Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Work? Why Bother?

One of the most inspiring sights in Israel is the Beis HaMedrash in Yeshivas Mir. There are literally thousands of students learning with Hasmada Rabbah and Ameilus. They are tremendously dedicated – diligently toiling to understand their Torah learning in depth and in breadth. It is an amazing sight. There is not an empty seat to be found. I see no faking at all.

There are students sitting everywhere – every nook and cranny is occupied. One can walk into the Beis HaMedrash anytime of day - any day of the week and see the same thing. Except for a lunch break they are always there. And that’s just one building. There are several others like it on the Mir campus.

I mention this in light of a Ynet interview of a Charedi Avreich (picture above - photographed from rear to protect his identity). He paints an entirely different picture of his reality in Kollel. In a courageous interview he spills the beans about what really goes on –and altruistically urges that government stipends stop! Unfortunately he needs to remain anonymous because it would destroy his family. His life and that of his family would be ruined.

I have no reason to doubt his story. He sounds like an honest young man who has seen the truth and wants to dispel the myth. Those who are partisan to the system as it exists may want to challenge him on the facts and suspect him of ulterior motives. I suppose that’s possible. But I see no reason to question his integrity.

As a religious Jew he has a Chezkas Kashrus - a presumption of integrity and therefore Ne’emanus. He should be believed. He is no slacker either. He learns Torah 8 hours a day before returning home to his wife and children. Nor – he says - does he even want to destroy the system.

One might nonetheless still suspect him of some sort of nefarious agenda because it is so against the grain of the conventional wisdom. But he isn’t the only - or the first - one to have made these kinds of observations. What he has done is bear first hand witness to it. I believe him.

How does one explain his testimony in light of what I have personally witnessed every single time I visit the Mir? I’m not sure except to say that a Yeshiva is not a Kollel. It is mostly pre-Kollel. Most of those learning in the Mir are either young and unmarried or early in their marriage. Nor does the sight I see in the Mir take into account those who are ‘enrolled’ but never show up. Or show up very little. And there are other Yeshivos where the scene at the Mir does not exist.

I don’t know how many men in Kollel there are who ‘fake it’. But if one takes a walk in nearby Geula section of Jerusalem one will see tons of young Charedim in the streets at any given time of day doing anything but learning. Some of them may have legitimate reasons for not being in the Beis HaMedrash. But it can’t be as many as I always see when I’m there.

And there is the fact that not every Yeshiva is the Mir.

How many Avreichim are there that do not learn anywhere near what is expected of them. And how many are there that do little or no learning at all? There is no check and balance system. There are for example no tests ever given to these students. They are trusted to fulfill their obligations. It is an honor system. And they are given a stipend from the State. What is it really like? Here is a lengthy excerpt of this man’s testimony. It is damning:

"When the seculars established the State they made every young person go to the army. The haredim refused for two reasons: They didn't want to get killed because of the army and they refused to be subject to a secular society. So the agreement was that everyone would withdraw from society in order to maintain our religiousness and study Torah from morning to evening while the wife provides for the family," he begins his fascinating monologue.

"What happened was that the seculars have been funding the haredim ever since. We must remember that at the time the haredi public was very small and the secular public could still carry them on its back. In Europe there were always 'landlords' who would work and fund the minority who studied and were really prodigies. Today it's different – everyone must study and spend the whole day at the kollel.

"Where did this come from? The State pays, so why not? If there is no financial hardship the community doesn't approve of going out to work… According to an interpretation of the Gemara (oral Jewish Law), those who let us sit in the kollel are to blame. After all, if I go out to work now I'll lose my status in the community. Among the Lithuanians it means taking a risk that your child will not be admitted into a good 'heder' (religious elementary school). Among the Hasidim going to work is customary, but only after many years and in Jewish jobs –a Torah scribe, accompanying children's transportation. But this kind of work is usually not reported to the Tax Authority.

"What happens is that many yeshiva students who don’t really have the ability to sit and study, basically study about one hour a day. This situation is perpetuated, because there are many strong elements in the community who want this circle – in which everyone gets married by the age of 21 or 22 and immediately enters the kollel – will continue.

"It's unthinkable that a yeshiva student would go to work after the wedding. It would simply be a disgrace for the 'shver' (father of the bride). In the haredi world the shver and the father invest tens of thousands of dollars in the couple – I don't know from where. There's a joke that if the shver gives you an apartment, it's like double imprisonment – both a wedding and an imprisonment in the place of Torah study.

"It's also a great disgrace in the eyes of the community members. Almost every haredi person lives in a community – be it the Hasidism or the synagogue, where he spends dozens of hours each month. You can't be different from everyone else. But the claim that most of us study the same is nonsense. Take me for example – I didn't study one hour today. So what do you do? You come in late, you leave early, you go outside a lot to drink coffee.

"You don't study much Gemara. It's mostly a social framework. It's important to say that there are very big scholars, but there are also many who don't really study. Not everyone is capable of sitting down and studying Gemara for hours. You can't go out to work; it's a social norm which simply cannot be broken.

"There are no exams in the kollel. When (
United Torah Judaism MK) Gafni says it must be recognized as study hours, he's basically laughing at the State. There are no credit points; you just sit and learn without any supervision. Without exams the progress one makes cannot be checked…

"The seculars are always told that we sit and study. Do you really think everyone studies? It doesn’t make sense. And I'm not the only one. Open the 'Behadrei Hadarim' forum on the internet, for example, and see how many yeshiva students are idle. I live in one of the biggest haredi communities with my wife and small children. Our lifestyle is completely haredi, we have no internet at home – God forbid – and I have never watched TV in my life.

"By the way, the haredi weeklies contribute to the complexity of the problem. They write, 'The secular media incite against the Torah scholars and that is why the High Court had removed the assured income.' But these reporters know that what they are writing is nonsense. Why, if they would study 14 hours a day themselves like they write, they wouldn't be reporters. They put a picture of a place of Torah study and write 'real mighty men' in its caption. In our kollel we laughed about it today, said it's good they didn't take a picture of the coffee maker. I call on the secular public and those who care about the State not to let the politicians give stipends without any limits."