Bad Translations Make Good Ad Copy

Several months ago, Rav Matisyahu Solomon shlit”a, mashgiach of Lakewood’s famed Beis Medrash Gavoha, denounced the advertising of Kupat Ha’ir as theft — convincing those in desperate situations that all they need to do is donate to Kupat Ha’ir and they will certainly see a positive result. Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein described the dialogue between Rav Solomon and Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, contrasting both Rav Kanievsky’s letters of endorsement and the actual good done by the organization with the “horrific copy” written by the marketing mavens in the United States.

The most recent advertising supplement from Kupat Ha’ir, a 24 page, full-color glossy appendage to Mishpacha, claims that Rav Kanievsky “endorses the publicity.” It also, to the discerning reader, verifies both Rav Solomon’s critique and Rav Adlerstein’s carefully articulated line between the operators of the Kupah in Bnei Brak and the English-language marketing engine.

The first thing we notice is that Rav Kanievsky’s letter of “six concise, moving lines” is so incredible, so truly mind-boggling, “a thousand witnesses to the awesome merit of every Jew who is a partner” — that the marketing geniuses couldn’t be bothered to translate the vast majority of it. That is perhaps because the letter itself is unremarkable, a straightforward endorsement of the activities of the charity distributors, their credibility and trustworthiness. Rav Kanievsky says that it is a great mitzvah to help them, and says that anyone who donates is as if he has donated to thousands of needy individuals. All of this, of course, is no different than what he might write about the activities of dozens of other charitable organizations in Israel, the United States, and in other locations around the world.

Save for final words of blessing to donors, the letter closes with a line which — in context — is derived directly from Ma’amarei Chazal, the teachings of our Sages, and is equally applicable to all those other organizations as well. “U’K’dai Hee Tzedakah L’Kupah Zu L’Hagen U’L’Hoshia al HaTormim MiKol Tzarah v’Tzukah.” My translation: and charity to this organization is fitting to shield and rescue the donors from all pains and sorrows. As I said, this too is totally unremarkable. No one who claims familiarity with “Tzedakah Tatzil Mimaves” (Charity saves from death), much less the High Holy Days’ loud declaration that “Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the Evil Decree,” can find anything in the least controversial — or anything different from what one would say about charity given to any other organization feeding our needy brethren or supporting Torah study.

The first time they translate this line of the letter — the only line they bothered to translate — the marketers provide a correct (if misspelled) translation: “Tzedakah to Kupat Ha’ir is wothwhile [sic] to protect and rescue contributors from every distressful situation.” They then claim that this phrase not merely “summarizes why it is worthwhile to give one’s tzedakah money to Kupat Ha’ir” — as if it were exclusive, as if giving tzedakah to this organization was somehow different than donations to other tzedakos — but that Rav Kanievsky “directly addresses the ‘I Contributed and Merited a Yeshuah’ [salvation, rescue] phenomenon.”

Of course, donations to other organizations are different, in that a far higher percentage of the funds go to the needy rather than to publish 24 pages of drivel. But that is most assuredly not what they meant. And it is completely ridiculous to claim that what HaGaon Reb Chaim shlit”a wrote in any way endorses the publication of miracle stories, along with the clear implication that making a donation to this one organization will cause miracles to happen for the donor as well.

This implication is made almost explicit, as the quote is then repeated on the top of every facing page of the rest of the insert, with a subtly distorted if not falsified translation: “It is worthwhile to rely on tzedakah to Kupat Ha’ir to protect and rescue contributors from every distressful situation.” Needless to say, at no time and in no place did Reb Chaim shlit”a use any word that could possibly be translated as “rely.”

The Talmud famously tells us that if a person gives charity “in order that my son will live,” that person is “completely righteous.” Our Sages explain that even when a person gives charity with that sort of “condition,” he will not regret his decision if the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not fulfill the condition. We know that G-d is good and His actions are good, even when they are not what we would pray for. There’s no promise, there’s no guarantee. Nothing in the Gemara or in Reb Chaim’s words says that we can rely upon charity, much less any one charity, to perform miracles on our behalf.

It’s simply wrong to regard any one charity as “the miracle Tzedakah” — as wrong as it is to falsify the words of one of the leading lights of our generation.

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11 Responses

  1. Avigdor Loeb says:

    Oh, Yaakov, another anti-Charedi screed! 🙂 Chag kasher v’sameach!

