Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Poverty of Chasidim

Children of Kiryas Joel - 92% of the population is on Medicaid (NYT)
A few days ago I wrote about the anomaly of a young  Satmar Chasid opting for an education at Yeshiva University. I considered that a wonderful break from their tradition of avoiding a university education like the plague.

At the time I was informed in a comment that it should not be considered an anomaly for a Chasid to receive such an education… that there are many Chasidim that do so.  I’m sure that’s true. There are in fact some very prominent Chasidim that have not only attended university, but have gone on to professional careers in medicine and law.  Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski is not only a physician, he is a world renowned expert in the field of addictions.  Professor Aaron D.  Twerski  is not only a lawyer, he was the dean of The Hofstra University School of Law. I am equally certain that they are not the only Chasidim that have chosen to be educated beyond the walls of the Beis HaMedrash – becoming not only productive breadwinners for their families, but in some cases respected experts in their fields. I'm told that Touro College, has many Chasidm in attendance.

But the truth happens to be that the vast majority of Chasidim wouldn’t dream of going to college. Not even one that has at its core a Beis HaMedrash, Yeshiva University or even Touro. They shun the education and they shun the environment.  Satmar is one of the largest Chasidus in the world. You will not find to many Satmar Chasidim bucking that trend. Which is a shame. Because if they did they could pull themselves out of the mass poverty that communities like Kiryas Joel have.

Poverty is rampant in that town. Recordonline reports of a recent survey taken by the Orange County Department of Social Services, U.S. Census Bureau.Therein they cite a statistic that fully 92% of Kiryat Joel residents are on Medicaid! (Hat tip - Marty Bluke). While the overall survey of all counties carried the caveat that the numbers may be muddied because of  disclaimers  like ‘estimated data’ (for various reasons), the Kiryas Joel numbers seem to be more accurate. Medicaid is reserved for those whose incomes fall below the poverty line. There can be no doubt that the residents of Kiryas Joel barely make enough to support their families with basics like food and shelter.

There are those that say that these Chasdim don’t mind their financial lot and are quite happy with their lives. That may be. But that does not take away the necessity of relying on others – including the government - in order to be able to live those happy lives. It also explodes the myth that Satmar Chasidim don’t need a good secular education because they do so well in business. Well… maybe 8% do not require Medicaid help, but that does not tell us just how much above the poverty line those 8% are.

Now it is a fact that there are some very wealthy Satmar Chasidim. Some of them have tremendous success as entrepreneurs. There are many Satmar diamond merchants, there are real estate developers, there is also B&H, the electronics giant that is owned by a Satmar Chasid. It is also true that these entrepreneurs provide decent jobs for may religious Jews of all stripes – including their own fellow Satmar Chasidim. But as can be seen from that statistic, those who benefit from these entrepreneurs are less than 10% of the population – at least in Kiryas Joel. 

It is also true that these wealthy entrepreneurs are very generous in their charity obligations and support free loan societies and other charitable organizations for their fellow Satmar Chasidim and beyond! But again - even with all their sizable generosity, the poverty level of Kiryas Joel is still 92%!

Unless there is mass fraud in a place like Kiryas Joel whereby people hide their incomes – reporting it to be below the poverty line when in fact it isn’t - this community is poor. There are no 2 ways about it. Being happy with your lot should not depend on the charity of others – including the government.

So while it is true that Chasidim do encourage working for a living, at least in Satmar, they do little to help their Chasidim prepare for decent jobs. The result is that the majority of them do work… but at jobs that apparently pay poverty wages. And the fact that their families are as a rule so large does not help their situation.

So I repeat my admiration for Elimelech Wagschal, the young Satmar fellow from Kiryas Joel who by a twist of fate decided to attend YU. He should be the new role model for Kiryas Joel. 

Now I’m sure that the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel still rails against college and probably refuses to upgrade the secular education of Satmar schools. But it is time for a grass roots movement to change the system. Parents must insist that that their children be given a core secular curriculum. And that a college education no longer be  anathema to them.

I am not a Chasid. And I do have my issues with Satmar type Chasidus.  But I also know that Chasidim have a lot to offer. There are very few people who celebrate their Judaism more joyously  than they do. There are very few communities that are as close knit as they are. There are very few communities that are as welcoming to strangers as they are. There are very few communities that are as generous with their time and money towards their fellow Jews. Satmar Chesed is legendary. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Satmar could pull themselves out of poverty by following in the footsteps of the Twerski family?

Chasidim of Satmar arise! You have nothing to lose but your poverty!