Thursday, March 13, 2008

Women Should Not Be Seen, But Not Heard

Since we've been discussing oversight of Tzedakah, Chillul Hashem, asking Rabbonim for clarification, and so on...

I've written before about the out-of-control Tzedakahs, that seem to be run with no real oversight or transparency. These charities often take huge financial risks that are simply not justifiable, pursue policies at odds with their mandates, and serve as the personal fiefdoms of their directors.

Here's a post about Oorah, a kiruv organization, which I wrote a month ago. Instead of publishing it, I followed the process some have advocated of asking Rabbonim first. In this case, I approached one of Oorah's "Rabbinic advisors" about the concerns raised by a Channel 11 News' investigative report.

I'd become aware of the underlying issue a few years ago, but didn't write about it at the time. I suppose I was hoping that they'd respond to the "wake-up call" of being investigated and make changes. The Channel 11 report made clear that not only did they not make changes in the intervening years, but that they are not open to hearing questions about their practices.

It was the first this Rav had heard of these matters, despite the fact that this issue has been live since at least 2005. He promised me he'd follow up, and did, with some other Rabbonim. At this point, his conclusion is that Oorah will not change their methodology because they feel its legal.

I hope they will reconsider.

Here's my post. Judge for yourselves. The main point is not whether Oorah is allowed to do this, although there are some unanswered questions about that. It's about whether they should do this. It's about Chillul Hashem and public perception. Shouldn't these be factors too? Where's the oversight?

Anyhow, here's the post...


While we're on the subject of those seductive wig-wearing women, here's an ad that charity and wanna-be JM record label Oorah ran in Hamodia on January 30th.

This is just offensive. Paid for with your tzedakah dollars.

(BTW, there's a typo in the Hebrew.)

Presence posted about this in "Oorah Says 'No' to Women." and Musings commented in "Losing My Religion."

In what seems to be a growing trend among the see no evil women crowd, Oorah seems to be only selectively concerned about appearances.

Recently, WPIX TV's News at 10's Fact Finders segment did a piece on Oorah's Kars 4 Kids fundraising arm which you can find here. Click on the "Fact Finders: Charity Standoff" clip which you'll find by scrolling down the available video selections. (Hat tip, E.)

A number of blogs posted about this.

VOS IZ NEIAS posted “Lakewood, NJ - Oorah Organization Scrutinized By TV Channel 11 News“

Chaptzem posted "Oorah's Kars-for-Kids Is Investigated Again."

Dov Bear posted "Oorah's Humiliation."

Emes Ve-Emunah posted "Oorah and Cars-For-Kids."

Gruntig posted "Oorah Vs. Channel 11 Gets Ugly."

The Yeshiva World posted "Open Letter To Channel 11 After Oorah Smear-Campaign Goes Bad."

For those who can't see the video (or are looking after it's been removed), the video is of an investigative news report on Kars 4 Kids, which solicits donations of used cars to benefit for JOY for Our Youth, Inc. According to the Kars 4 Kids website,"J.O.Y. is an international 501(c)(3) charity organization providing for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of distressed and at-risk youth."

The report characterizes as deceptive the way Oorah is using Kars 4 Kids to raise funds for religious purposes, while omitting any mention that the funds go to religious programming from their solicitations and radio ads.

The report points out JOY for Our Youth's website which makes no mention of the fact that the funds are being raised for Jewish outreach. This seems designed to mislead. If not, there would be no reason for J.O.Y.'s existence, as it seems to have only one beneficiary, Oorah. Why create a paper charity that exists solely to fund another charity?

J.O.Y. has posted its 2006 Form 990 on its website. It "granted" Oorah $7,592,384 out of the approximately $9,000,000 it grossed that year. It doesn't appear to have granted funds to any other organization. On the 990, J.O.Y. describes its primary purpose as "ministering to the spiritual and emotional needs of Jewish children and students." That's accurate, because they apparently give all of the funds raised, less 'expenses', to Oorah. It's also a description they eschew on the J.O.Y. website any place other than on the 990 where it is not likely to be noticed by most visitors to the site.

This is not the first time questions have been raised about these practices.

Quick Googling finds these links. I'm sure there are more.

Here's a Bergen Record story published on January 20th, 2008.

