Sunday, July 02, 2017

What Needs to Change

How many more times must we witness a scene like  this? (source of image)
The system is unsustainable. This is not the first time I’ve made this statement. Unfortunately it probably won’t be the last. The context in which I usually make it is the Charedi world in Israel. I still believe it is more applicable there than here. But it should also be clear from recent events in Lakewood that it is unsustainable here too. It isn’t just me saying it – or those with an anti Charedi agenda. Their own community leaders are implying it – if not outright saying it. After clearly condemning the fraud, they described the economic climate in which the residents of Lakewood live. From Asbury Park Press
"It's absolute panic," said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a member of Lakewood's Vaad, or Jewish council, about the mood in the town after this week's arrests. "People are begging us for guidance." "The average family feels it an absolute necessity to send their children to private schools," Weisberg said, adding that large families are also a part of Jewish culture. "They really want to build a large family with lots of happy children.
"Financial considerations come second," he said. To make ends meet, many of these families rely on public assistance, Weisberg said. Duvi Honig, CEO of the Lakewood-based Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, said for many Jewish families, collecting public assistance is almost an inevitability. "People have such overhead that they don't have a choice," Honig said.  
If this doesn’t describe an unsustainable system, I don’t know what does.  

Just to be clear, I absolutely support the concept of full time Torah study for the elite among us.  We need Torah scholars and Poskim as much as we need doctors and lawyers; carpenters and plumbers. Lakewood is the kind of Yeshiva that gives us these valuable Jewish resources. It is Torah scholars like those that should be supported by the Jewish public so that a they would never have to resort to welfare checks. I would add that the character of the kind of Torah scholar I am talking about would never cheat the government and they would  be as abhorred by what has happened as I am!

The problem is the culture that is based on the unsustainable paradigm that includes: 1) encouraging all male students to spend as much time as possible in full time Torah study; 2) encouraging women to seek marriage partners like that; and 3)  encouraging them to have as many children as possible. That last one is topped off with an admonishment that the inability to afford a large family is not a reason to refrain from the procreative Mitzvah. 

Add to that the cost of a Jewish education for each of those children, is their any real question why so much of Lakewood  must resort to the welfare system? As Duvi Honig put it: "People have such overhead that they don't have a choice! The pressure to hide income so that can get the some financial relief from government welfare programs - that were seen as easy to take advantage of (til now) must be enormous!

The idea of everyone being put into this position because of a modern day Charedi  educational paradigm is what’s wrong with the system. You can’t keep educating your people to choose a lifestyle like that first and to look at finances last.  The common attitude of Zorg Nisht. Di Eibishter vet helfen  - Don’t worry. God will provide – is simply bad advice. Sure, ideals come before money. But without money the ideals will very likely not materialize.The Mishna in Avos warned us centuries ago, Ein Kemach Ein Torah – without sustenance, there can be no Torah. This has been all but ignored by the current Charedi educational paradigm.

Does this mean that young married coupled should give up any idea of studying in Kollel at all? That only he elite among us should consider it? No. For those who want to do it , it can be a very valuable experience to spend a year or two after marriage studying Torah full time. But at the same time every single student ought to be taught that famous line from Avos: Ein Kemach EinTorah. 

Along with that phrase should be an educational paradigm that will give young people the tools to make a decent living. Furthermore (and perhaps more importantly) unless they are among the few elite, they should be deliberately encouraged to leave that Kollel after a year or two and start providing for their family.

And dare I say it? The idea of having as many children as possible without considering the affordability of it should not be automatic. There are many opinions about how to fulfill the Mitzvah of procreation. Not all of them involve having as many children as possible. 

But in the Charedi world, that is encouraged unless there are physical or mental health issues involving the parents that would prevent it. Financial consideration are never a ‘permit’ to refrain from having as many children as possible. 

Maybe what has happened in Lakewood – which in large part is due to the pressure of having and supporting a large family – is a turning point. Maybe the financial argument should be seen as a mental issue too.  And family size should be guided as much by the stress of trying to figure out how to pay for a Kollel lifestyle as it is guided by a straight forward physical or mental health issue. 

If things don’t change along these lines, I’m afraid the the temptation to defraud the government will remain as strong as ever. Which means the Chilul HaShem will be what is sustained as much as the lifestyle that has caused it.