Baltimore is a town where the entire Jewish community is truly generous in its tzedaka and ma’aser giving. But, while it’s easy to write a check or drop a quarter into a pushka, deciding how much and to whom to give one’s tzedaka dollars is complex.
Many of us know the general priorities. Causes like pidyun shevuyim (rescuing a captive) and the needs of the yesomim (orphans), almanos (widows), and the aniyim (poor) of one’s own town take precedence. After that, one should give to worthy local mosdos (institutions) in need, and then to Eretz Yisrael. Building a mikvah is the first priority in a new community. Expressions of hakaras hatov (gratitude) in the form of donations to an out-of-town Bais Yaakov or yeshiva that one attended may also rank high.
Worthy destinations for our dollars include community organizations that help the needy; yeshivos, day schools, and seminaries; organizations that deal with kiruv, health, and community protection; and organizations and institutions in Eretz Yisrael.
Yes, each of us has many factors to consider when making our tzedaka choices. We tend to support organizations with which we have had positive contact and that we feel create a kiddush Hashem. We favor those whose mission is close to our hearts, whose leadership we respect and trust, and whose hashkafos (views) are similar to our own.
It is important to learn about the priorities of giving by studying hilchos tzedaka, the laws pertaining to charitable giving in the Shulchan Aruch. It is important, too, to confer with one’s rav regarding how to distribute our tzedaka and all other concerns.
I would like to add a few more important factors one should consider:
1) Look to support charities that have a low administrative overhead, as you want your donated dollars going to the cause and not to hefty payrolls.
2) Check who is associated with the charity: Who are its leaders and board of directors? What is its reputation? Make sure it has a good track record regarding honesty and effectiveness.
3) If a meshulach comes to your door or approaches you in shul or on the street, whether he is collecting for himself or represents an out-of-town charity, make sure the meshulach has the local shtar and papers properly dated and not expired, vouching for his cause and character. If he does not possess this paperwork, do not give.
4) Be very wary of high pressure telephone solicitations. Even if it is a worthy cause, it may have high expenses, with the charity ending up with a minor portion of your contribution. If you feel the cause warrants support, tell the solicitor you do not commit over the phone, and request that they mail you information which will allow you to check out the cause properly.
5) Look into whether the charity has 501c3 IRS tax-deductible status.
6) Beware of “false advertising.” One well-known charity that calls itself an Orphan Home had not operated an actual “home” in many years, although it did help orphans.
7) Keep accurate records of charitable giving so you can reference your list to know to whom, when, and how much you gave. Write checks clearly, and do not leave spaces, where someone could easily alter the name or amount of the check.
8) Check with your financial advisor and accountant about how you can use appreciated equities or other tangible assets like automobiles and furniture for giving charity to maximize tax savings. Consider setting up a charitable living trust during your lifetime, so that, after 120 years, your family can operate it in your honor or memory.
9) Support our mikvahs, shuls, schools, gemachs, and learning programs – also our rabbis and teachers, hospitals and aged homes, all of which make up the backbone of Yiddishkeit here in Baltimore
10) In Baltimore, it is important to give to our community’s Jewish federation, called The Associated, which supports the Jewish infrastructure, including Jewish day schools, hospitals, nursing homes, social welfare agencies, as well as world Jewry and Israel.
11) Volunteer your time or resources to organizations like Ahavas Yisrael, Hatzalah, Gevuras Yarden, Bikur Cholim, Simchas Esther, your children’s schools, Meals on Wheels, The Associated, Sinai Hospital, CHAI, Project CHANA, JCS, JobLink, Etz Chaim, WOW, NCSY, Chabad, Shoresh, Jewish Collegiate Network, Shomrim, Chaverim, NWCP, CERT, Project Ezra, The Chesed Fund, Hachnasas Orchim, and all the other chesed organizations that require volunteers to help them carry out their wonderful work.
12) Take advantage of the Agudah Scrip. Using scrip instead of cash ensures that a portion of your donation will stay in town and support a worthy educational institution. It also enables you to keep better tax records and avoid cash donations without a receipt, which are not deductible.
May Hashem grant us all parnassa (livelihood) and hatzlacha (success), so we will always be able to carry out the mitzva of tzedaka and chesed to our greatest ability. In that zechus, may we have a complete geulah...bimhayra beyameinu.
Understanding Meshulachim Letters
by the Agudah of Baltimore, published in memory Fred A. Schlossberg, a”H
The Baltimore Jewish community is well known for its chesed and tzedaka to organizations and mosdos throughout the world. “Meshulachim” from both large and small institutions as well as people who have fallen on hard times come to our community to collect funds for worthy causes.
As a service to the community to assist you with important information regarding tzedaka, the Agudas Yisroel of Baltimore screens hundreds of meshulachim who come to Baltimore. The screening serves various purposes:
- Informs donors in a clear and concise manner what the individual is collecting for.
- Recommends to members of the community whether to give a larger or a smaller sum. Individual givers should base their own evaluation of how important the cause is and how much money is needed.
- Determines if an individual is collecting in good faith or is fraudulently misrepresenting an institution or claim.
- Screens meshulachim for past history of inappropriate behavior when visiting homes, criminal activity, and gambling.
- Ensures meshulachim collect only once a year
Upon arrival the meshulach meets with Rabbi Heinemann or his representative, who reviews his paperwork and, if necessary, calls references. Upon approval, a letter is issued. If a meshulach claims he has no letter because Rabbi Heinemann is not in town, advise him to contact his representative.
The letter has a picture of the meshulach and is laminated. The letter is valid for 11 days. After approximately 14 days, the word expired appears in red. A meshulach collecting with an expired letter is attempting to undermine the system. It is recommended that one should not give without an updated letter. The first thing one needs to do is to look at the date very carefully. Also, for quick reference, a color-coded sticker is placed in the top section of the letter to indicate the season the letter has been issued: Green=Spring, Red=Summer, Brown=Fall, White=Winter.
A “recommended donation” box is checked. Each person should decide his or her donation amount. Generally, “standard donation” is checked. This usually means the meshulach is collecting for a worthy institution, such as an elementary school or kollel in Israel or for an important personal reason.
On rare occasions, “generous donation” is checked. This indicates a very special institution, usually under the auspices of one of the gedolei hador or a life-threatening matter that needs immediate funds.
If one wishes to donate tzedaka to out-of-town mosdos, and at the same time support local institutions, one may purchase Scrip from the Agudah, which is available in different denominations. One can indicate on the certificate which local institution should receive 5% percent of the donation.
Also, please be advised of some important safety tips:
- In general, it is advisable to open the door for meshulachim who present a letter visible through the peephole.
- Women and children should not open the door for any meshulach unfamiliar to them.
- Anyone unknown to you should not be left unattended in your home.
- Fill out the check properly and do not leave spaces. Make checks payable to the institution or Agudath Israel Charity Fund.
- Whether you donate or not, be sure to greet a meshulach besaiver panim yafos (pleasantly) and smile. The warmth and kindness you show will make the difficult task of the meshulach more pleasant.