Sunday, November 1, 2009

Street Tzedakah

Since the start of the Hadar Year Program, I've begun to give alot more to the (presumably) homeless people I see on the streets of Manhattan. This has happened for a variety of reasons, having to do with my socioeconomic arrangements, my perception of those out on the street, and what I have been learning at Yeshivat Hadar.

Although we at the Yeshiva are making only a very modest amount of money, because I am living back in Edgemont with my parents, I am able to pocket the stipdend. This means I not only am not forced to attempt to live in Manhattan on a very tight budget-as many of the other Fellows are squeezed into doing; I am able to add to my savings and spend freely. Being a person of relatively little material desire-a.k.a. having no burning desire to buy anything-I have felt much freer to give of my money to a variety of causes, among them, the homeless individuals of New York, as well as charity: water; Americares; and a variety of other worthwhile endeavors. This has made me even further realize how much need is out there in the world for all manner of things, and sometimes my donations seem so miniscule against the larger global backdrop. However, I have also gotten a very rewarding feeling to know that I can give so much, and that knowledge is highly empowering in a positive way.

One reason I have begun to be more generous for those on the street is the realization, simple as it may seem, that the dollar I give to the person on the street holds much more importance, emotionally as well as financially, than it does for me. The other night, I walked from the yeshiva up to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, a distance of nearly 50 blocks, and in the process gave away nearly $10 to people on the street-after I had just deposited a much larger check in the bank. Most of them said "thank you," a few barely acknowledged what I did. One person, though, a man named David on W. 103rd Street just off of Broadway, reminded me of how much a small favor can mean for anyone, especially an impoverished person. As I walked over to him and handed him the dollar, he was in shock to realize I was simply handing it to him, no strings attached. Slowly, a smile broke across his face and he gave me a hug. This incident furthered my resolve that, despite all the seeming annoyances and frustrations that giving to people on the street entail, that in the end, the good accomplished far outweights the cost to me in terms of time and money that I can well afford.

After all, what else would I have done with those $10? Spent it on snack food, most likely. After all, I have been making money while at Yeshivat Hadar-there is nothing which I want that I am short $10 of being able to afford. In other words, that dollar takes on much greater financial significance-is far more financially empowering-in the hand of the less fortunate than me, the yeshiva student pocketing my stipend and not paying rent. No, a dollar isn't a lot-but it can help toward affording a snack, or coffee, or something from a dollar menu at McDonald's, and go toward buying something more expensive.

I think there is also a great emotional benefit that goes with giving someone money on the street. Imagine a person who sits on Broadway. At all hours of the day, and some of the night, many people pass by that person, almost noone acknowledging that person's intrinsic human dignity with a smile or a "Hello," let alone a donation. I can tell by many of the reactions I get when engaging in this bit of חסד that it does mean something important to those who receive it, that the knowledge that at least someone cares about them for the sole reason that they are also human beings, and acknowledges the difficulty that they live with constantly. In this, like much of my recent behavior and thinking, I have been influenced by what I have learned at ישיבת הדר. Specifically, I have been Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and his teaching of giving tzedakah, and the teachings of Rabbi Shai Held, particularly the idea that "What if we actually lived up to the idea of treating all people as they are made, בצלם אלוקים?"

How far I extend this behavior will remain to be seen, but I hope going forward to resist the instinct to be cheap and continue to extend my generosity, even in a limited way, to those on the streets of Manhattan.