The Beggars of Lakewood

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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.

Ehrlich is a full-time beggar. His strategy is one part humor, one part not taking no for an answer. He gives you levity; he expects money in return. “I say rhymes, I say all kinds of jokes!” Ehrlich told me in June, on a break from begging. “I say: ‘If you don’t have anything, at least give something! Better than not giving at all!’ I ask them, ‘Give me 100 dollars, I’ll give you back 99 shekels!’ ” (A comically bad deal — even if his offer were genuine, a shekel is worth about 30 cents.) “They give a dollar or two, sometimes they give five,” Ehrlich said. Students who give maaser — the 10 percent tithe recommended by the Talmud — are more generous, he said. “They give 36, or 20.” Thirty-six is a multiple of 18, which represents life or good luck in Jewish numerology.


Students at Beth Medrash Govoha. Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

For years, Ehrlich has made a circuit of yeshivas in Israel’s religious cities, like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, offering his Yinglish patter to pious students in exchange for a few shekels. About 12 years ago, he was working the grounds of the Mir, a large school in Jerusalem that is popular with Americans studying abroad, when somebody suggested that he travel to Lakewood, where American students at the Mir often settled on their return home. So began his annual pilgrimage. Often he raises money for friends who have to pay for a child’s wedding (and takes a cut for himself). This year, one of his 12 children was marrying in July, and Lakewood helped pay for the banquet. Soon after we met, I asked Ehrlich what he earned in New Jersey each year. He told me, but made me promise not to say exactly how much. Put it this way: After costs, he earns more than enough to buy a Honda Fit, but not quite enough for a Civic.

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.

Numbers like these have helped the American Orthodox community explode in recent years. Lakewood, which sits about 10 miles from the Jersey Shore and 80 miles south of Manhattan, was once a WASPy summer village. It’s now at least half Jewish, and the newcomers here have created an economy centered on the things they need that almost no one else does. They work in kosher restaurants and markets, religious elementary and secondary schools and haberdashery and dressmaking shops. The critical mass of stores catering to Jews, many with bilingual Yiddish- or Hebrew-speaking staffs, draws still more people. Orthodox bankers, mortgage brokers and insurance salesmen serve a community that knows nothing of the real estate bust. But this separate and booming religious economy comes with a rider: itinerant beggars like Ehrlich. Hundreds every year.

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.

About a mile from Beth Medrash Govoha’s campus, in a second-floor walk-up in a small, nondescript commercial building, there is a rather unusual organization called Tomchei Tzedakah. (The name means “supporters of charity.”) It is little more than a room with a desk and, outside, a waiting area with a stained rug. But when a beggar arrives in town, this is the first stop he must make, to apply for an ishur, a permit. To get one, he — it’s always he — has to fill out a form in Hebrew that asks questions like “Number of children?” and “Synagogue that you pray in?” You can check explanatory boxes for “bridal-wedding needs,” “medical needs” or “debts.” Next to debts, there is a space for “Amount?”

I visited Tomchei Tzedakah late on a Thursday evening this summer and found a volunteer sitting behind the desk, deep in conversation with a hopeful beggar. Out in the waiting room, there were a couple of bedraggled men who spoke no English. One tried Yiddish on me, futilely. In a city with a starchy uniform, their clothes were unpressed, and they seemed to have no place to go. As we waited, I took pictures of signs on the wall. One listed the names of recommended drivers who could haul people around town to ask for money. (The drivers take a cut.) One announced a new policy: Because of complaints that some charity collectors were visiting houses “a second and third time, and also that they are not satisfied with the amount received the first time and constantly request more,” such repeat visitors would be disallowed ishurs in the future.


A drawer of bills Rich Roberts keeps for beggars. Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

The volunteer there would not talk with me, but a week later, I had a telephone conversation with a different, longtime volunteer, who asked that I not use his name. He told me that Orthodox communities have always had a rabbi or leader who vets out-of-town beggars; he was sure that Lakewood was not the first to set up a formal office. Still, he said, his organization was originally quite controversial. To inquire about people’s motives for begging struck many in town as somehow un-Jewish.

“How do you say somebody’s not legitimate, not deserving?” he asked. “Who decides? How strict are you?” But the town realized that an organization like this was necessary, he said, because “like any good system, people abuse the system.” Some beggars would come back often, telling dubious stories, preying on people’s generosity. Tomchei Tzedakah was founded eight years ago in response, and initially it turned many people away. “Once word got out that you’re not going to get away with it in Lakewood,” he told me, the schemers stopped coming. Now, he said, they turn away no more than 2 or 3 percent of those who apply.

“The majority are from Israel, but they are from all over,” he said. “Russian immigrants living in New York City, people with health problems from upstate New York. There’s a guy who came to me recently from Wisconsin. I think he lost his job, and he couldn’t afford basic necessities. We’ve seen people from the West Coast, from Chicago, Baltimore.” The organization issues between 950 and 1,100 ishurs a year, all to religious Jews.

Many visitors are raising money for acquaintances or institutions, often in Israel. In such cases, Tomchei Tzedakah does some rudimentary fact-checking. “If they say they have 600 students,” the volunteer said, “we verify the school has 600 students.” It also calls references back home, usually a rabbi. At the same time, it functions as a concierge to the indigent, suggesting restaurants that will give them food and residents who might offer a place to sleep. It embodies the community’s dual impulse, to be exceedingly generous while not being taken for chumps.