  2. Joe Hill says:

    — as if it were exclusive, as if giving tzedakah to this organization was somehow different than donations to other tzedakos —

    It seems that your entire criticism rests on this point. Yet I still don’t see where the ad claimed that Rav Chaim said that “this organization was somehow different than donations to other tzedakos”.

    And it is completely ridiculous to claim that what HaGaon Reb Chaim shlit”a wrote in any way endorses the publication of miracle stories

    Which wording in the ad, English or Hebrew, claimed Rav Chaim endorses or opposes the publication of miracle stories?

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    The very words I quoted respond to both of Joe’s questions — but if he believes that my “entire criticism rests” on the attempt to differentiate Kupat Ha’ir from other worthy tzedakos, Joe needs to go back and reread my essay from top to bottom, since he missed more than he caught on the first pass.

    I object to 24-page glossies — it is true that it “takes money to make money,” but this is extreme, and there’s something quite amiss when all the work in Israel is done by dedicated volunteers while tens of thousands of dollars are spent on advertising. The manipulation of Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s words is grotesque. And they claim you can rely upon a donation to bring a yeshuah, which Rav Matisyahu Solomon called gezel gamur. No, it’s not only about the differentiation, as wrong and manipulative as it may be.

    Now, to the two quotes Joe selected. First, “why it is worthwhile to give one’s tzedakah money to Kupat Ha’ir” claims that this organization is different than other Tzedakos. It does not say “why it is worthwhile to give Tzedakah” or “to give more Tzedakah,” but “to give one’s tzedakah money,” the money one allocates to charity, “to Kupat Ha’Ir” instead of wherever else you might have planned to give.

    Second, the entire 24 pages is about miracle stories, and opens with Reb Chaim’s letter. They claimed that this line from his letter “directly addresses the ‘I Contributed and Merited a Yeshuah’ phenomenon,” and thus justifies the glossy. They repeated the line, with the word “rely” added, on every single facing page (one side English, the other, Hebrew). It could not possibly be more obvious, but here is the end of that two-page opening:

    it is the holy Torah that is the basis for “I Contributed and Merited a Yeshuah.” Rav Kanievsky, shlit”a, wrote it down so everyone would know. Kupat Ha’ir relies on the Gedolei Hador. And you rely on tzedakah, and merit salvation.

    This is followed by 20 pages of miracles that happened after donations to Kupat Ha’ir. To make their claim of Reb Chaim’s endorsement more clear would require a sledgehammer.

  4. YEA says:

    In all fairness, it should be noted that the Kupat Hair pamphlets contain some of the best humor writing available today.

  5. Joe Hill says:

    Reb Yaakov, I appreciate your addressing my points. Can you please clarify how you are confident that “tens of thousands of dollars are spent on advertising”? And if that is the case, what makes you believe that does not represent only a justifiably small enough percent of the revenue generated from that advertising (that would not otherwise have been generated)?

    First, “why it is worthwhile to give one’s tzedakah money to Kupat Ha’ir” claims that this organization is different than other Tzedakos. It does not say “why it is worthwhile to give Tzedakah” or “to give more Tzedakah,” but “to give one’s tzedakah money,” the money one allocates to charity, “to Kupat Ha’Ir” instead of wherever else you might have planned to give.

    This is where I strenuously disagree with you and I believe you are unnecessarily splitting hairs here. As far as the first quote I cited above from your original post, I don’t see how the organization is saying that giving to another worthy tzedaka will not derive the same benefits advertised for giving to Kupat. Sure, they promote the benefits by giving it to Kupat, while not specifically saying that if you give it to Tomchei Shabbos or giving tzedaka in general will get the same benefits, but I don’t know why that would be necessary for them to specify. It seems to me they have a right to raise funds for their tzedaka by promoting the benefits cited by Chazal and mentioned in Rav Chaim’s letter. I do not see them saying — implicitly or explicitly — that you ONLY will get this benefit by giving it to them and no other tzedaka. It seems to me you are assuming an implication where there isn’t one. I apologize if I missed a point in either your post or response.

    I do have trouble understanding why they would present miracle stories like you mentioned, and am not arguing on your taking issue with that. And this is what Rav Matisyahu Solomon’s cited criticism is focused on. Not on having too glossy advertising and not on spending too much on advertising. But rather on over-promising specific miracles to desperate people looking for shidduchim or other various needs.

