Warning: if you are highly sensitive and parrot the notion that certain rabbis are beyond reproach or even mere question simply because some people say so, then please do NOT read any further.
It is not my usual practice to criticize organizations (and certainly not individuals) by name. However, organizations by their very nature must be open to public criticism, and when their practices are cause for serious concern it behooves us to raise and address these concerns so that we can make informed decisions.
I have long been rubbed the wrong way by the way Kupat Ha’ir, a tzedaka organization in Israel, promotes itself. For one thing, all those glossy newspaper inserts and large ads they continuously produce aren’t cheap. I wonder who’s paying for that. If it’s money from regular donations (as opposed to donations specifically earmarked for promoting the organization) then many donors would think twice if they knew that a sizable percentage of their donation wasn’t going to feed orphans, but merely to rope in the next round of donors — whose money, in turn, would be doing more of the same.
Even more troubling is the marketing devices this organization employs to sway people to send in money. They go beyond the usual vapid yet melodramatic endorsements that normally accompany these types of advertisements. Like sports drinks showing celebrity athletes drinking the product, they feature celebrity rabbis donating money to them. What’s next, pizza stores demonstrating the ultimate “standards” in kashrus by showing celebrity rabbis taking a bite?
Today anyone who has any ideas about producing a product for sale in the Jewish community knows that there is nothing more important than garnering a murderer’s row of rabbinic endorsements, even if all he’s selling is a pot holder. When rabbis are reduced to mere marketing devices, then something is wrong with the rabbinic establishment and our relationship to it. Such shenanigans lend credence to the cynicism about Torah and its scholars being for sale, and only perpetuate a society of followers that live in blissful, willful ignorance.
Considering the madness that surrounds us, however, these tactics alone are worthy of only mild scorn and irritation. Unfortunately, it gets much worse.
If you’ve ever troubled yourself to read their advertising, you know that their strongest push to donate is the miracle card. You know, “JM” from Bnei Brak donated $40 and her tumor disappeared, that sort of thing. I lose all respect for them right there. This is nothing but an attempt to prey on people’s fear, ignorance, and hope, to tap into the most primitive aspects of the human psyche.
Of course we are supposed to believe that all these predictable, wondrous stories are 100% true. We are also supposed to be motivated to give tzedaka nowadays because we need money, a shidduch, or a cure (which is acceptable but certainly not laudatory or ideal). But here’s the thing: the clear implication is that we are supposed to give tzedaka to THEM, because they have the miracle backing. If you give your tzedaka elsewhere then all bets are off.
It’s little different than those advertisements for wonder drugs, or sports drinks. Then again, those advertisements come with disclaimers like “results may vary”. No such disclaimer here. They’re careful not to outright promise that you’ll get what you wish for, but they take full credit for so-called miracles that supposedly happen to donors. (Like saint-seeking Christians, they are also quite liberal in their definition of “miracles” as referring to most any happy occurrence.)
In so doing they have created the perfect situation for themselves (not dissimilar to what shadchanim do, by the way). If things work out well, it’s because of us. If they don’t work out well, it must be your fault. If you donate a few bucks and your three spinster daughters get engaged within 4 days, it’s because you donated a few bucks. If you donate a few bucks and life goes on as before, well, tough luck. Maybe you should have donated more, or davened harder, or performed some other sorcery in conjunction to manipulate the spiritual forces in your favor. Give us the credit for “success”, but keep the blame for “failure” all to yourself.
Best of all, this marketing gimmick is impossible to disprove. After all, can you know for certain that supposed miracles are fabricated, or, if true, are really unrelated to the giving of a donation? Of course not. So you might as well give them money just to cover your bases, because it MIGHT be true. Even if you don’t see immediate results, you MIGHT have helped bring your salvation closer, or, at the very least, prevented things from getting worse. This can’t be disproved. And when enough people give and good things happen to some of them, the marketing train only picks up more steam. You can’t prove it’s not true, and it just MIGHT have something to it, so why not give? You might be the next one to hit the jackpot. Plus, look at those pictures of nice old rabbis.
In all fairness, Kupat Ha’ir is far from the most serious offender when it comes to dubious promises of salvation, but they are certainly the most prominent. Were it for this alone I would not have singled them out for this article. However, they recently put out a publication that is so full of downright frightening social implications, so full of messages that contradict Torah values and common sense itself that I must question the very credibility of this organization and the leaders who are associated with, however prominent and popular they may be.
I will address this in detail in Part 2.