Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Free Rider Stipend Program

An article by Elliot Resnick in last week’s Jewish Press truly resonated with me. I’ve written about it before.

Do not be misled by the title: Society’s Proud Parasites. It is an unfortunate title and one I would not have used. The word ‘parasite’ almost guarantees that the writer will be discounted by the very community that needs his Musar the most.

But his message is nonetheless very true. And the problem he speaks of goes a lot deeper than his article suggests. I believe the phenomenon he speaks of goes to the heart of a problem that has had major repercussions for religious Jewry over the past couple of years. It is about an attitude of entitlement that is pervasive in the world of American Yeshivos and Kollelim. It is an attitude that has led to abuse of America’s legendary generosity to its poor.

As Mr. Resnick points out much of this abuse is legal. Technically many newlywed Avreichm in places like Lakewood qualify for various welfare programs – even if they are able bodied and come from comfortable backgrounds. But since Kollel stipends are nearly negligible they need to supplement their income in other ways. Even working Kollel wives often do not make enough to make ends meet and the combined family income is often so low - it qualifies for many of the government programs designed for the truly poor. These young married couples see it as a legitimate source of supplementary income.

There is no embarrassment about it. In fact If I understand correctly Yeshivos like Lakewood encourage it as long as it is technically legal. I suppose they feel since they can’t afford to pay decent stipends to their Yungeleit, why not use the system – as long as it does not violate the law? Mr. Resnick has observed that the attitude of many of them is: "Many undeserving Americans receive welfare benefits, so why shouldn't we?"

But what kind of message does this send? I think it sends a message that one can not only abuse the system legally but even illegally as long as they don’t get caught.

This is demonstrated by an even more egregious practice by some Avreichim. It may in fact be legal but it is truly disgusting, as deceptive as can be, and a gross misuse of the welfare system. From the article:

Another trick I just learned about involves couples remaining unmarried - from a secular legal point of view. By marrying religiously under a Chuppah but not civilly in city hall, some couples can continue to receive government benefits they would lose if legally married. How do they justify their behavior? "We're simply living together like so many other unmarried American men and women do"

I don’t know how many couples do this, but it is truly disgusting and in my view it violates Halacha – even if it is legal (Is it?). It is G’neivas Daas! Couples can have a huge wedding and the most Mehadrin Chupah V’Kiddushin. But by not obtaining a legal marriage license, they can apparently claim they are not legally married and receive the financial reward from the government!

But it doesn’t stop there. Apparently cheating the government is not beneath many of them – all without any guilt!

From the article:

The sad fact is that many of these young newlywed Orthodox Jews don't even really qualify for government welfare programs. They cheat and lie to receive their money. Some of them have part-time jobs - the women almost certainly do - and make too much money to qualify for government benefits. To avoid such "technical" obstacles, they ensure that a portion of their salary remains "off the books," sometimes funneled through non-profit organizations.

Again I don’t know how pervasive this is. But based on the behavior of prominent Rabbanim and Chasidic Rebbes who have been arrested and/or convicted of various illegal financial scams such as laundering money via kickback of charitable contributions – I wouldn’t be surprised that this kind of fraud is pretty big.

But to whatever extent it exists it is wrong. Even if in those instances that its legal. The Toraha world is raising a bunch of potential criminals who are being led to believe that such behavior is not only permissible but laudatory.

I realize that times are tough. The economy is still affecting the financial condition of Yeshivos and Kollelim. they operate on deficits. I'm sure the rabbinic leadership that encourages this legal chicanery sees it as vital to their existence. But at what price? Do they not understand what message they send? Do they not see what is going on around them? How many more arrests will it take? How many perp walks by Chasidic Rebbes and Rabbanim do we need before someone does something about this?

If I understand correctly Rav Aharon Kotler had about three hundred students in his Yeshiva when he died. I doubt that a single one of them took even one dollar from a government welfare program. I would be willing to bet that most of those 300 truly dedicated students did not live at anywhere near the lifestyle of today’s Avreich. They believed in the Talmud’s axiom quoted in this article:

Better that one's Shabbos meals resemble one's weekday meals than to rely on others for help. (Shabbos 118a).

Today there are over 5000 students in his Yeshiva with plans for a major expansion. When is this community going to wake up and see how much damage they are doing by treating government welfare as their own supplementary stipend program for Avreichim?