Here's a 1/21/08 NY Post story on charities deceptively raising funds for religious purposes.

Here's a Kane County Chronicle article that appeared in November.

Tzvee comments.

Here's a post on this at Don't Tell the

Oorah responded to VIN's posting of the Kane County Chronicle article. The response does not address the main criticism.

Here's a MO Better Business Bureau article from June 5th, 2007, "Want To Donate Your Used Car?", that characterizes Kars 4 Kids as deceptive.

In 2005, Failed Messiah posted about a Saint Louis Post Dispatch report on Oorah/Kars 4 Kids' deceptive advertising.

Here's a discussion on the subject from 2005.

Here's a Yahoo Answers page on "Donating junk car to charity?"

In short, this setup has, at the very least, provoked criticism, and negative press at least since 2005, yet Oorah has done nothing to end the clearly deceptive practice.

These are not the only things Oorah has been criticized for. Marvin Schick writes about Oorah:
No one should be proud of the abysmal record of Oorah, the organization that is adept at public relations and fundraising as it promotes the claim that the money it raises goes to assist Jewish public school families that agree to send their children to a yeshiva or day school. Only a small percentage of its income goes toward this purpose. Furthermore, Staten Island is Oorah’s center of activity. Our schools have approximately one-hundred Oorah students this year and this is at least one-quarter and probably considerably more of all the students that Oorah claims to have placed, yet we will not receive anything this year from the organization. This will add enormously to the financial burden on our Staten Island schools.

Oorah’s wrongdoing is the saddest episode in my more than fifty-five years of devotion to Torah chinuch. I hope that one day I will write at greater length about the moral stain attached to this organization. For now, my prayer and hope is that there will be sufficient concern about the Jewish children whose Jewish future is greatly at risk.
This 2007 post reflects a change of opinion from 2003. In 2003, Schick wrote:
Of the students at the Staten Island schools, notably JFS, 122 are placements through Oorah, a fine kiruv organization that encourages marginally religious parents to send their children to a Jewish school, rather than public school. Oorah subsidizes part of the tuition – about $1,500 per student – which obviously is far below what it costs to provide an effective dual religious and secular educational program.
Is there a reason Oorah stopped helping pay these kids tuition?

If wrong, Schick’s assertion is an easy one for Oorah to disprove. They can do so by providing proof they have given money to Staten Island schools this year. Their public silence speaks volumes.

Back to the video...

In the video, Channel 11 investigative reporter Mary Murphy looks at this fundraising setup critically, gives a run down of the deceptive practice, and pays an unannounced visit to the Kars 4 Kids/JOY for Our Youth/Oorah office in Lakewood, NJ.

Although Murphy's criticism is fair, her visit on Feb. 8th was not, because she'd been informed that Oorah's lawyer, Mark Kurzman, was out of the country until the 10th, and he had scheduled a tentative off-the-record meeting with her on then. Murphy deliberately made an unannounced visit to the charity while he was away. She should have heard him out first. Afterwards, if she still had questions, which is likely, a visit would have been appropriate.

In any event, the purpose for the visit seems to have been to illustrate the fact that Oorah/Kars is hiding something, something it successfully accomplished. Of particular note is the behavior of Oorah employees after an employee, Arlene, refused to answer any questions, criticized Murphy for the unannounced visit, and closed the door. Arlene’s behavior, although impolitic, was understandable. What happened afterwards was not.

While the news crew was leaving, a Kars 4 Kids car raced to the exit to block it and an Oorah employee stood directly in front of the van to prevent it from leaving.

Here are some screenshots:

In this one, you can see the Kars 4 Kids car blocking the exit. The video shows it racing to the exit to block them from leaving. You can also see a man standing directly in front of the car to prevent them from going.

Here are some more shots of the fellow blocking the car.

Here are some pics of Oorah employees videoing the reporter after they've blocked her in.

To me, this videoing looks like it was meant to intimidate.

Nice, ain't it? A real Kiddush Hashem! According to Murphy, the police told her she could press charges for illegal restraint, but she chose not to.

This behavior alone raises serious doubts about Oorah and the judgement of some of the folks there.

