Monday, June 14, 2010

Cutting them off at the Knees

I have mixed emotions about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in Israel. They ruled that stipends to older yeshiva students be abolished because they discriminate against secular students.

On the one hand this plays very nicely into my desire to change the educational dynamic of a major sector of religious Jewry in Israel – the Charedim. For as far back as I can remember I have been arguing that the idea of full time learning for every single male Jew for as long as possible is a prescription for poverty and disaster. And that is in large part was is happening in the world of Charedi Israel.

The poverty is enormous and the disaster is reflected in increased Shalom Bayis issues. Divorce and dysfunction are on the increase. And dysfunction is a prescription for children going OTD. I have long said that the requirement of a father to teach his child the means to earn a living has been all but forgotten in the Charedi world - especially Israel. Israel’s Charedi young men do not learn anything during their Yeshiva years that prepares them to make a living.

They are taught Torah only and are told to stay in the Beis HaMedrash full time well after they are married with many children. After a while reality sinks in and eventually the pressures of family life forces them to seek jobs. But they are ill prepared to do it.

Some of the more resourceful ones seek and find training of some sort. Some use family and friends connections to get jobs. But in the majority of cases getting a decent job is greatly impeded by their lack of preparation. Those early years where they should have been picking up skills for getting good jobs in the workforce simply do exist.

Add to that a discriminatory policy against Charedim in some cases and the result is massive poverty. Why there is prejudice is a good question but is beyond the scope of this post. I will just mention that I believe it to be a combined result of the lack of developing a healthy work ethic that is adapted for the market place and not the Beis HaMedrash – (two different animals), the lack of army service, and in some cases just plain prejudice against Charedim.

I should note that the lack of army service is becoming less of an excuse since the advent of Nachal Charedi and other programs desgined to fulfill their service obligations. But the prejudice still exists and not every Charedi rabbinic leader supports them from doing Nachal Charedi and the like.

The result is as I said poverty. This new law puts even more pressure in that world to change the learning dynamic of the masses from one of full time learning for everyone to that of full time learning for only those with the potential to become leaders and teachers of Torah. The rest of them which comprises the vast majority of them should be training simultaneously for a career during their Yeshiva years. There should be courses in general studies in high schools just like there is for their female counterparts. Those courses will help prepare them for possible professional careers.

Additionally there ought to be vocational courses in the trades offered somewhere along the line in conjunction with their Torah learning. This would give Talmidim options. They can all continue to learn and even stay a couple of years in a Kollel. But after that - they should be getting jobs.

But that is not happening. And poverty increases. What helps to perpetuate this very negative system are stipends from the government. Although those modest stipends do not enrich anyone – they do help. Abolishing them will cause a tremendous hardship on them. Will it make them change the paradigm to the kind I described? I don’t know. Usually this kind of pressure is strongly resisted. But reality may be the ultimate Posek here. And that may by itself change the paradigm.

So why am I ambivalent? Because it is too sudden – with no plan for relief. Turning off the spigot entirely to all the masses of poor Charedim will not change anything in the short term. It will only cause even greater Shalom Bayis issues. I do not wish this kind of hardship on any of my brethren. They are not really at fault. They have been indoctrinated to think this is the way of Torah.

The point is to get them to change. Not to cut them off at the knees.

Rabbinic leaders in Israel have all felt the same way since the very beginning. They continue to insist on leaving their system intact. But their Talmidim are paying a heavy price. A price that is not of their own doing. I for one cannot see this kind of draconian cut taking place. It may have been wrong in the first place to subsidize the system as is. But once it is in place it is cruel and unusual punishment to cut off money that basically only puts food on their tables.

So, like I said at the outset, I have mixed feelings. In theory I like it but in practice it is wrong. I would rather see a less drastic measure passed that weans them off those stipends and is tied to learning a trade or profession. That would be a much fairer and just approach. One cannot just legislate in a vacuum. One must factor in current circumstances. The poverty in Israel among Charedi is crushing. It would be cruel and unusual punishment to suddenly increase it.

That said I fully understand the court’s perspective. In a democracy such as Israel’s it is simply unfair to support only one kind of student and not another. If married Yeshiva students get stipends for studying Torah so too should married college students. This is the claim of the court and I do not see a counter argument against it.

In my view the best of all possible worlds would be to set up an American style Yeshiva high school system with secular studies accompanying religious studies. That ought to be the standard. Even for those who have the potential to become the next leaders of the generation – those studies won’t hurt them. They will help them.

Stipends for older students ought to reflect the democratic values of the State. It should be equitable for both Charedi and secular students. One can set up standards for receiving stipends in both instances using experts in their respective fields. Those considered should be judged by the potential for achievement whether it be in Torah studies or secular studies.

I’m not sure if this court ruling will stand. The Charedi Knesset members are all crying foul and I’m sure they will fight this. We’ll see. My hope is that some sort of compromise can be worked out where the poor won’t suffer and everyone benefits.