Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Is the Ship Really Sinking?

Typical look of a Kollel. Is this sustainable for everyone? (VIN)
I have been saying for many years that the system is unsustainable. Any system that relies on charity as the primary source of income is doomed to failure. It doesn’t matter where that charity comes from. Whether it is from parents, in-laws, the government, Gemachs (free loan societies) philanthropic donations, or maxing out credit cards.

Where women in the Torah world were once discouraged from joining the workforce and instead encouraged to stay home and raise their children, they are now encouraged to take advantage of the feminist achievement of bettering the lot of women in the workplace. That has allowed Charedi women to support their non income producing husbands in Kollel. (Although they are as a rule still underpaid compared to men in identical jobs). These Charedim owe a huge debt of gratitude to Betty and Gloria.

Charedi women now have double duty. They not only take on the traditional roles as wives and mothers - they have now taken on the role of breadwinner too. In most cases willingly since they are indoctrinated to seek ‘learning men’ as the ideal mate - and taught to support them.

This has degenerated into a financial crisis for the typical family of the Lithuanian style Yeshiva world. It is based on the Yeshiva ethic of full time Torah study for all men. An ethic that has been promoted ever since the mid 20th century. (The Chasidic world has its own problems along these lines but they are beyond the scope of this post.)

Even with an underpaid – over burdened woman working full time to support her family - there is often not enough income to meet the financial obligations expected of them in their world. A world with impossible financial burdens. Burdens that can only be met with the above-mentioned financial aids. 

Some of those aids will eventually disappear. For example parents or in-laws who had decent livelihoods and were able to contribute to their children’s living expenses will not be paid forward by their children to their grandchildren. A problem that increases exponentially with each generation as their own many children each have many children of their own. Unless a family is very wealthy, the money will eventually dry up. Even in those cases where parents are willing to sell their future by refinancing their homes, cashing in life insurance polices, or continuing to work well past retirement age. There will just not be enough money. 

This is true in both Israel and the US. In the US, Charedi parents will often commit to a stipend for a few years for each child that gets married. The needs of the Kollel family does end after the term of commitment. Caring parents then feel obligated to keep helping them.That can end up with a parent working himself to the bone until the day he dies - instead of enjoying the golden years with his wife after retirement! 

In Israel there is an even greater problem. I do not understand how they do it. But they somehow do. The custom is to buy a child a Dira – a house or condo when they get married. There are many ways to do this. Such as the 2 sets of parents sharing the expense, or as has been typically the case, the bride’s father footing most of the bill.

Diras are expensive in prime Yeshiva locations like Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. New areas that have popped up (Like Modi’in Ilit) have seen an increase in price too in recent years - with law of supply and demand governing prices. The demand by the exponential growth of the Charedi world far outpaces  the supply of Diras.  A small 2 bedroom Dira can run into the millions of Shekels. It is not uncommon to pay over a million Shekels for a small 2 bedroom Dira!

Imagine if you have a typically large family of 6, 7 or more children.

This brings me to an article in Rafi’s blog, Life in Israel. He published 3 letters to the editor from a recent edition Mishpacha Magazine (in Hebrew) that deals with this problem. Their solution is for young people to take on their own mortgages, with parents only making the down payment. This has indeed been the practice in some cases. But I guess it hasn’t fully caught on yet. My view is that it is not anywhere near enough to solve this problem

Those the letters make it clear that the system is unsustainable in its current incarnation no matter who is asked to pay for those Diras. In short – it’s a zero sum game. Someone needs to pay and in each case and no one has enough money to do so. The financial burden is so great that even sharing those expenses will not help. Family life is being disrupted. Good families with loving relationships are being put under unimaginable stress. Here is an excerpt from one of those letters that demonstrates this. It was written by a woman who is a devoted part of that system: 
We are paying 4 mortgages, plus rent. We start each month about 20,000nis in overdraft. I work at 3 jobs. If the students I teach in the morning would know that in the evening I am working a shift at a far away nursing home, they would faint.
My husband is broken. He learns privately with students from morning to night. He has no satisfaction. He is embittered and grumpy. He feels no self-worth  and also feels that he cannot support his children as others supported him. Our marriage has gotten very shaky. 
This is not a dysfunctional family. Nor is it one that refuses to support itself. That should be obvious. But so too is the stress. I imagine that this family is not alone. Their experience not unique.

There are those who will still defend the system and say ‘Af Al Pi Kein’ (even so) the system has worked this way; continues to work this way, and will always work this way. They are successful because they believe that this is what God wants from them. They will add that the naysayers have been saying the system is unsustainable for years, and yet it is larger and stronger than ever.

Well that may be so. But I can’t imagine the stress expressed by that letter writer will get any better.

I don’t know what the solution to the problem is. But one thing I do know is that it was not always like this – even in the Charedi world. Of necessity most Charedim worked. And lived the modest lives that could be supported by that work. Only the most elite students would be recruited into Yeshivos. And only the most elite of those became Gedolim, Poskim,  Roshei Yeshiva, Rebbeim and Rabbonim. Everybody else got jobs in order to support their families. They were also Koveiah Itim – established fixed times for Torah study in order to fulfill their obligation to study Torah.

Today, that is no longer the case. Now everyone is encouraged to do what was once the sole province of the elite Torah scholars. When confronted with the the fact that this was not always the case, they will say ‘explain’ that it was not possible to do in those impoverished days. But now it is. We live in more prosperous times. The money is there. That’s why it’s happening and will continue to happen.

We’ll see about that. 

I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the ‘ship is not sinking’ as Rafi’s title suggests it is. Maybe the system will somehow find a way to sustain its current paradigm. They have so far. Where there is a will there is a way, I suppose. The only question is the cost. Not only the financial cost but the cost on the mental health of the community. If those letters are any indication, I am not encouraged that there will be necessarily a positive outcome.