I got a call from a schnorrer yesterday.  A schnorrer asks for some of what you’ve got.  While some people schnorr for a cause and some just want to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar, the kind that I’ve become familiar with calls with a story of family trouble and/or emergency, often both, and asks you to send them some money to get them through this tight spot.  That’s the kind of schnorrer I talked with yesterday.

He called the synagogue first, and asked if I have a husband.  Odd question.  It happens that I wasn’t in yesterday and not expected in today.  Well, he really needed to speak to me, and would my assistant give him my home phone number?  No, that’s not our practice.  He got angry and abusive.  It was a family emergency.  She suggested he call Jewish Family Services.  No, they can’t help him.  She asked if he could tell her anything about the situation, so that I could prepare to answer him.  No, it wasn’t her business, she wasn’t doing her job, he would make sure I knew it…  By the time she called me she was quite shaken.  But she took his number and passed it along to me.

I was intrigued, but I smelled professional schnorrer.  The insistance that organizations dedicated to helping people in need can’t help, the urgency, and the rudeness were tip-offs.  Not to mention the fact that it was in the 718 area code — that’s Brooklyn.  What’s he doing calling up here?  But as I said, I was intrigued, and even a schnorrer deserves a hearing.

So I called him — let’s call him Mr. Alef — and it was almost impossible to hear him.  “I have a phone that doesn’t work, on top of everything else…”  He wanted my phone number so that he could call me back from a different phone.  Nope — in fact, I had looked up how to block my number from showing up on someone’s caller ID before I called (dial *67, then the number).  The sense that I got ahead of time was that this was not someone that I wanted bugging me at home.  I called back and got an answering machine, loud and clear; but when I called again, still the same terrible connection.  So I have to leave my living room, where there are children and dogs and a sick goat (that’s another story), and sit in the mud room to just barely hear him.  I did so, but couldn’t hear it all, so I didn’t get the whole story.  But it includes a sick brother who just came out of the hospital, etc. etc.

When I point out that he’s in Brooklyn, and surely there are folks there who can help him, he says that local resources have been helping him, but they’re all tapped out, so he’s reaching out more widely; and would I please, please help him, as one Jew to another?  If I can send him 80 or 90 dollars (I think — this is one of the things I could barely hear), he promises — emes (truth) — that he will never, ever bother me again.

So I tell him I can’t send money to someone I don’t know, and who will vouch for him?  He gives me the name and number of a rabbi — “He’s known my family for 20 years” — and when I ask, tells me he has Conservative smichah (ordination). Before I hang up, he wants a promise that, once I verify what he’s telling me, I will send him something. I tell him that, if I can satisfy myself as to the validity of his story, then I will call him back and arrange to send him something.  If, on the other hand, I cannot, then he will likely not hear from me.

I already know it’s unlikely I can be satisfied.  And first, I have to verify the identity of the rabbi he’s named, and make sure that the number I call actually belongs to said rabbi.

So I write to my local colleagues.  It turns out that Mr. Alef has called several rabbis in the Capital District over the past few months.  The rabbi I needed to verify apparently is a real rabbi, though his relationship to Mr. Alef isn’t entirely clear.  (But was the person on the other end of their phone really that rabbi?)  Mr. Alef made the same promise never to call again, but my colleague who actually sent him something got another call later asking for help because it was a family emergency — but it took a few minutes to figure out that it was the same man, it’s not that he called and said “Remember me?”  So much for emes.

What’s really striking, though, is that Mr. Alef treated the office staff the same at all the places he’s called: terribly.  And that is enough for me to make my decision. I’ve been debating calling him to tell him why the answer is “no,” but I decided to write it here instead:

Every community has its schnorrers, and there’s a lot of Jewish law and custom about taking care of such folks; just because someone makes their living bumming off other people doesn’t excuse me from the obligation to help. There is such a thing as being chronically in need, and the root causes of such a life aren’t always clear.  At the same time, any money that I am able to give out has been entrusted to me with the expectation that it will be used well.  And when I have reason to doubt the stories that I’ve been given, when I have reason to suspect that I’m being manipulated into a false sense of urgency, then I slow down and proceed with caution.

The bottom line is this:  Even if you’re a professional schnorrer, you are not exempt from the obligation to treat other people gently and kindly.  If you’re calling me and asking for my rakhmones (compassion) as a fellow Jew, but refusing to extend that compassion to those who answer the phones, then it’s not just your story which has a problem with emes, it’s the whole basis upon which you are appealing to me.  If you cannot treat the people you encounter with the respect and compassion due to a fellow creature, created like yourself b’tselem Elohim (in the image of the Divine), then it seems to me that you don’t really believe in respect and compassion; you believe in getting for yourself.  And I don’t think I’m obligated to respond to an appeal based on sheker (falsehood).