I have a question regarding a charitable endeavor my shul is involved in. For many years, we have hosted homeless guests (from a nearby shelter) for a week in our building. About three years ago, we started taking them in during the week of Christmas. Our homeless guests are non-Jews. Someone from our shul contacts the local media (newspapers, TV) so that they would come out to film what we, a Jewish congregation, are doing for these non-Jewish homeless folks on Christmas. I find it very disturbing when the camera crew not only comes into the building, but also wants to go into the social hall/dining room, where our homeless guests usually congregate, to film in this area. I was there last week when the news crew came and, at that particular time, our guests were having breakfast in the dining room. One of our volunteers came to brief the guests about this, stating that, in filming guests at the table, only their hands and feet would be shown. Immediately after she left, all of our guests got up and left the room. I felt awful about this and I too left, in disgust.
Every evening, we take the guests from the shelter, where they stay with us for dinner and sleep in our building overnight. In the morning, we then take them back to the shelter. But because this was Christmas day, the guests were to stay with us the entire day. This was their only day to have a leisurely breakfast, a time when they did not have to hurry to get ready to be taken back to the shelter. I felt that we spoiled their chance to have a (rare) peaceful morning by bringing in this TV crew. In a way, I also feel that we are "using" the homeless to gain attention, honor, and (perhaps) donations from the public for our shul. My own feelings are that we brought embarrassment upon our guests, and I believe it is wrong to shame or exploit the poor, especially for our own aggrandizement. It is my opinion that we should go back to hosting the homeless on a week other than that involving the Christmas holiday. This would solve the problem about causing offense or embarassment to some of our guests, as well as put an end to media coverage of how we, a Jewish organization, shelter the homeless at Christmas. I was wondering what your take on this situation might be.
Your question raises an important issue. The key matter is that of process and the principle of kvod ha-briyut, giving respect to those you are serving. It sounds like, those being served were not invited into the process of deciding whether to be part of a filming opportunity. It is demeaning and depersonalizing to be viewed or treated as the "subject" or "object" of the media, charity or deed. I agree, this was incorrectly undertaken. They might well have agreed to be "poster children", so to speak, for this mitzvah and some might have wanted to be depicted on a broadcast and given a chance to speak. They might have preferred that it be Christmas day, or not Christmas day, one has to ask and engage people in working for their own best interests and not treat them as compeletely incapable dependents. Just because they are homeless or so poor as to need to be fed does not make them speechless or helpless. Further, sometimes those coming to eat wish to help serve, this is part of their dignity, let it happen for those who can handle the task.
Having organized and worked for many such programs, Christmas week makes a great deal of sense because it frees some Christians to have time to prepare for their families. This is a long-standing mitzvah within the Jewish people's practice. Also, the filming would not be a commercial for the synagogue unless designed as such, because so many different kinds of religious institutions take turns offering such programs. Local filming does encourage people to "think global, act local" and could be a valuable basis for attracting volunteers needing meaningful opportunities to be of service, for attracting people needing food who often do watch a lot of television in small rooms, bars and live often live lives of quiet desperation, while also emphasizing the injustice of a wealthy society that doesn't ensure enough work, food, and mental health care to attend to its citizens. Helping the media to interpret what they are seeing in more interesting and useful ways is also an important volunteer project.
Process is what seems to have been missing, a healthy process of eager volunteers acting in concert with those seeking and accepting support. There is a phrase in the Jewish grace after meals, the birkat ha-mazon that holds one of the dreams of goodness of our people for the human future, this how I interpret it, others do so somewhat different based on options in the grammar:
Na'ar Hayiti v'gam zakanti v'lo raiti tzadik ne'ezov v'zaro me'vakesh lachem
I was a youth and also an elder and I never saw a righteous person who let himself forget a stranger seeking bread
May we be blessed with the strength and inner peace necessary to support all beings with dignity.
There is moral legitimacy to your dissatisfaction with the management, communication and sensitivities brought to bear on this communal program of chesed and tzedakah, as you describe it. Your community can, and hopefully will, handle this program differently in the future. Fundamentally, I see no problem advertising the kindness of your community. Kindness inspires kindness and others may learn from your community’s example. And while we would like to think that your community would sponsor such a program regardless of whether it generates donations or prestige, it does cost money and requires positive publicity to allow such programs to succeed and perpetuate. While people are required to give tzedakah in fulfillment of their Torah obligations, the Jewish tradition has long recognized that people may leverage their acts of justice and kindness to more personally motivated, yet still sacred goals. Thus, people give tzedakah monies in whose merit someone ill should heal or so that a deceased person's memory should be for a blessing. However, concerns of human dignity (kavod ha-beriyot) would require greater sensitivity toward participants in this program, protecting their privacy and dignity. At the very least, it is important for the congregation to communicate to participants its intentions regarding publicity and gain their consent under non-coercive circumstances. If participants do not opt-in to being photographed, whether in part or in whole, they should still have a place in the program. My best advice to you is to become more involved and influence the process through your sensitive invested leadership and participation. Chazak veEmatz -- Be strong and resolute!
