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.”