Regardless of the reporter's behavior, Oorah ought to be prepared to answer these kinds of legitimate questions, and not just through their lawyer. It's not like this issue hasn't come up before. That Murphy was being sanctimonious, and that she stopped by uninvited, while understandably annoying, is irrelevant.

There are two legitimate questions here. One essentially is: "why does JOY exist at all?" The second is why there's no clear disclosure of -- but rather misdirection about-- Kars 4 Kids and JOY's religious orientation on their respective sites. The issue isn't even that Oorah only provides services to Jewish people, although that's probably a concern too, It's about Oorah’s "Kiruv" (proselytizing) activities

The folks at Oorah need to address these concerns openly and honestly. Thus far their responses --both to VOS IZ NEIS and in a letter read in the video report seem evasive. They need to address the fact that the JOY to Our Youth website and the Kars 4 Kids ads don't mention religious outreach. You really have to hunt around the JOY website to find the only mention of religious outreach on the bottom of the Form 990. It ought to be in clear on the "About Us" page, especially since in their response they assert the following.
What is the reality behind JOY, Oorah and Kars4Kids? Oorah and JOY (Joy for Our Youth) are two separate and distinct organizations with separate boards of directors. Although they share a common purpose, the two organizations have each developed very different approaches to fundraising. JOY had endeavored to raise funds from a broad public base through arranging a successful car donation program. Oorah’s fundraising efforts have not been so broadly targeted.

However, since JOY’s underlying purpose is to provide material and spiritual support for Jewish children and their families, and Oorah has been conducting such programs with great success and efficiency, JOY donates its proceeds to Oorah to implement its purposes.
JOY's "About Us" page makes no mention of this goal, though. The Kars 4 Kids "About Us" page doesn't mention this shared goal either. Shouldn't it be featured prominently? That's where virtually all the money is directed!

To contrast, here's the Salvation Army's "About Us" page.

Note the clear description:
What is The Salvation Army?

The Salvation Army is an integral part of the Christian Church, although distinctive in government and practice. The Army’s doctrine follows the mainstream of Christian belief and its articles of faith emphasise God’s saving purposes. Its objects are ‘the advancement of the Christian religion… of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole.’
As evidenced by the fact that it has come up a few times, this story isn't going to go away, and Oorah really needs to make changes before it gets worse. They're collecting cars all over the country. This means potential Attorney General investigations in every state.

Two options that come immediately to mind are:

1) Eliminate JOY for Our Youth entirely and make clear in all ads/websites etc. that Kars 4 Kids is raising funds for religious outreach.

2) Divide JOY for Our Youth's grant money giving a reasonable percentage of the funds raised to other non-sectarian groups.

Personally, I'd prefer to see the first option. It's open, honest, and less likely to be abused.

I don't know that this constitutes fraud. I'd imagine Oorah's lawyers have parsed that out. However, it certainly is misleading and unethical and that's a Chillul Hashem.

I can only imagine how offended non-Jewish Kars 4 Kids donors would feel if they would know their donation helped pay for ads in Hamodia like the one above.

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine you donated your car to what you thought was a non-sectarian group helping underprivileged youth. Then, after donating your used car, you discovered that the group did help provide support for needy kids, but they did it as part of an attempt at outreach to bring them closer to their religious beliefs. What if it turned out to be Scientology or the Nation of Islam? I in no way intend to compare Oorah's Jewish outreach with those groups, but they serve well to illustrate how we would view raising funds for outreach in this manner as deceptive, were the shoe on the other foot.

A final thought. Although Oorah’s behavior is troubling, ultimately it represents the actions of a few individuals. The sheer number of people attempting to justify this on the various blog comment threads is more disturbing and reflects a serious ethical deficiency in the community.

I hope the community leadership addresses this issue.

For my part, I’ve spoken with one of Oorah’s “rabbinic advisors” about this matter. He was surprised to learn about all of this. I encourage all to speak to the rabbonim they know who endorse Oorah. You can find the list of endorsers here.

Finally, it seems that Oorah does belatedly respond to criticism. Here's their revised ad about an alternative catalog without any pictures of women which appeared on February 20th.

They've changed the offensive email address and corrected the hebrew typo at the top.

Here's hoping they make changes to the Kars4Kids program too.