Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Sacred Cow

If these is one thing that there is almost unanimous agreement about in Charedi cirlcles – it is making ends meet. That is the number one concern on their radar screen. Bigger than ‘Kids at Risk’ and Shiduchim according to Although certainly these are related issues.

Both Maztav and Jonathan Rosenblum have addressed this issue recently. And so have I. many times.

The problem is widespread and growing. And yet no one seems to be willing to do what’s necessary to change things. There are ways in which the material well being of Charedim could be improved. But none of those things have been done. It would mean a complete and total re-evaluation and over-haul of the Charedi Hashkafa.

It would mean placing far more importance on secular education beginning at a younger age and throughout high school. It would mean placing college education in a far more positive light. It would mean promoting vocational schools as a valuable means of getting good jobs. It would mean placing the working man on a much higher level than he currently is. It would mean valuing the working man rather than devaluing him.

The fact is that many Charedim – those that I call moderate - are already ‘bucking the system’. In fact rabbinic leaders are not really all that discouraging of them unofficially. Moderate Charedim are getting decent educations; attending college and professional schools. But because the official stance of their Hashkafa is to promote only learning Torah as a value - they do it apologetically. But… at least those that do so are generally getting good jobs. The system is therefore in a bit of a self correcting mode. As individuals many Charedim are in fact doing better. But as a group they are not doing that well. Especially in Israel.

Of course in Israel there is the additional problem of army service. That is a major impediment to Charedim. They generally do not serve. As a matter of Israeli law, one may not join the workforce unless he has served in the army. Nachal Charedi was created to remedy this problem. But though it is growing in numbers it is still in its infancy. As a percentage of the whole very few Charedim are participating. Charedi rabbinic leaders are at best divided about approving it. Suffice it to say that their leaders would have to make a major change in their attitude about Nachal Charedi in order to make it a more successful.

Tacit support is nice but it is not enough. Unless they change their official position there will be far too many Charedim that will opt to ‘tough it out’ and stay in Kollel. Their wives will continue to be in the workforce and trying to raise the children while their husbands stay in Kollel for many years. Many - perhaps even most withstand the Shalom Bayis issues which result from a life of debt – with rarely any extras. But there are far too many who do not withstand those pressures and can become dysfunctional. These are the families who tend in greater numbers go ‘Off the Derech’.

I’ve said in the past - there has to be options besides learning full time. And they have to be supported more than tacitly. It cannot be learn or die.

Nor is a college education for everyone. Not every Charedi is cut out for college. The Charedi population as a group probably spans the entire spectrum of intelligence, talent, and abilty. They do not all have equal ability and should have many options put before them as legitimate!

The truth of the matter is that even if all this was implemented today and everyone got a good job it would not provide enough income for them to support a large family. Even for those making six figure incomes. That seems to be an area of agreement among all Charedim.

Large families are a sacred cow in the Torah world. I can certainly understand that. I am the last one to tell anyone how many children to have. How can I? Every human life is precious. How can anyone object to producing as much precious human life as one can?

And yet that seems to be the crux of the problem. Large families need extraordinary incomes just to make ends meet. That is very understandable.

Let us use a family of ten children as the prototype. Not an unusual number for many Charedi families. If one has ten children to feed, clothe, house, and educate - where is he going to get the money to do that? Two parent working families are not uncommon in moderate Charedi families and yet there still isn’t enough?

What can easily end up happening is that everything suffers. The family structure can break down when both parents work so hard and still don’t make enough. How do parents like this spend any quality time with their children? How does one learn with 10 children, or help them all with their homework?

And financial pressures play havoc on children who cannot get even some of the basic extras that smaller families afford their children. Can anyone imagine what it costs to buy ten bicycles? How can one think about a bike when weekly grocery bills for such families are so huge? Of course most such familes try to do it anyway even if they can’t afford it. How can you deny a child a bike?! Or never take a vacation? They just go into debt.

Taking a trip by airplane anywhere in the world costs a fortune. Then there are ‘little’ things called weddings - and if you live in Israel buying apartments for the young couple - or at least paying for the down payment. Ten times!

Inevitably - the quality of education in communities with large families has to suffer. Parents are squeezed to pay every available dollar towards tuition. But there is no way that the average family pays even close to covering the cost of each of their ten children’s education. Typically a family gets maxed out at a certain number – based on their income. Nonetheless every child gets accepted into the school. If a parent is maxed out a 20,000 dollars per yearin tuition payments (20% 0f a $100,000 per year income!) which at a bare minimum might cover two of their children the other eight will cost the school $80,000 out pocket! And that’s just for one family. That’s why in some of these schools class sizes are so large with as many as 45 – 50 per classroom! And teachers are owed back pay for months at a time!

And this doesn’t even address the issue of dropouts. Although large class size can easily contribute to that.

Why should it be axiomatic that every Charedi family be so large? Yes - children are wonderful assests for Klal Yisroel, but shouldn’t there be at least some financial accountability? Should we be promoting large family sizes in every single case? Are there no other considerations ever taken into account?

I know this is a sacred cow. Anyone who dares suggest that the Torah world even consider birth control for any but the most dire circumstances is looked upon as a near Rasha. How dare we tell anyone to limit their family size?!

Like I said - I agree with that statement. No one should tell anyone how many children to have. But at the same time no one talks about the responsibilities that go along with that. The financial burden on large families even with good incomes is – as Rabbi Yosef Shubert put it in Matzav – an impossibility! Is this what the Torah demands of us? Impossiblity?

And what about the dysfunction in families that are not emotionally equipped to have large families?

Is there no scenario where Charedi families may be told to consider birth control? Must virtually every married couple be indoctrinated to have many children – whether they can handle it or not?

As this community continues to grow exponentially - their sources of outside income are going to dry up. Future generations will not have parents who can afford to help them out. I don’t know if anything will change. But one thing I do know is that this current situation cannot last. Something will have to give. The only question is… What!