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Giving to Meshulachim

By PhilanthropyJuly, 2013January 22nd, 20245 min read

If you live in the ghettos of Caulfield, East St Kilda or Bondi, and have a mezuzah on your door, then you will surely have experienced them.

A persistent ring of the doorbell, sometimes at a disrespectful hour of the evening. A garbled solicitation in a mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and English involving a minimum of eye contact. An exchange, usually of cash, followed by a flowery blessing, a weak handshake, and then he’s out the door to the next house.

Welcome to the world of the meshulach – literally “emissary” but a generally accepted term for a fundraiser for a Jewish organisation. Most of them come from Israel and would be described as “Haredi”, and descend upon the community in droves, whether it’s unsolicited visits to homes, or a presence in shuls making their way from person to person. This behaviour has led me to suggest the appropriate collective noun might be “a jingle of meshulachim”.

While we, the community, deal with them one (or a few) at a time, it’s worth stepping back and doing some macro-economic analysis of the situation. There are no statistics to go on here – just my own experiences shared with others – a small but representative sample. My estimate is that we get around 300-350 meshulachim visiting our shores each year, and that they collect on average $7500 each (gross). That would mean about $2.5 million in aggregate is collected annually via this channel.

Where does all this money go and how much of it actually goes to serve the causes they are collecting for? Well, the biggest cost associated with collecting in this way is travel, and with a return ticket price of about $2,500, fully one third of the money we give actually ends up with the airlines. El Al was not a charity last time I checked, but be aware that our community is indirectly supporting them in a big way.

How about the “secondary industries” that support the meshulach economy? These include transport to and from the airport, food and board, and someone to drive them around. Of these, transport is a relatively small cost and the local community generously provide hospitality (at no charge). However, the drivers play a very important role here. What they provide is a list of appropriate homes to visit, and often include intelligence about each resident to guide the meshulach to the greenest pastures. The drivers used to take a commission of funds collected, but more recently have switched to a flat hourly rate – sometimes in excess of $50 per hour – so they are not exposed to the success or otherwise of the individual meshulach. If a meshulach is actively collecting 3 hours a night for 10 nights (perhaps split between Melbourne and Sydney), this means some $1,500 goes into the pocket of the professional driver.

So if around half the money collected leaves the country, what happens then? Well, if the collector is a professional, they take a commission, which could be anything from 20% to well over 50%. In the grossly under-regulated third sector in Israel, almost anyone can put up a shingle and declare themselves a charity. How many of these are actually family businesses which pay a salary and where barely anything actually goes to genuine service delivery? At least when people come collecting on their own behalf for the cost of making weddings or medical expenses, we can be satisfied that a reasonable proportion is going to the cause.

Then there is the issue of fraud. I recall a small number of cases where word eventually spread that a collector was operating fraudulently, and that their claim was completely false. In response to these, communities around the world have attempted to regulate the meshulachim, which usually takes the form of a local committee that validates all visitors and provides a certificate that can be presented to prospective donors. The degree to which claims can be validated is usually very limited to verifying just a few details. Some go as far as declaring whether a collector is a professional, but not the amount of their commission. Such systems exist in Sydney and in Melbourne but have not been particularly effective, especially where some local Rabbis will offer to write a hamlatzah – a letter of recommendation – to practically anyone, and where the community culture is one that doesn’t like to turn away a stranger empty handed.

Some factors influence the rate of meshulachim, the biggest being the Australian dollar. The recent climb above parity resulted in a huge surge as meshulachim recognized that the same $20 they collected was now worth 10% more back home.

This is not good philanthropy by any measure. It is indiscriminate and wasteful. Many people just give all meshulachim a standard amount and barely even listen to each solicitation. After all, how can anyone sit in judgement over who is more or less worthy? Nevertheless, like asylum seekers, they keep coming because they are in genuine need, and because they perceive some material benefit from the trip. And they will continue to come as long as this situation continues.

Don’t you wonder where all the money goes when you give to those venerable-looking men who come knocking at your door? A big-picture look at the meshulach industry in Australia, and what we really achieve when giving in this way.

This was also posted at [J-Wire].

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