Sunday, April 18, 2010


Is there light at the end of the tunnel? An article in the Jerusalem Post indicated that there might just be.

There is no doubt by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that when it comes to the future financial viability of the Charedi world in Israel, their system is bankrupt. The recent Taub Center report is nothing more than a reinforcement of facts already well known to all except for some of the hardcore Charedi apologists who will forever remain in denial.

The solution to the problem is – or should be – just as obvious. Let me use three little words to describe it: education, education, education! It is the lack of it that is at the core. There are other issues but if Charedim were educated in various job skills and worldly matters so as to be able to integrate more easily into the workforce, a major hurdle would be eliminated. In my view all other problems would eventually become minor at most and hopefully completely disappear.

The reason this hasn’t happened is because of a 20th century phenomenon: the mass acceptance of a philosophy that treats learning Torah full time as the only path one may take - and as a corollary - that secular studies should be avoided in any formal study.

I do not see that attitude changing - at least among the Charedi rabbinic leadership in Israel.

But there are cracks in the wall. Very tiny ones - but cracks nonetheless. One of the leading Charedi Gedolim - Rav Aharon Leib Steinman has supported small scale limited career education for Charedim. I doubt however that he supports it as a policy or paradigm change. But at least he has in the past expressed positive views about training Charedim to able to support their families.

His views are not unchallenged though. Other rabbinic leaders oppose it. If I am not mistaken the reason they do is because they think it may undermine the entire Yeshiva system if too many Yeshivaleit and Avreichim take advantage of it. They apparently believe that public advocacy would almost surely empty the Batei Midrashim – Torah study halls! But as tiny as this crack is - it’s there. And some Charedim have taken advantage of it.

To that end a modern Orthodox Jew by the name of Moshe Lebel has stepped up and done something about it. This is no ordinary individual. From the Jerusalem Post:

Lebel received a graduate degree in applied physics at the Hebrew University, and also studied industrial management at Tel Aviv University. After his discharge, he served as chief engineer at Tadiran’s crystal quartz unit, and then engineered systems for projects at Tadiran Communications. He launched and managed two companies – one making microwave and radar parts and the other computerized examination systems.

BEING A professional examiner of R&D projects in the Chief Scientists’ Office of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and an adviser to the Defense Ministry on local and foreign industrial firms are also on his resume. He also taught at the Jerusalem College of Technology and TAU’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, but the father of five and grandfather of 11 now works as an independent consultant. He has been especially busy since 1999 supervising electromechanic systems of CityPass’s Jerusalem streetcar network for the government. He even invented a device, now standard, that determines the exact colors of diamonds.
But that is not all. He has also created a program called Shahar:

(Shahar has gotten) haredi yeshiva students who studied Talmud but no English, science or math to join private industry as computer programmers and the IDF as vehicle mechanics while supporting their families. Some have even gone on to graduate as engineers...

For a fuller description of who he is and what he does I encourage everyone to read the article.

Shahar is not a panacea. It is a huge opening with great potential but it will not solve the problem entirely. For one thing it only deals with the select few who are bright enough to skip any formal secular education and learn what’s needed at a very high level.

What level is that? How many of us could skip any secular education and become graduate engineers via a crash course in the English language and a few other skills? It is true that the advanced Torah learning gives them an advantage that uneducated secular Jews do not have. But that does not replace the formal learning that would normally take place throughout one’s educational life.

There are probably a lot of uneducated Charedi Avreichim who cannot learn English ‘overnight’ the way those selected by Shahar. It is only the best and brightest among them who are chosen that can accomplish doing anything like that.

To be clear, I do not advocate recruiting the best and brightest among those Avreichim whose aptitude and motivation makes them most suited to their current task of learning Torah full time and less suited for other pursuits. But there are plenty of Avreichim that are just coasting.

They plateau and put in their time but have no real future other than more of the same. And there is the burden of poverty imposed by their circumstances upon their often very large families. I therefore advocate a carefully designed program to analyze which students would be better off staying in learning and which students would be better off getting jobs.

After all is said and done. Shahar is a good start. I’m happy to read the following:

The Shahar program has been carried out with the approval of haredi rabbis. Most of the yeshiva students are hassidim, but there are former Lithuanian-style yeshiva students as well.

I doubt that the approval is universal. An as I said earlier it will not totally solve the problem. There are many who will not qualify or even be motivated to try. As I’ve said many times. There has to be a paradigm shift. Once that happens, Chareidm can and will be mainstreamed into a productive economy The potential benefits are huge! As Dr. Lebel points out:

“The atmosphere and even norms have changed. These young men come from Jerusalem, Ashdod and other places; less from still-rigid Bnei Brak.”
I am not sure how much of the Charedi world this attitude change encompasses. But when the atmosphere in Bnei Brak changes the paradigm will change.

That will take a more proactive support from the Charedi rabbinic establishment. And I’m not so sure they are happy with the ‘collateral damage’. What damage? This:

“They have turned into Zionists and love the army.”
That might be a bit of an exaggeration but I get his point. My sincere hope is that Dr. Lebel’s observation comes true:

In the coming decade, as the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students grows, many tens of thousands can be prepared for jobs in the military and civilian markets.