Thursday, April 03, 2008

How Jerusalem Jews collected charity in the mid-19th century

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

We continue our look at Jewish life in Jerusalem in the mid-1800s, from James Finn's "Stirring Times: Or, Records from Jerusalem Consular Chronicles of 1853 to 1856".

The section on how Jerusalem Jews collected money worldwide - and the disadvantages of that system - sound very familiar!
Not that I approved of the system called ' Shilichuth,' but that notwithstanding all its abuses, there seemed to be at that time no other means for alleviating the abounding misery among the Jews.

This system of ' Schilichuth ' deserves to be explained. A ' Shiliach' is a messenger. The committee in Jerusalem for collection of charity, namely, the Chief Rabbi ('First in Zion '), and his Council, partition the world into districts over which they send ' Shilichim ' to collect funds on their behalf by visitation, by Synagogue preaching, by sale of objects having religious value, or by any other means that may suggest themselves to the intelligence of these messengers. They are furnished with magnificent documents in beautiful handwriting in the Holy Language, and of fine oriental composition, to which ore appended numerous large seals giving to such documents due authority.

A Deed of Agreement is likewise drawn up between the bearer (the Shiliach), and the committee of congregational officers by whom he is sent, allowing him, besides travelling expenses, a large percentage upon all that he can collect. That percentage varies according to the countries to which he is commissioned, generally in proportion to the expected difficulties or dangers that he may have to encounter, or the distance to be traversed. Thus the allowance for a journey to India or Barbary would mount higher than that for repairing to France or Germany, and if the business be methodically managed, the bearer has to bring back with him a book in which each Synagogue that contributes has specified its own amount of contribution in detail, and has attested that statement by its own official seal. In some instances the Shiliach will be absent for two or three years, and sometimes, fresh fields are visited, as, for instance, California, or Australia, with New Zealand.

The deputed messenger is usually, or was formerly, entertained wherever he goes, with honours considered only due to one who has breathed the air of the Holy Land, who has prayed at the remnant of the Western wall of the Temple enclosure, or has been in Hebron, in the same city with the Sepulchres of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah, and Rebekah. His benediction is eagerly sought for and is repaid by hospitality and high place in the Synagogue. These honours have, however, been much diminished since the facilities for travelling, afforded by steamboats and railways, have altered the condition of things, and have done away with not only the actual hardships to be endured by the way, but also have tended to diminish the marvels and the wonders which in former days gathered round the facts which the Shiluchim had to report.

Who are the persons benefited by the funds raised as thus described, and brought to Jerusalem by the Shilichim ? The money is contributed chiefly with the idea of supporting perpetually a pious and learned population in the holy cities, and the donors believe that, inasmuch as all these are poor, the proceeds are divided impartially among all ; that the numbers being counted, the distribution is made accordingly to every head of a family. But as has been shown above, interest on loans, has first to be paid to the public creditors (not Jews). Then come next the official administrators for the large share allotted to them. These dues are known by the name of Kadeemah. Next come those persons who, for some reason or other previously existing, have a right of priority as to a settled pension or annuity (these last have mostly deposited monies in the fund and draw the interest). After all these deductions the residue forms the fund for division, which is then under its Hebrew name of Chaluka (apportioning) distributed among heads of houses, including those who have already received a share under the preceding classes.

And so it comes to pass that there are some rich men who receive their Chaluka, unshamed by others and unblushing for themselves. At the period to which the history refers there were but very few rich men among the thousands of Jerusalem Jews : but it was felt by enlightened Jews from Europe to be a scandal that men of comparative wealth, and even one or two successful traders, should be receiving any share of the alms needed for the relief of the poor, at a time when there was so great an amount of distress that both Jews and Christians were seeking aid from Europe for the succour of the starving multitude.

This method of procuring alms for the support of the Jews in Jerusalem is liable to abuses, and some of these have been partly exposed in such books as Dr. Frankel's ' Nach Jerusalem,' and the London ' Jewish Chronicle ; ' but not to the extent of dealing with all the evils that have come under my observation. Sometimes the Shiliach Licence was sold by the bearer to another man for profit, without the former having left Jerusalem at all.

Sometimes the Colel (i.e. the Corporation for management of the common fund) granted licences, with attestations that the bearer was well known for learning and sanctity of life, to persons of immoral character. Occasionally, members of the Colel (which is always a close corporation of a few Rabbis, sometimes related by marriage) themselves become Shilichim, bearing attestations of piety, etc., etc. Sometimes the messengers, on their return from abroad, rendered but small proceeds of money, refusing to give any account to the congregation, on the ground that their sacred office of Rabbi placed them above suspicion. It is grievous to go back in memory, and to review transactions such as these ; but the very foundation on which the system rests is pernicious, and other and better measures for obtaining revenue should be substituted. The system of collecting alms for the Holy Land is very ancient — we read of it in Roman history, and I am told it is referred to in the Talmud. Nay, even the primitive Christians, in times of temporary pressure, sent contributions to the poor saints which were in Jerusalem, and St. Paul himself was once a bearer of such benevolence. The custom is derived from good instincts of religious conscience ; but the practical benefit of it, even where properly applied, must depend upon righteous administration to those in need.

The present system involves, as has been explained, the doubtful advantage of the employment of the ' Shelichim ' (messengers). Of late this agency is prohibited in Russia, and a Shiliach practising there becomes amenable by law to imprisonment or other penalties — the object of the law being to retain the property of the Empire within its own bounds — and other nations have formerly objected to wealth being drained away from themselves for the benefit of foreigners, who produce nothing in return, not even in the way of trade. For my own part, without attempting to check the stream of charity, I took every opportunity that was convenient of recommending that contributions for the Holy Land should be transmitted by means of the usual professional bankers. This, if generally done, would obviate any waste of the funds between giver and receiver, as well as dishonesty.

Of late years the Austrian synagogues send their remittances, together with a public notification of the amount, to their Consulate in Jerusalem. The Consul receives a commission on the same for his trouble ; but even this method of transmission has disadvantages.