The Economic Crisis: How Rabbis Can Help

With Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's economic decrees beginning to take effect, charity organizations are bracing themselves - not only to help out where necessary, but also to head off problems before they occur.

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To this end, a first-of-its-kind seminar was held in Jerusalem yesterday, with the aim of teaching community rabbis how to help families ride out - or avoid altogether - the expected difficulties.

The main theme, explained Rabbi Zalman Melamed, must be the Sages' teaching, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot."

Among the rabbis in attendance, from both the hareidi and religious-Zionist publics, were Rabbi Toledano of Givat Ze'ev, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh, Rabbi Yigal Kaminetzky of Gush Katif, and some 30 others. The seminar was planned a week and a half ago, and more are planned.

"A major cause of families 'falling' economically," Rabbi Melamed said, "is that they simply went from one expense to another without properly budgeting their needs and financial capabilities. We must therefore educate people towards living within their means, towards correct living. When I recite the morning blessing thanking G-d for 'giving me all I need,' I must truly believe that I simply do not *need* more. We must constantly educate towards this goal."

Pa'amonim (Bells), the sponsoring organization of the seminar, has made it its goal not merely to provide emergency help to those in need, but to extricate families from financial collapse. Yaakov Yaakobovitch, a young and energetic Torah scholar who devotes all his free time to running Pa'amonim, explained to the rabbis that a main source of the problem is the concept of overdraft:
"It's an Israeli invention. In most countries, banks do not allow overdrafts; if there is no money in the account to cover a check, the check bounces. But here in Israel, banks allow you to run up an overdraft of thousands of shekels - on which they take hefty interest. There's only one bank that doesn't allow overdrafts, and that is Bank HaDoar - the Postal Authority Bank. It also does not have numerous and costly fees as the other banks do, and in fact costs only a few shekels a month. In my opinion, there is no need for a young married couple in their first few years of marriage to have a checking account in any bank other than Bank HaDoar... Regular banks at first seem very friendly, but most people don't realize how much they actually cost."

"A family is like a small business," Yaakobovitch explained, "and not everyone knows how to run one. When a family finds itself in debt of 50,000 shekels, and there's nowhere to turn, we can try to help them - but on condition that they begin to run their family expenses in a totally different manner: no checks, no credit cards, no free loans, and of course no unnecessary expenses."

The goal, according to Yaakobovitch, is to help families realize where they can and should cut back: "We know that financial problems are a major source of domestic strife. I tell husbands and wives that they should sit together to review their expenses and income, and calmly see how much they spend and where they can cut back. Cell phones for children, for instance, cost a lot of money! Even a car must constantly be checked to see if owning or using one is cost-effective. Where do they do their shopping, etc. Families have thanked us just for bringing their attention details like these."

Atty. Eran Peles addressed the other side of the coin: families who "fall" not because of poor budgeting, but because of a one-time failure that cost them an inordinate amount of money.
"You should make your members aware of simple precautions they should take in order not to fall into a trap," Peles told the rabbis. "When making large purchases, they should write 'not transferable' or the like on their checks. This will prevent a situation in which the checks are later cashed by a third party if the store goes bankrupt. ... A home-buyer must make sure that the contract states that it is contingent upon his receipt of a mortgage; if not, the seller can justifiably say that it doesn't interest him that the buyer doesn't have the money... When buying a business, check its financial state very carefully. I know of a case where someone came to look at a restaurant he was interested in purchasing, and saw it crowded with customers in mid-afternoon. He didn't know that only a few minutes before, the owner had brought in a busload of friends to make it appear full... A landlord must put in a clause that will assure his legal rights to evict, without contest, a tenant who does not pay on time; otherwise, thousands of dollars he may have counted on for his family budget might go down the drain while the non-paying tenant squats for months in his apartment... Caution must be taken in signing as a guarantor for family businesses... No loans on the gray market... etc."

A speaker who might prove to be very important to the rabbis in the future was Shlomo Goldental, an expert in National Insurance Institute matters and someone who can help "solve problems." He reviewed some of the various types of government aid to which many families may not be aware that they are entitled. He discussed government aid for rent, disability allowances, supplemental wages, property tax reductions, and more. Goldental said that he is frequently able to help families obtain aid even after their first request is turned down. "If they don't know of these options, then at least you should be aware of them," he said, offering his phone number and free-of-charge services to the rabbis.

Uriel Lederberg of Pa'amonim summed up:
"Our motto is, 'Bo'u Cheshbon' - Let's live according to a calculated program, and let's teach people to live that way... I can tell you of a family that fell into debt of 70,000 shekels, with an eviction threat hanging over their heads; the father was incapacitated and could not support his family, and the mother had nowhere to turn. The local rabbi called me, and I came to investigate. After we carefully looked into the situation and found that the story was in fact as it appeared, we got to work, with only a few days to go before they were to be thrown out of their home. A local charity fund was able to give 5,000 shekels, the rabbi had raised 5,000 shekels, and then we went door-to-door in the community and raised 9,000 shekels from people who agreed to a monthly payment. I then spoke to the creditor - Amidar, the government housing company - and explained to them the grave situation. 'I have cash,' I told them. 'How much will you agree to take and call it even?' They said that if we pay 30,000 shekels, they would stop all eviction and other proceedings against the family. So I called Pa'amonim's Mr. Yaakobovitch, and said, 'If we give 11,000 shekels, we can save this family.' Neither of us, of course, could make this decision alone, in accordance with the Talmud that says that three people must be involved in distributing funds, and so he consulted with another Pa'amonim official, and within a short time we had the answer: Yes, we could give the 11,000 shekels and save the family. Of course, it went together with a strict budgetary regimen with which we continue to accompany the family."

Click here for information on how to reach Pa'amonim.