April 14, 2024
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Teaneck-Bergenfield Vaad Tzedakah Vets Charitable Causes and Candidates

“Responding to people coming to our doors for tzedakah is a hallmark of a Jewish home and one of the most important visual experiences that can shape empathetic children and giving adults,” said Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, mara d’asra of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. These people known as meshulachim (loosely translated as “messengers or agents of charity”) come to many Jewish homes on Sundays and during the week, asking residents for funds for a variety of causes. The number of meshulachim coming to the neighborhood grew back in the ’90s to the point that the community was overwhelmed. “As the community grew, more and more meshulachim came collecting and many people felt uncomfortable not knowing who was coming to their doors,” said Dovid Schild, a resident of Bergenfield who is an active participant on several committees at Beth Abraham.

Therefore, Rabbi Neuburger and Schild formed The Teaneck-Bergenfield Tzedakah Committee. Schild, who serves as the head of the Vaad Tzedakah committee, noted it was started so people could feel confident that their tzedakah was going to truly needy individuals or institutions. R. Neuburger adds, “People were not giving or giving with a heavy heart due to lingering doubts of legitimacy.” Surely this was not the proper way to engage in such an important mitzvah.

The formation of the committee was a complicated but necessary process. “Fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah means targeting those who genuinely need, and anything less than that would not accord appropriate gravitas to our responsibility to share our blessings,” said Rabbi Neuberger. Schild canvased Vaads around the world. The local Vaad culled together the different approaches and crafted a system that has won international acclaim. However, the Vaad would operate with one important change.

“The difference in our Vaad is that our review process includes multilingual, positively oriented volunteers who personally speak to people who can verify important information, such as size and history of a project, and employability, family size, and obviously need,” said Schild. Menachem Stamler has volunteered countless hours to the Vaad over the past 20 years and has established valuable contacts throughout Israel (80% of the meshulachim are from Israel) who can verify someone or give the name of someone else to verify.

Ultimately, all the rabbis from the area approved the policy, and many of the shuls donated to start the committee, which comprises only volunteers. And the Vaad made an impact instantly. “When we first started, we quickly became known as a Vaad that is careful, and the meshulachim who apply recognize that we are serious,” said Schild. In fact, the teudah (certificate that vouches for authenticity) issued from the Teaneck-Bergenfield Vaad Tzedakah Committee has such a good reputation that rabbis from outside the area are comfortable accepting it. In the Teaneck-Berngenfield area, the teudah has led to fewer meshulachim in the neighborhood, but residents feel more confident that those who come have a legitimate need.

Those who want the teudah need to apply. There are four types of applications depending upon the reason the person is collecting (i.e., self, organization, needed to make a wedding, or a medical issue). Once the application is completed, along with any supporting documentation, it is processed and put in the system. A volunteer Vaad member then verifies the application which requires reviewing the information on the application, ensuring the institution exists (if that is the reason for the request) and calling the references. Once this is done, a report is generated. The report and the teudahs (if they are approved) go to Rabbi Neuburger on Fridays. He then reviews and signs the teudahs (assuming he is in agreement with the findings). The teudahs are then made available for pick-up at Schild’s house on Sunday morning.

The process is thorough. However, it normally takes just one week for a teudah to be approved from the time the Vaad receives a completed application. “Our approach is to try our best to be empathetic and understanding and get reliable information that will generate an approval, always keeping in mind that the overwhelming number of requests are from people/institutions in genuine need.”

Meshulachim can be granted two teudahs a year. The teudah is good for 60 days. Depending on circumstance, these rules can be amended. The reason for the limitation is so the community is not overwhelmed and out of recognition that these requests are the shared responsibility of all comfortable communities in this country. Rabbi Neuburger praised the generosity of the community, saying, “The amount of money given to teudot is only a small percentage that our community puts out as the majority of tzedakah goes to take care of local institutions, tuitions, medical, and personal needs.”

It is because of the Vaad’s thoroughness and the community’s generosity that when the system is misused, it is so disappointing. Schild says, “We get calls from time to time that a meshulach was very aggressive.” When this occurs, the Vaad tries to contact the meshulach (contact information is on the application) and give them a warning. If complaints continue, the meshulach will not receive a teudah in the future. Schild added, “If something happens outside of the community, we get the information through the network of Vaads, and we can choose not to renew.”

Recently, Schild was informed about an upsetting incident. A family gave an $18 check to an individual who then changed it to $1800 and cashed the check. The individual did not have a teudah. Schild was disturbed to hear this news but offered advice to try and ensure that this does not happen in the future. “Just give to the people who have teudahs with a valid date and only write the check to the name of the person/institution on the teudah.” It is only those with a teudah who have been authorized to collect funds by the Vaad.

So, next time the doorbell rings and there is a meshulach at the door, make sure to check for the teudah. Once you see the valid teudah, you can feel confident that the tzedakah you are giving will do good for someone who is in need.

By Larry Bernstein

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