    Chag Kosher V’Sameach

  6. BenShaul says:

    i remind the readers- that as i posted on the original article , i verified from Reb Matisyohu himself that he never spoke to Reb Chaim directly, but sent a message via a member of the household.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    Joe Hill is missing the forrest for the trees, in my opinion. First of all, whomever has the advertising contract is making money because one doesn’t put togethera 24 page insert for peanuts (especially on Pesach when we don’t eat peanuts). Secondly, the periodical gets a nice boost from the revenue and if it weren’t profitable to the charity, they wouldn’t pay the big bucks.Does glitzy advertising get attention and increase revenue? Absolutely. In the words of P.T. Barnum, ” A sucker is born every day”.

    This shows that many people are desperate and looking for a short cut to salvation.Hasn’t that been what distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism from an offshoot that veered so far away that they became a new religion which is celebrating a big holiday this weekend. Is promising Yeshuos authentic Judaism? The second question is what is with Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a? Is his endorsement of this and many other advertising campaigns promising results for bucks an endorsement of this approach to religion, is he telling me that the road to instant salvation is based not on works but on grace, just give to Kupat Hair and believe in the power of salvation and you are guaranteed a seat in Heaven. One simply can’t believe that he is being manipulated and is totally unaware of what he is doing. After all, the is just one of many great rabbis in Israel who have their pictures taken putting money in a pushka, whatever that means.

    In short, it strikes at the foundations of our faith and is not a minor matter. Is this Judaism?

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    I agree with most of what Rabbi Oberstein wrote about Kupat Ha’ir’s advertising, but, just to be clear about this, there is nothing unusual or unexpected about Reb Chaim’s hamlatza letter regarding the Kupah. The marketing folks want you to believe otherwise, and they are entirely responsible for the distortion of his words. Nothing in the letter itself indicates any awareness on his part regarding how his words have been turned into a pretzel in English. And just in time for Pesach no less!

    Joe’s comments are usually pretty reasonable, but he’s really missing the boat here. If you have a rough idea of Mishpacha’s circulation and/or the cost of printing a 24-page full color glossy, there’s no room to question whether “tens of thousands of dollars” were spent in order to create, design and insert that glossy into the Pesach issue. Over a year their ad expenses might well reach six figures, but that I couldn’t tell you.

    As for whether I am splitting hairs, similarly, Joe must not have seen their ads — I do not think anyone who has will agree with his position. Why it is worthwhile to give one’s tzedakah money to Kupat Ha’ir is not at all the same thing as what would be intended had they even dropped the word “one’s,” and they very clearly imply that donations to Kupat Ha’ir are superior to donations to Tomchei Shabbos or others. As I see it, I’m not splitting hairs… but Joe is dismissing the Grand Canyon as merely a pothole.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    As much as I would like it to be otherwise, I find it hard to assume that a godol is totally oblivious to how he is being “handled” by others. At the least, he is passive about it because the cause itself is worthwhile and the need is great. No one suspects that he or anyone else in his league benefits personally from this situation. There was a situation in Baltimore where this organization wanted to get the signatures of local rabbonim and had minimal success. However, one leading personality more in tune with Eretz Yisroeldike culture felt that it was ok to sign on as this is necessary to raise needed funds for poor people. Just as their “Kol korei’s” are over the top, their tzedaka solicitation approach is exagerated. It is just the way it is done. I heard this third hand and maybe the one who is reputed to have said it didn’t say it, but it fits into a certain way of thinking that is not the way we think in this country.
    I just can’t imagine any of the gedolim that I had any contact with being so naive and manipulated. Maybe they are not naive, but accept that the donors believe this way. Does that make it any better, not in my mind.

  10. Yaakov Menken says:

    The problem is that not only is there a tremendous need, but the charity itself goes about its work in an exemplary way. It’s all volunteers! R’ Chaim gave them a hamlatza that is completely appropriate — small, if anything. There is a reason why these guys couldn’t be bothered to translate most of the letter… the letter itself doesn’t support their agenda. On their website, you can see recordings of them pestering Gedolim to get them to address the “great success” of this organization in particular, which is more the result of advertising dollars than anything else.

    The Baltimore story which I heard, which is of course thirdhand as well (but comes from a member of the Neuburger family), concerns what happened when the organization approached Rav Heinemann. He is reported to have responded that he has a personal mofeis story involving the organization. He was about to travel to Israel, and discovered that he had misplaced his passport. He didn’t donate a penny to Kupat Ha’Ir, and he still found his passport. A mofeis!

    I can’t tell you whether this actually happened, but it does sound like something he might have said.

  11. ZCR says:

    I have a scanned image of a well known Tzedakah organization in Israel – guaranteeing that if yor request is not answered in 12 months they will return your donation!! If and admin contacts me, I can send the file.

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