Monday, December 29, 2014

Missing the (Life) Boat

The average Charerdi spends $800 more per month than he makes
There is a famous line in the movie, Godfather III uttered by fictional Mafia Boss, Michael Corleone. Desperately wanting to turn his illegal empire legit and suddenly yet again unable to - he says, ‘Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in’. This is kind of how I feel about a subject that many feel I have dealt with ad nauseum. I can understand that feeling and I would prefer not talking about it – if it weren’t so important. Not only to me, but to Klal Yisroel. But I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on a new survey reported about the financial condition of Charedim in Israel.

Once again, I have to give credit to the Charedi Magazine, Mishpacha. They do not shy away from the truth. Nor do they make excuses about it when it is unflattering. It is a truth that is literally devastating.

Mishpacha journalist, Binyamin Rose asks the question I and many others have asked, “How do Chareidim survive financially?” That question looms larger than ever in Israel even if Charedi politicians are able to restore the budget cuts that so deeply affected them.

The reason it looms so large is obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. But even if nobody has paid any attention at all, it is also answered by another question Rose asks at the very beginning of the article, “How can a family survive when they are spending $800 more per month than they earn?”

That’s right. You read that correctly. The average Charedi family in Israel overspends their income by $800 every month! This is not speculation. Nor is an anecdotal report by someone that sees his neighbors living like that.  It is a hard statistic compiled by the respected Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. While the Taub Center reports that every Israeli overspends their income by $200 - Charedim exceed it by 4 times that amount!

Additionally 58% of Israel’s Charedim are in the lowest income bracket. That is a rather sizable increase over the percentage in 1992 of 44%.

Making matters worse is the little known fact that Charedim actually receive more from government or private sources than other Israelis that comprise the poorest 20% of the population.

Why are Charedim struggling so? Let us look at some more statistics. In 1979, about 85% of Charedi men (35 -54) were working. That percentage plummeted to half in the next generation. While it is increasing a bit, the percentage of working Charedi men is barely above 50%.

Previous generations of those who chose Torah Umnaso (Torah as their profession) had working parents that were able to help them out. Not so today since so many of the parents of the typical Charedi sitting in Kollel aren’t working either. They had chosen Torah as their profession in the last generation.

How do they in fact get by? They live in constant debt. Gemachim (interest free loan societies) give them what I would call ‘permanent  loans’. What I mean is that there are many Gemachim from, which a family will borrow. And then borrow from another Gemach to pay off their debt from the Gemach they first borrowed from . They also take whatever they can get through Israel’s welfare system. And charity from abroad. But you can’t keep spending $800 dollars over your income every single month. There is not enough charity to cover that kind of monthly increase. Those Gemachim certainly can’t cover it.

Taub senior researcher, Dr. Noam Gruber talks about Israel’s ‘Shadow Economy’. This is the black market that does business ‘under the table’ and avoids paying taxes.  It accounts for an estimated 20% of Israel’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Which shortchanges the government to the tune of about 80 billion New Israeli Shekels (NIS) per year. The Gemachim are also a big part of this shadow economy. The Taub report cited  two major investigations that broke two money laundering rings involving Gemachim.

The Charedi world rejects this as not factual. Dr. Chaim Zicherman of the Center for Research on Haredi Socierty maintains that Gemachim cannot all be lumped together. Some are very specific and one cannot borrow from them just to pay a bill. The bank of Israel concedes this point and says that most of them are not involved in fraud – but they add that it is easily ‘fertile ground for criminal activity including money laundering and tax crimes’. I think that has been shown to be true. Let us not forget that a Chasidic Rebbe in America  was convicted of money laundering and tax fraud using Israeli Gemachs as part of his scam.

None of this is really all that new or surprising. I’ve said it all before.  I’m glad to see that a Charedi Magazine does not shy away from the truth or cover it up – or spin it into something positive just because it is politically correct to do so.

And yet the Charedi leadership seems to be oblivious to this. They do not wish to change a single thing about their society to improve conditions for their own people. The only thing they seem to be able to do is ask for more charity from abroad - like the new ‘Adopt-a-Kollel’ project. Or try to restore entitlement money removed by government budget cuts. That is not going to solve anything for the average Charedi that spends $800 more per month than he makes – even with a working wife! Especially when Charedi leadership won’t even allow their working wives to improve their lot with higher education – saying that the reward for avoiding it and remaining with their low paying jobs - will be in heaven.

Help could be on the way, if only the Charedi leadership would accept it. I am reminded of the story about people on the roof of a building praying to God for help as flood waters rise. People in a lifeboat come by and urge them on board. They reject it (and all other earthly help) and keep praying that God save them. Eventually the flood waters overcome them and they drown. When they see God in heaven, they ask Him why He didn’t answer their prayers. God tells them He did. He sent them a lifeboat. They refused to understand that this was the way God answered their prayers.

Sometimes God sends help - but because it does not fit the traditional notion of Godly help it is not recognized as such. Instead it is not only rejected, but cursed. This is the case with Yesh Atid and its leader Yair Lapid. They consider him the second coming of his atheist father Yosef ‘Tommy’ Lapid who was not reticent about his antipathy for Charedim and his goal to destroy them. But Yair is not Tommy. Yair wanted to help them integrate into society by bettering their world materially. Not to destroy their culture, but to improve their financial lot and thereby better able to preserve it.

But Charedi leadership continues to vilify him. Why? Because he dared to challange the system. Which they see as virtual Shmad.

I understand why there is resistance to change. They are used to a 60 year old system that has allowed the Charedi world in Israel to grow into the biggest Makom Torah in the world. (Why quantity replaced quality as their number one goal is a question I have yet to hear answered.)  And yet the Charedi leadership sees this as the norm and not to be tampered with. Doing so even slightly is seen as the same thing the Czar in Russia did over 100 years ago. They do not see any difference at all. The Czar tried to install a secular studies curriculum. And Israel tried to install a secular studies curriculum. That was Shmad. And this is Shmad.

What about their deteriorating and demoralizing material welfare? Not to worry - God will help, they say.  But are they not missing the lifeboat He already sent?