Giving, but with a firm hand

Times Staff Writer

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?

“We have to have boundaries,” said Kanefsky, who introduced the sign-up procedure after 200 people appeared one morning last fall, leading to pushing and shoving. “Otherwise, we have chaos.”


The Ralphs ritual -- paid for with donations from synagogue members -- presented Kanefsky with a private dilemma. But he was hardly alone.

This was my rabbi, my synagogue, my neighborhood, and I, too, had to define my own boundaries. I had encountered many of the people who had waited in line that morning for the gift cards, and others as well.

There was Sheila, a 50ish homeless woman with red lipstick who smelled of urine and had taken to sleeping in one of B'nai David’s doorways. And Frank, a scruffy 52, who limped around the neighborhood collecting money from men as they left morning prayers at synagogues and liked to tell people that he was related to the famous Italian American singer with the same last name: Sinatra.

And then there was Joel, 50, who could ramble for an hour or more about radiation contaminating his food or the likelihood of California falling into the ocean.

Dozens more panhandled outside the local Walgreens, picked through garbage cans in the alleys or congregated near a Pico Boulevard food pantry, which distributes groceries to 5,000 people each month.

Well-meaning businesspeople tried to help, even as they struggled with the same issues as Kanefsky.

The owner of a kosher restaurant down the street from B'nai David gave Joel money, arranged medical care, even shopped and cooked for him. But the businessman had to bar Joel from sleeping outside his place.

Across the street, the owner of a kosher pizza shop said she lost sleep over her attempts to help Joel, one of five homeless regulars from the streets. Joel would pick through grated cheese, sour cream, enchilada sauce, frozen yogurt mix and pistachio ice cream. But he would scare off customers, so the owner had to curb his time at the shop. “What if . . . that’s Hashem testing me?” she asked, using a Hebrew name for God. Even social service organizations had to impose limits. The pantry allowed Sheila to use its bathroom on her regular visits to collect food and adult diapers. But Sheila left such a mess she lost the privilege.

Sheila spent many of her days lying with a duffel bag on the sidewalk next to the graffiti-covered wall of Sinai Kosher Market, two blocks from B'nai David. She was a lumpy figure with dirty blond hair, wearing a black winter jacket in 78-degree weather, chain-smoking Poker cigarettes, downing cups of coffee. Grit covered her hands and the cracks of her face, but her fingernails were painted a beautiful red. She said she did them twice a week.

It was hard to know what was real or imagined in her life story. Sheila said she attended Hollywood High School through 11th grade and worked as a bartender and barmaid.

She said she took a pill for depression at one point, but that she wound up with diabetes and watched as her toenails fell off.

“I hired a lawyer to sue for damages,” she said. “I think they are trying to steal my settlement.”

Sheila said she had slept on a mattress in a nearby unheated storage room for $600 a month until she was kicked out earlier this year. She spoke of a stint in a recovery home and repeated trips to the hospital.

She did not mention one of her other recent homes: B'nai David.

Sheila had been sleeping in a doorway for several weeks just feet from Joel, who had taken up residence in another spot, arranging garbage cans around himself.

Some B'nai David members were alarmed by having to step over them and complained to the synagogue’s president and Kanefsky, who were ambivalent about sending the pair away.

Doing so would seem to conflict with B'nai David’s ethos of looking out “for the dignity of all God’s children.” And it troubled Kanefsky, who has made tikkun olam -- a Jewish concept that literally means to “repair the world” -- a priority in B'nai David’s backyard.

Synagogue families have forged a relationship with the nearby Alcott Center, which provides housing and other services for people with mental illness. The congregants and Alcott residents celebrate Hanukkah and Passover together.

One lay leader organizes regular lunches for congregants and Pico-Robertson’s needy neighbors that promise to be “delicious to the tongue and fulfilling for the soul,” as the Sabbath bulletin puts it.


And then there is the Ralphs card giveaway. Kanefsky works it by himself, a soft-spoken man displaying no sign of fear as his restless visitors engulf him with requests for food, money or prayers.

One recent morning, handing a Ralphs card to a regular, an African American woman named Ellen who is active in her church, he asked: “How’s the church coming? They look to you as a pillar of strength.” Later, he confided of his work: “This is such a drop in the bucket.”

And so Kanefsky approached the situation of Sheila and Joel with great hesitation, ultimately telling them that further financial assistance from the synagogue would depend on their no longer sleeping in its doorways.

“It came down to the recognition that, without boundary-setting, all the work we do would be undermined,” he said.

Kanefsky spoke about his struggle in a Saturday sermon last month.

He quoted Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher viewed by many as Judaism’s leading Rabbinic authority. God, he said, is so stirred by the poor that he maintains a special covenant with them. And that’s why it is prohibited to humiliate them. To do so is to strip them of their dignity.

Still, Kanefsky got through to Sheila and Joel.

Sheila took up her post on the sidewalk next to the Sinai Kosher Market as well as in a Walgreens doorway, thanking passersby as they handed her dollar bills. “I don’t want him to get mad at me,” she said of Kanefsky. “I’m not a troublemaker.”

A short time later, she was back among the morning crowd at the synagogue, waiting for her $15 Ralphs gift card. She walked through the door, proudly displaying her white ID card for Kanefsky.

“Gold bless you, shalom, Rabbi Kaminsky,” she said, mispronouncing his name as always and eliciting a chuckle from the rabbi.

Kanefsky thanked her for coming and, as he handed her a Ralphs card, gently reminded her not to sleep in the doorway.


Joel was a different story.

After he left B'nai David, he found a temporary home in a backyard guest house in the neighborhood. The restaurant owner who had once arranged medical care for him contributed half of the $1,100 rent and even began shopping for him -- picking up shredded cheese, Tabasco sauce, strawberry soda and other items that met his approval. B'nai David, which had given Joel about $7,000 for rent in various locations over the years, also contributed. But Joel needed more money.

As it happens, I had given my cellphone number to one of Joel’s acquaintances. A few nights later, the phone rang.

“Shalom, it’s Yoel,” he said, using his Hebrew name and explaining that he needed $550 to pay rent for the next two weeks.

I told Joel I’d give him some money and asked for his address. His reply startled me: He was living fairly close to my house. Even though everyone who knew Joel described him as harmless and even charming, this was too close for my comfort. As a father, I wanted to be a good role model. But I also felt a pressing need to maintain my own boundary and protect my family.

For the first time, I had an inkling of how Rabbi Kanefsky must have felt when he faced the man in the hooded sweat shirt who kept asking for a gift card that morning at the synagogue.

The discomfort of that moment -- and others to come -- was unavoidable, as long as Kanefsky continued to open B'nai David’s doors to the poor of Pico-Robertson.

At moments like those, Kanefsky would remind himself of the words of Rabbi Tarfon, a sage who lived about 2,000 years ago: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.