Helping The Homeless In Pico/Robertson

I don’t give money or material assistance of any kind to the homeless. I don’t believe in it. There are social service organizations better equipped for this. I talk to the homeless at times. I know some of their names. There are a few I take time to greet and we’ll have brief chats. But I prefer to keep the unwashed at a distance — be they homeless or not.

The homeless are one reason I am not a libertarian (even though I have a lot of sympathy for that way of thinking, it comes from my UCLA economics education and my admiration for almost all things Milton Friedman). They are one reason I am not opposed to the prohibition of alcohol, drugs, prostitution, pornography etc (I don’t support such prohibitions either).

If we make vice (and in my view most homeless have destroyed their own lives with drugs and alcohol and bad decisions) easily available, a lot of people will indulge and a significant portion of them will destroy their lives and become a burden on the rest of us.

I no longer believe that what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes is their business alone.

Everything we do affects other people. If we choose to spend our spare time watching pornography or doing drugs or studying Shakespeare, that is going to affect us and those around us.

In one of the evening prayers, we thank G-d for separating us from those who stray.

Judaism is an exclusivist religion, and the more seriously it is practiced, the more exclusivist it gets. The Modern Orthodox are more exclusive (many won’t invite non-Jews to their seders for instance because it is problematic as far as Jewish law, a non-Jew pouring wine for a Jew etc) than the non-Orthodox and the traditional Orthodox are more exclusive than the Modern Orthodox.

It tends to be the modern Jews who get all weepy about connecting with non-Jewish blacks while the traditional Jew is little concerned with this and more concerned with fulfilling his obligations as a Torah-observant Jew (and none of these obligations entail davening in black churches).

From the LA Times:

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, left, of B’nai David-Judea Synagogue in Los Angeles, chats with Bobby Alexander, who is homeless, on Pico Boulevard. Kanefsky, 44, helps the homeless, elderly and poor of the Pico-Robertson district.

By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 25, 2008

They began lining up in front of the synagogue well before sunrise.

The homeless, elderly and poor of the Pico-Robertson district — 100 of them — held up white registration cards as they shuffled through the doors of B’nai David-Judea.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a man of 44 more prone to blue jeans than black suits, greeted each by name. One by one, he handed out $15 Ralphs gift cards to everyone except four newcomers who hadn’t registered.

They swarmed him outside the synagogue after he finished with the others.

"Sir, I would like a gift card," said a man in a hooded sweat shirt.

"I’m sorry," Kanefsky answered.

"Sir, why can’t you go back in there and get me a gift card?"

Kanefsky stood firm. "I can’t do that," he said softly.

Like Jewish leaders elsewhere, this Modern Orthodox rabbi has long exhorted his congregants to give tzedakah, or charity.

Providing for the poor, he says, is not only a mitzvah — a good deed — but a holy act and a religious obligation. The message frames the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, when worshipers are reminded that charity is among the deeds that can avert an evil decree in the year to come.

But Kanefsky, who figures he has handed out $75,000 worth of Ralphs cards to the needy of his Westside neighborhood over the last 11 1/2 years, has found himself wrestling lately with the limits of goodwill.

How much, he wonders, is he helping when the demand only keeps outstripping his resources? And how does he continue to help the poor without turning his synagogue into a sanctuary for the homeless — possibly unsettling some of his parishioners?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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