Not all of Lakewood’s vetting is done so formally. Aryeh Leib Greenspan, a 30-year-old yeshiva student in Lakewood, told me how he recently hosted an Israeli sofer — a scribe trained in the complex art of copying the Torah and other religious texts — whose career had been ruined by a hand injury. Having no work, the scribe has come to New Jersey several times seeking charity. On his latest trip, he stayed for two weeks, and every night a different Lakewood resident escorted him to knock on some doors. These men, Greenspan told me, “give up their supper, their family time,” to help the scribe raise money. When the sofer is with a local, he said, he’s “not like a regular stranger.”

Greenspan said that when he lived near the yeshiva, before he moved, the knocks were constant. “Four or five times a day,” he said. I asked how much he gave. “One dollar, two dollars. People who I can’t give to, I offer them a cup of water or juice. If it’s a Friday afternoon” — the Sabbath approaching — “I give them a piece of kugel.”

Everyone in Lakewood knows Rich Roberts, because he is very rich. Roberts, 57, grew up in a secular Philadelphia family. After receiving an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, he took over his father’s failing pharmaceutical companies, and around that time, he became Orthodox. He credits Jewish teachings with helping him turn the two businesses around. He sold them in 2012 for $800 million and then moved to Lakewood. Now he spends his days studying the Torah, praying at the large synagogue he built next to his house in 2009 and entertaining Republican politicians, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who come to town seeking his money and influence.


The coat room at Beth Medrash Govoha. Credit Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times 

Roberts, who is married with six children, moved to Lakewood seeking a religious community within commuting distance of Philadelphia. But when he got to an Orthodox community, he discovered the downside of living with his coreligionists. “In the secular world,” Roberts told me, the rich live “in estates that are away from the public. They’ll have gates, they’ll have guards. People even buy their own islands.” But because religious Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath, they must live within walking distance of their synagogues, no matter how wealthy they are. Roberts clearly lives well. His large house was decorated in a style you might call South Jersey riche: overstuffed sofas, late-model kitchen, huge dinner table for Sabbath guests, giant exotic aquarium dominating the living room. But it was not in an exclusively rich neighborhood. “I am a well-to-do person,” he said, “but I live in a poverty-stricken area.”

With their large families and limited job skills, the ultra-Orthodox have high poverty rates. The predominantly Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, N.Y., is the poorest town with more than 10,000 residents in the country. Many of the Jewish poor do accept forms of public assistance like food stamps. Yet many of them are forced to rely on their more fortunate neighbors, who conveniently live among them. When Roberts began giving away money, word spread, and suddenly he “couldn’t go anywhere or do anything.” People asked for money at the supermarket, at the clothing store, everywhere. “Our lives were torn apart. The phone was ringing continuously — I mean continuously.” Beggars cornered him in parking lots and interrupted him at prayer in the synagogue. The knocks at his door were “constant,” he said. “Nine in the morning, 9:02, 9:05, 9:07, noon.” His heart “would break for these people,” he said — everyone had a story, most of them probably true. Still, he wanted his life back.

But leaving Lakewood was not an option. “Other wealthy people, they move out,” he said. “And that’s not what we do.” So several years ago, he instituted a new policy: He would respond to only requests made in handwritten letters. Now he and his secretary sit down once a week and write about 30 checks, “about $50 to $100” each, and “some a lot larger,” he said. “I probably also write a $20,000 check every week.” People still come to the door, but less often. He gives everyone who knocks two $1 bills from a pouch in a cabinet by his front door. “I have a few thousand dollars of ones upstairs,” he said.

It would be a mistake to think that anyone in Lakewood idealizes begging. The injured scribe notwithstanding, door-to-door begging is generally for out-of-towners. So the local poor are supported by local charities, dozens of them. Many are gemachs: a Hebrew acronym for “acts of loving kindness,” but colloquially a place for free stuff. You can find Lakewood’s gemach listings in a special sort of Yellow Pages distributed around town. There are separate gemachs for coffee urns, for dehumidifiers, for dinette sets, for boys’ clothes, for bridal gowns — anything you could want. Then there are the more traditional social-service agencies: One helps people with medical-insurance premiums, another puts up families visiting a hospitalized relative, etc. The specialization of the gemachs and other services is so thorough that no one ever feels as if he’s begging.

Tomchei Shabbos is one of these, a food pantry run by roughly 250 volunteers who take food to 450 needy families every month. Deliveries are made anonymously, in the dark of night — honoring the Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ famous dictum that anonymous giving is a higher form. The director, the 43-year-old Yossi Schreiber, works without pay. (He was vague about how he earned a living: “I do some real estate investing, and so on.”) As we talked, a young girl knocked at the door. “It’s our pushke,” she said, handing over the collection box in which religious families deposit spare coins. Schreiber emptied her pushke, gave it back to her and counted out the money. It was $120.67, one family’s occasional contribution to those who had less.

I asked Schreiber how he made sure the food bank wasn’t taken advantage of. “We don’t ensure,” he said. “Only God ensures.” But then he admitted that God needed a little help to figure out who’s truly needy. “We interview families, we get references — the schools, the rabbis, neighbors, whoever’s involved — and get a good picture,” Schreiber said. “We’re not the I.R.S. We don’t have their tax returns on the table.”

But tax returns aren’t necessary. The cost of admission to this world of generosity is privacy. Even the beggar’s application asks for the name of a home rabbi — and he will get a call, even back in Jerusalem. Lakewood is a town that defeats anonymity. For out-of-towners reduced to knocking on doors, the price of all this charity is, as everywhere else, uncomfortable exposure. For locals, there is an effort to preserve dignity — but even then, the system presumes that there’s always someone who can attest to the family’s dire need.

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.

“There’s a certain warmth and trust to it,” Kotler said. “In a big city, in Manhattan, you see indigent people collecting on the street. That doesn’t feel as dignified as this. Here, a person knocks on the door. And tells you their story.”