I recognize that there is a great deal of emotion surrounding this issue, and while I trust your account of the incident, I am reticent to give a “ruling,” per se, on what decision should be made. That said, I wish to put forth a few considerations that might inform a more thoughtful discussion on the best course for your synagogue:
Certainly, Rambam (Maimonides) lists and prioritizes the methods and means of doing acts of tzedakah so that not only are services provided to those in need, but that it is done in a way that most strongly promotes human dignity. To your point, Rambam (citing the Talmud) accords great merit toward those situations where the privacy of the receiver of tzedakah can be maintained, as well as the anonymity of the giver. Publicity of the act would certainly be a step away from this higher level of tzedakah – though the lower levels are also meritorious, in their context.
That said, we do often recognize a phenomenon where mitzvah goreret mitzvah – a “snowball effect” of acts of goodness accruing to more acts of goodness. This phenomenon is most possible, of course, when the acts of goodness are known among the public. Especially in the context of the Christmas season, there are often human-interest or public-interest stories that, in part, contribute to a general sense of communal spirit, cooperation, and goodness at this time of year. If this can serve to inspire greater acts of goodness throughout the community, then this may be a worthwhile publicity of the mitzvah – to inspire MORE mitzvot.
The idea of moving the week of service to a different (less public) week may serve both the desire for anonymity, per Rambam and the ability to do good in its own right – though there may be countervailing considerations here, as well: For example, in some communities that share initiatives over houses of faith, the week of Christmas is specifically critical for synagogues to fill, as some churches that participate in the shelter may have facility considerations during a “peak” time of programming for them. (Would your synagogue be logistically as capable of hosting the shelter during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?) Absent a knowledge of these logistical realities, it is hard to say whether moving the week is the most prudent solution.
Finally, a critical voice seems to be missing from the debate: Did anyone ask how your guests felt about the situation? Was there a consultation with the administration of the shelter – as to their potential policies or confidentiality expectations, or alternately, perhaps, the potential benefit that publicity might bring to their worthy cause? While I do not know what input the guests or their supporting organization had, I would most certainly be guided (at least in part) by their feelings on the matter. This, itself, lends dignity and a sense of self-determination and self-agency to the effort.
Again, I recognize the difficulties and emotions behind this matter – and I assume that there were good intentions on all sides of the debate. I hope that the considerations I offer help to facilitate a more strategic dialogue to realize the good efforts of all.
Let me first commend your shul for committing itself to a long-term project such as this. I recognize that it takes a good deal of effort to organize a project such as this and to keep it going over a number of years. I am grateful that your community has enough members willing to be present to help with their time, food, hospitality and money.
At its heart, your question, as the other two responders have noted, is about dignity, k'vod ha-briot. You question (a) whether the coverage (which you suggest is for the aggrandizement of the shul) is appropriate, and (b) whether it was presented to the guests in an appropriate manner.
I see nothing wrong with having coverage of the good work done by your community on behalf of the homeless. The holiday season is filled with “human interest” stories, so I do not think this is out of line or an unusual type of media coverage. While Maimonides reserves the highest praise for those who offer charity anonymously, research has shown that social influence does matter. When we see others doing acts of kindness, even if we do not know them, we are more likely to act with kindness. In this case one hopes that it inspires others to act with equal generosity.
Your second question, regarding the dignity afforded to your guests, deserves careful consideration. You note that the guests were briefed about the coverage before the media arrived, that the conditions surrounding the coverage were explained and that they were given the ability to opt out of the event. If those conditions were met, then I believe your guests were treated with dignity. They were not forced into an uncomfortable or demeaning situation, They could exercise their own autonomy to be present or not. Nothing that was planned would have compromised their status or their identities. The proof that they had the ability to act on their own behalf was demonstrated when they got up and left.
You add an objection that the media coverage spoiled the opportunity the guests had to have a peaceful morning breakfast. That is a shame. One can easily imagine a better organized plan that might have used only a limited area in which the media could met their needs without disrupting the entire group. Or a few select guests might have volunteered to be available for the media, sparing those who did not wish to participate. This is a matter of process and planning, however, and does not change my basic thought that the organizers and the media were aware of and respectful toward the dignity due to the guests.
Your question reminds us that even good deeds demand a certain mindfulness. No one would dispute the good intended in offering shelter and food to those in need, but the physical aid must be accompanied by the essential spiritual value of dignity for those to whom we offer help. Thank you for your sensitive question.
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