Monday, March 10, 2014

Charity or Work? - Charedi Poverty in Israel

Typical scene in a Kollel 
The two biggest issues facing the Torah world in Israel now are the draft of Charedim into the army and the extreme poverty of that same demographic. And they are not unrelated. 

Because of Israel’s obvious security needs, young Israelis are subjected to a draft in order to help defend their country before they are allowed into the workforce. And because of Charedi opposition to the draft, Charedim do not join. That means that they are not permitted to work. Once someone wants to leave the Beis HaMedrash and work he must first do military service. Military service is seen by them in such strongly negative terms - most Charedim do not work and – whether they like it or not - are forced to stay in the Beis HaMedrash

There are many reasons given by Charedim for their opposition to army service. Torah study is considered the most important Mitzvah in the Torah. Charedi interpretation of this is that since it is the most important Mitzvah it follows that those that do it the most are the most valued Jews in Judaism. That – combined with their antipathy towards the Israeli military - has resulted in about 60,000 Charedi men studying Torah full time and not working at all.

Charedi rabbinic leaders believe that army service will ‘ruin’ you.  That the nature of army service in a Zionist State they believe to be anti religious is to disabuse religious Jews of their commitment to Torah observance.  So ingrained is that idea into their belief system they are completely blinded to the fact that are and have been myriads of soldiers that went into the army religious and came out religious. They are blinded to the fact that there are probably tens of thousands of past and present Hesder boys who are committed to Torah study and army service. And they dismiss the fact that there are units that cater completely to the ultra religious lifestyles of Charedim… saying that they are designed for Charedi dropouts that might otherwise go OTD.

So Charedim stay in Yeshivos and Kollelim until they are too old to serve. Although some do ‘escape’ the system and do well via various programs and opportunities, very few of those who leave are able to catch up to their secular and Religious Zionist counterparts in terms of making a decent living for their families. Which tend to be much larger and therefore need more money.

I am not going to go into detail about why I believe that the Charedi paradigm is so wrong. I’ve done that so many times that It’s getting boring already. I will just briefly say that the idea of full time Torah study for all Jewish men (which Charedim see as the primary goal for all men)  cannot possibly be what God intended for all of His people. Full time Torah study is meant only for the elite so as to have rabbinic leaders that are experts in Halacha upon which the Jewish people can rely for answers to difficult questions. Or be trained as teachers in Yeshivos and day schools. The rest of us are supposed to go to work and set aside times for Torah study when not working.

The Charedi mindset – on the other hand - ignores all of that and believes that must exert maximum  effort to study Torah full time to the exclusion of all else. This is what guides their educational system.

The result of over 60 years of this kind of thinking in Israel - a country that very generously allowed them to do it - is a huge demographic of poverty stricken religious Jews.

Israel was generous until now. But this demographic is now so large - it starting to have an impact on the entire economy.  Furthermore if the current rate of Charedi population increase continues – it will literally ‘break the bank’ if nothing were done. Deficits will increase and the economy will tank. Israel’s currency will become worthless. So the government had no choice but to reduce entitlement subsidies like stipends to large families in order to try and reduce their deficits. Charedim whose families are very large were the ones most affected by this. It increased their poverty level.

Another thing it did was to get Charedim into the workforce by forcing them to serve in the army. Thus killing two birds with one stone. Charedim will then be sharing the burden along with all other Israelis and then will be able to work. Charedi recruits are even being offered free educational programs as part of the Charedi draft program.

But Charedi leaders are livid about all of this because it upsets the world that they built. Built mind you with a willing government that both exempting them from the draft and supported them with money.

As was obvious in Yesterday’s prayer rally in New York, they characterize punishing Charedi draft dodgers with jail time (just like everyone else)  – as punishing Torah study. In making this claim - they have effectively said to the Religious Zionist public (especially Hesder) that any Charedi that will be jailed for refusing to do what you do is really being jailed because the study Torah.

But even if I agreed with them (which I clearly do not) it ignores the underlying problem of poverty that army service would help to end. Because army service is the port of entry into the workforce.

The truly sad part of this is that even if the Charedi world suddenly did the unthinkable and  told all of their students that it’s a Mitzvah to serve in the army - it would not solve the problem of poverty. Because they still would not get the education they need in order to compete for decent jobs. There are no secular subjects taught at all to the male Charedi population. Secular subjects are seen as a Bitul Torah – a violation of the commandment to study Torah by wasting time on subjects with no religious import.

So how does this demographic provide sustenance for themselves?  Well, the women work and the men are paid stipends (much of which was funded by the ‘anti Torah’ government). They also receive charity from many sources including wealthy philanthropists abroad. But the lion’s share of their income for several decades now was from the government. Although they lived in or near poverty, they subsisted on their meager incomes.  

But now because of the economic climate in Israel (caused at least in part by the increase in the cost of Charedi oriented entitlement programs) government subsidies have been pretty much cut in half. have

Charedi leaders are screaming bloody murder about that too – in addition to their screams about the draft. They feel entitled to these welfare payments and are being unfairly discriminated against by cuts in those programs.

What is this community doing about it? Are they changing the educational paradigm – or shifting to a policy that is not as anti military as before and allows Charedim to join newly created army units designed specifically for them? Hardly.  As can be seen yesterday, any tacit approval they may have given to that in the past been replaced by anti government rhetoric rivaling that of Satmar.

And just as adamant is their opposition to introducing a core secular curriculum into their schools. The result is increasing poverty. Despite the fact that there are now some programs designed to teach Charedim the skills to compete in the job market, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the poverty cycle that exists and is increasing. How bad is the poverty really? Hamodia produced a video that shows it. I have featured it here before. It is a devastating indictment of a Charedi value system that rejects the idea that working for a living is what God intends for most of His people.

But the video has been doctored in a positive way. It shows the religious folly of their system. It is available on Rafi’s blog, Life inIsrael and I present it here.

The one thing that should be obvious from this video is that anyone who says that claims of poverty among Charedim in Israel are overblown just doesn’t know what they’re talking about.