From the Frum Follies archives. First posted 1/13/2011
Askan is a noun derived from the verb osek (to involve oneself or engage oneself). The classic reference is in Yekum Purkan (may salvation arise) a prayer recited on Sabbath after torah reading asking for “blessing and good fortune for those engaged in torah and communal endeavors and all who support the community with acts of tzedakah (righteous charity).” The key sentence for this discussion invokes blessings on “all who are engage themselves (oskim) in the needs of the community, b’emunah (in faith or faithfully).
I am told that the Sanzer Rebbe once said “There is a special place in heaven for such people but it remains empty, because most of them are not doing it b’emunah.” I suppose he meant that most of them are self-interested wheeler-dealers.
Yekum Purkan continues on, “May the Holy One, Blessed is He, pay them their reward and remove from them every infliction, heal their entire body, and forgive their every iniquity (viyislach lichol avonam). This I can understand. When someone committed to the common good acts conscientiously and errs in good faith, we want them forgiven. I will forgive a doctor who takes a prudent risk in an ambiguous situation and ends up harming a patient. But if a doctor operates needlessly to make money and kills a patient I want the SOB locked up.
Until 45 years ago people did not routinely speak of a special person known as an askan. We really owe the rise of the modern askan to President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his war on poverty. He recognized that poor folks are less politically active than others. LBJ, the consummate wheeler-dealer, wanted to create political support for his “war on poverty.” He decided to generate a political base by passing out a lot of new funds through community-based organizations. He correctly predicted that organizations would be created to secure these funds and these organizations would rally the beneficiaries to work and vote for the Democratic Party. Boy did he succeed. Poverty became chic and grassroots organizations sprang up faster than weeds in the spring. Race and ethnicity sprang to the fore as a basis for organizing services and political activity. It may have first been intended for African-Americans but it ended up including Latinos, Native Americans, Jews, and many other groups. Askanim emerged to solicit grants and distribute it to the community. People may not have loved these folks, but almost everyone was happy to share in the largesse. Askan became a regular part of Jewish political vocabulary. It is Jewish speak for poverty pimp. These are the brokers who try to shape Jewish voting behavior and trade it for programs. A lot of them do surprisingly well for themselves brokering deals.
I adore the few askanim whose efforts aren’t tainted by self-interest. But I despise our empire builders, poverty pimps and manipulators. Yekum Purkan does not invoke any blessings on them.