Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Myth of Chasidic Material Success

There has been a lot of discussion on the Internet about the poverty rate in Kiryas Joel. It is the highest in the nation. 66% of the population in Kiryas Joel lives below the poverty line. The median income of Kiryas Joel residents is $15,848.00. That means that fully one half of their population makes less money than that.

I have to wonder how they do it. How do they pay their mortgages or rent? Heat and electricity? Clothing? Transportation and education costs?

Food stamps pays for some of the food. Welfare payments only go so far. Many of these families are very large. 10 or more children are not that uncommon. How do they live with any sense of sanity?

One of the myths perpetuated by those who say that a secular education – or more specifically a college education - is not needed is to point to how successful the Chasidic community is without it. Many Chasidim seem to do quite well. There are the wealthy diamond merchants - the majority of whom are Chasidim. There are also successful Chasidic entrepreneurs who have built businesses like electronics giant B&H.

But clearly these are the exceptions. Kiryas Joel is made up of virtually all Satmar Chasidim who are mostly very poor – surviving on government handouts.

This seems to explode the myth that one can make a living without having a decent secular education or that one can avoid learning modern day skills like how to use a computer.

One of the most striking features about Chasidic communities is their isolation from the outside world. That is one of the reasons for the existence of places like Kiryas Joel. The residents there have virtually no contact with the rest of the world. That is how they deal with negative influences. They over-shelter in the extreme. They so reject their host environments that they learn to speak English only as a second language! – Yiddish being their first and most important. I have been told that some Chasidic Rabbanim consider it a negative if one learns to speak English too well!

If there was ever a model for the folly of over sheltering - this community is it. There is a lesson to be learned here. If one wants to have any chance at avoiding poverty – getting a secular education is an important step in the right direction. Even if it is only for purposes of Parnassa.

As it stands now, I do not see the situation improving much. The population is growing exponentially. So too is the poverty. I think their Chasidic leaders ought to re-think how they deal with their issues. In trying to solve one issue they have created another. And once there is a critical mass of the poverty stricken they will rebel. How much poverty can this community handle? Will they remain a welfare community in perpetuity? Will their isolationist practices never be breached? Will they forever be able to keep the outside world and their middle class lifestyles out? ...lifestyles enabled by decent jobs? available only to those with decent educations?

Just some random thoughts about implications about the current state of Kiryas Joel.