Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Charity is Not the Answer

Poverty. That is one of the most serious issues facing Charedi Jews in Israel. I’ve been down this road so many times I fear that anything I say will just produce a 'ho hum… so what else is new?'

Because - it seems - this subject has been discussed to death, people will just ignore it, But how can anyone ignore the fact that people who are among the most idealistic dedicated Jews in the world are suffering so greatly?! Is it fair to them that we yawn when we see yet another article about it? I seriously hope not. And neither does Jonathan Rosenblum. He published 'yet another article' about it in Mishpacha Magazine and cross-currents. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz thought it important too and posted the same article on his website.

Many have countered my many posts on the subject by saying that things aren’t as bad as I say they are… or that these idealistic Jews are proud to be Moser Nefesh – giving over their lives - for Torah and accept their poverty with a sort of grace and happy faith in service to God.

But as Jonathan implies - that is a myth. Yes - most are L’Shma. Yes - there are many who have the attitude that they are doing the right thing. But No! - there is no grace. Grinding poverty has a way of eliminating grace from your life. And their families are often anything but happy: Here is are some important excerpts from Jonathan’s article:

The poverty figures are well known. What is less frequently discussed, however, is the toll that crushing poverty takes on individual lives and our society as a whole. I would not go so far as the talmid chacham who recently told me that poverty underlies every one of our problems as a society. But I would say that poverty exacerbates, sometimes greatly, every single problem from drop-out youth to marital discord. Speak to any chareidi social worker, working mainly with low-income clients, and you will quickly understand all the multiple consequences of never-ending financial stress.

Every expert in the field of “at-risk” youth, for instance, will tell you that learning difficulties are a leading predictor of later drop-out. Many early learning problems can be overcome. Tutoring, different forms of remedial therapies, and sometimes drugs or alternative medicine remedies can all play a major role. But tutoring is expensive, often prohibitively so for a family struggling to put food on the table. And even where therapies are covered by health plans, stressed parents, with multiple children to attend to and no car to easily transport the child in need, may simply not take advantage.

If lack of money is the subject of perpetual discussion, not to mention fighting, between parents, then chareidi life may come to be associated in the children’s minds with deprivation and strife. No matter how much genuine mesiras nefesh the parents have made for Torah, the children may focus more on their own deprivation and reject the way of life that they associate with being constantly denied.

Jonathan doesn’t really talk so much about solutions. But rather asks a question implied in the following paragraph:

THREE SOLUTIONS ARE commonly offered to the destructive poverty in the Israeli chareidi community (though the problem is hardly limited to Israel): greater government support; increased contributions from rich Jews abroad; and adopting a simpler lifestyle. Each is a thin reed upon which to pin hopes for a solution.

A thin reed! I couldn’t agree more. These ‘solutions’ - even of they were do-able are not enough to tackle a problem which have been festering for so long and growing exponentially - with the potential to destroy many thousands of lives.

So the question remains, what can be done? Most people who read this blog regularly will know my answer to this question. It’s a one word answer: Education.

The only real solution to begin tackling the poverty situation is doing what it takes to find good jobs. And that means getting the kind of education that will enable one to do that.

It has been pointed out in the past that there are many Chredim in Israel who have gotten good jobs. That their training in learning Gemarah has sharpened their skills and that those skills will enable them to get good jobs and make a decent living. But I question that.

The good jobs that are often found in industry require good educations - the kind you get in a university. Human resources in those companies look for that. They require it. Don’t bother applying for a job without it. The better the education the better the job offer. Microsoft and Intel do not look for an individuals that have honed their skills on Abaye and Rava. They look for people who have degrees in their fields - who are the top of their game and educated to meet their specific needs. A resume that consists primarily of ten years in R’ Avrohom Yhoshua’s Brisk will be laughed at. The want Ivy League or the closest thing they can get to it.

And then there is the matter of large families. I’m not suggesting God forbid that all Charedim start using birth control after they fulfill the Mitzvah of Pru U’vu – which according to most means having one boy and one girl.

But there is a huge gap between 2 children and 10 children– which is not all that uncommon. While financial situations should never be the sole determinant of how large one’s family should be, who says one must produce such large families at all costs? I recently heard of a Charedi mother of 7 who went for fertility treatments after having trouble getting pregnant after her 7th child! This is not as uncommon as one might think I’m told.

Large families were not always the case until recent times. Infant mortality rates were much higher in the old days and that reduced the size of families. As recently as the last century (in pre holocaust Europe) children in large families were expected to help out with the family finances by either working in a family business or getting some kind of job at a very early age.

Only the best and brightest were recruited to a Yeshiva to learn full time. But now the opposite is happening. All children are sent Yeshivos and families are expected to support them – sometimes for decades well into a marriage! And buying them apartments is pro forma. 10 children equals 10 apartments!

Until these issues are properly dealt with by rabbinic leaders, the poverty will continue and the problems resulting from it will increase. There has been some gradual change but way to little and way too slow. How much longer can this go on? How many more dropouts do there have to be before the current Charedi system in Israel changes?