Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Beggars of Lakewood - New York Times

NY Times    Once a year, Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine. During the three weeks he typically spends in town, Ehrlich — a white-bearded, black-suited, black-skullcapped, wisecracking 51-year-old — haunts the many local yeshivas, schools where Jewish men, mostly in their 20s, study the Talmud and other texts. Sometimes he loiters around the condominium complexes where students live with their young wives and growing families. Some days he hires a driver to take him to the houses of local ashirim, rich men. Throughout town, he greets old friends, asking after marriages made since his last visit and new babies. And at every stop along the way, he asks for money.[...]

The yeshiva students may not give much, but nearly all of them give — and there are so many of them. Between 1990 and 2010, Lakewood’s population doubled to about 92,000 residents, largely because of the growth of its ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Conveniently located equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia, Lakewood is home to Beth Medrash Govoha, the nation’s largest yeshiva. The school, founded in 1943 by the refugee Rabbi Aharon Kotler, has seen its student body swell to about 6,500, making it just smaller than Harvard College. The growing Orthodox movement encourages young men to forgo or postpone higher education for religious study, and the yeshiva has benefited from that. Other schools have followed suit, setting up shop in Lakewood. Most students are married, and families with five or 10 children are common.[...]

Lakewood is becoming a medium-size city, but in many ways, it’s a pre-World War II European village, right down to the Yiddish and, to an extent, the clothes. The spiritual ecology of the town revolves around the Torah, which obliges that all Jews, even those who are in need themselves, give to charity. And so Lakewood — full of broke students, most likely at the peak of their adherence to Jewish law — has given full expression to the generous tendency of small, diasporic communities, which can be amplified when they find a little piece of the world to call their own.

It’s not that Lakewood residents enjoy having their doorbells rung two, three or four times a day to hear a hard-luck story. But while other towns may criminalize beggars or tell them to move along, Lakewood has an obligation to fulfill — Jews are literally family, according to the Torah. So the town came up with a modern solution to an ancient problem: paperwork. Beggars are registered and licensed in Lakewood, as a means of preserving trust in this community that aspires to be a village but is outgrowing that label.[...]

Aaron Kotler, who hosted me one night this summer in Lakewood, is the president of Beth Medrash Govoha and the grandson of its founder. He dresses in banker’s pinstripes, is an avid cyclist and, seemingly alone among the middle-aged men of Lakewood, speaks without a trace of Yiddish singsong. He has been instrumental in bringing real estate investors to town to feed the growing need for housing. I asked Kotler what he thought of the culture of begging. “I think that people of quality want to live in a place that has a flavor of doing chesed,” or kindness, he said. He questioned whether the door-to-door begging was “the most effective way to raise money,” but ultimately he looked on it favorably. [...]


  1. A beautiful and adequate response.

  2. Please see my comment on that "beautiful and adequate response."


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