Tuesday, April 08, 2008

By the Sweat of Your Brow

One of the bitterest complaints by the Charedi community in Israel has been about the severe cuts in recent years of financial aid by the government to its members. This was done by a government that finally decided to do something about its economic problems.

By eliminating or reducing some of its social welfare programs it took a decided turn toward a more productive economy. The one group most affected by these cuts were the poverty stricken Charedim. Subsidies to large families were severely cut. This caused great hardship on Charedim whose families tend to be much larger than the average Israeli family. Charedi leadership took these austerity measures personally calling them discriminatory and anti Torah.

What they never say is why the Charedim are so poor. Men are discouraged from working because of their indoctrination to stay in learning full time. And because working is permitted in Israel only after army service. For income, they rely on government assistance and on Kollel wives who are encouraged to work to help their husbands stay in Kollel. But even there - they limit their incomes via a policy opposed to too much formal post high school study… even in Limudei Kodesh!

So when the subsidies were reduced. There was an outcry by the leadership. They condemned the Israeli government as being anti Torah… a common refrain. Many turned to their American counterparts appealing for more financial support. But it wasn’t enough. The result was even more poverty for Charedim - already straining under a system that encourages a lifestyle that almost gaurantees it.

But those conditions have resulted in a very positive development. One which the government not only approves of, but helps to support: From a Jerusalem Post article:

...more government money is being spent on child care for working mothers, training centers appropriate to the haredi lifestyle, and even subsidizing the salaries of new employees. This is in contrast to a government that, according to the central bank, spends relatively little on worker training, when compared to other developed countries.

So much for the ‘anti Charedi’ Israeli government.

Yes, more Charedim are going to work. And they are being trained to do so. Although not anywhere near enough:

The figures for the year of 2006 show haredi poverty rates dropping from 64% to 59%.

A huge majority of the Charedi population still lives in poverty! But at least it’s beginning to change. How much it will change remains to be seen. I think it depends on how the leadership reacts to this development. Do they welcome it? Or do they see it as a departure from their Hashkafos?

As wonderful as this development is I question whether there has been any real change in the attitude that is in large part responsible for the poverty.

There might be a slight adjustment in the thinking of the typical Charedi as reflected in this comment:

The men who left the yeshiva world in his native Bnei Brak, Pinchas said, were once looked down upon, but now it is accepted that a haredi Jew can avidly keep the mitzvot while maintaining a secular profession.

This seems to be a grass roots feeling. But will it replace the promoted Hashkafa to stay Kollel for as long as possible and the accompanying attitude that looks down on the working class?

I haven’t heard nor read any comments by the Charedi leadership one way or the other. But my gut feeling is that nothing has changed in Charedi thinking in Israel. Because if it did, it would make headlines in every Jewish Newspaper - Charedi and secular.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope there is the dawn of a new era where working is treated as a legitimate option. That would change things. And there would probably be an explosion of Charedim who would train for decent jobs. And poverty levels would be reduced to at least the national averages if not more. Those who are destined for Torah greatness would remain in learning full time. The rest would be treated as normal and healthy citizens of a revitalized Charedi society. The result will be a healthy Torah world where learning Torah is ‘King’ but where working is an honorable and respected choice too. Time will tell.