving to beggars: http://dannysiegel.com/begging_kurzweil.pdf – well worth the read to understand judaism’s approach.

  2. Steve Miller says:

    I have never heard anyone in the US give that old 1930’s German Communist Party line about “the worse the better; after Hitler us” in anything but mocking irony. But past that, Letty lists a lot of other reasons why we all hesitate or refuse to help beggars. And she raises the bar on how to evaluate our own follow-up to those thoughts.

    I often think of the moment in Fiddler On The Roof when the local merchant refuses the beggar’s request for money on the grounds that he had a bad day, who then replies, “Just because you had a bad day, why should I suffer?” Beyond the joke, for me the point was that the obligation to help others was inviolate regardless of your own circumstances. Since then, I have tried to remember that the change in my pocket didn’t really belong to me, but was claimable by whomever asked until it was gone. It has been my way of both feeling connected to and protected from the bottomless pit of need physically facing me each day, in addition to my commitment to changing the larger institutional contexts that throw such need on to the street.

    But now Letty suggests not only that giving on the street shouldn’t be censored by our internal doubts but also that it shouldn’t be limited to the jingle in our pocket or any other set amount — although rationing it to a dollar per person does seem to create a manageable ceiling. I see her approach as an extension of my own.

    But I still wonder about how we should balance the benefits of giving to beggars. How much does it actually help the recipients — probably, for most of them, not a great deal given the small sums although I’m sure they can stretch it past my expectation, and simply being noticed might also be emotionally significant for some. How much is the giving something we do for our own benefit — to feel better about ourselves in some way, which is, I believe, a totally legitimate reason to give so long as we don’t confuse it with the degree to which it is actually helping others.

    And perhaps it’s not a good idea to get too deep into this kind of second-guessing conversation. Maybe we should simply find a good story or moral statement that inspires us to be a little better than we would otherwise be….and give what we feel we can in whatever way.

  3. CSinger says:

    In addition I buy Starbucks cards for a hot chocolate or you can hand out gift cards to fast food restaurants too.
    There is a young lady who I pass every day who lives in a shelter. They make them leave during the day. I always give her a dollar but today I decided it was so cold, that I wanted to give her a card to buy herself a meal at Starbucks. Hopefully with our new mayor there will be more accommodations for the helpless.

  4. Rachelle Pachtman says:

    I will never forget Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach’s (Z’L) unconditional love for the homeless and “Holy Beggars.” He always said never to pass a homeless person by without giving them something because they might be an angel. His Holy Beggar stories, some personal experiences, are treasures.

  5. henry gottlieb says:

    i always give to street beggars [i really hate that word]… may be they want a pkg of cigarettes, maybe a drink … our social well fare agency’s are too pure to allow that

  6. Dear Letty,
    When my father was alive, every Decdember, he gave $1.00 to every organization that sent him a solicitation. After his death, that year I gave $5.00 to several of my favorite organizations. (Inflation!) I felt that was one way of honoring my dad’s concept of Tzedaka.
    I, too,feel guilty when I give and when I don’t give. Either way, it is not enough! But you are right. If each person gave $1.00 without judgment s/he might change the course of one person’s life.
    Thanx for sharing your thoughts that mirror many of my own.

  7. Shoshanah says:

    A homeless man respectively rejected my offer for buying food at a CVS a few weeks ago. He asked if instead, I might consider purchasing him a pre-paid metro card (Washington, DC), so he could make it to the shelter for the night. He went on to tell me that in DC it’s pretty easy to find a meal, not so easy to reach the shelter at night, now that they are way out in ‘burbs….
    thank you for this article, I appreciate it.

  8. Devon says:

    Simple as this:

    The Lord is judge, we are not.

    Short of an obvious con, if you can give – DO give.

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