Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dependency Class

The world of Charedi Avreichim – married students who spend many years in Kollel - has evolved into a dependency class. They survive almost entirely on government handouts. This is true for both Israel and the United States.

It was not always this way. Avreichim in Europe of less than even 100 years ago were a small but elite group of brilliant students that were supported by their communities. The vast majority of Charedim worked. But now there are huge numbers of Avreichim that cannot survive without some sort of government handout.

But government handouts are not enough to maintain an even modest middle class lifestyle. So other handouts are sought - usually from parents and grandparents who have made money the hard way – by working for it.

In many cases parents supporting children with large families is a near impoverishing exercise. They have worked a lifetime to pay for the Jewish education of their children; to pay off a mortgage; to have a retirement nest egg. But supporting multiple large families in a Kollel empties out bank accounts; re-establishes mortgages; and even life insurance policies are cashed in - all so that their sons and sons-in-law along with their large families can be free of the burden of work and learn Torah full time for many years. All while putting many middle income parents into the poorhouse in their golden years.

This gross injustice to these hard working parents is unconscionable - even though they may be willing participants.

That is not the only problem. This cannot go on forever. The next generation of Avreichim will have even poorer parents to rely upon since they will have been in Kollel and end up with lower paying jobs that do not require a higher education. Nor are government handouts a sure thing for the future. In this economy government handouts are not guaranteed. The government may legislate stricter guidelines for welfare which will be detrimental to Avreichim.

What makes this type of dependency class even worse is that many Yeshivos and Kollelim - not the least of which is Lakewood - actually encourage it. They pressure parents for support and examine every possible way to get money out of the government. They will utilize every loophole so that their married students can somehow survive without working.

Charedi Yeshivos like Lakewood see welfare payments as a sort of government based stipend for their ‘graduate students’ (Avreichim). This abuses - albeit legally -a government program designed for the poor - not for middle class Avreichim.

This is not only a Chilul HaShem in my view but lends itself to illegal abuse. It is not a big step from the legal the to illegal. How many Avreichim who come from middle class backgrounds and live basically middle class lifestyles – and nonetheless use every possible loophole of every government welfare program to help finance their learning in Kollel? While they may be technically eligible – it is an ethical lapse of monumental proportion in my view.

They will rationalize and say things like: if a common neighborhood crack-head mother gets welfare checks - why shouldn’t I?

It is not hard to see how this kind of thinking leads the justifications of massive frauds like the recent cases of money laundering by ‘religious’ Jews. They think the government wastes so much money on useless projects and lowlifes anyway– why not divert some of that waste it to a better use in one of their holy institutions?

Dina D’Machusa Dina? Phtttt! What’s that?! - compared to the need to keep Yeshiva X open? Or to make sure that teachers are paid on time? Or to help a community of poor Avreichim survive? -especially in these economic times.

Chilul HaShem? ‘That’s ridiculous’ - they will tell themselves. ‘We will never get caught!’

Well guess what. There is no such thing as a free lunch. And the proverbial chickens will come home to roost. But don’t listen to me. Rabbi Berel Wein said it so much better than I can in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post.

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. My constant harping on the need for Charedim to get a decent secular education is a belief that seems to be shared by over half of them - even in Israel - according to another article in the Jerusalem Post.

The Shiluv Group, the Israeli representative of the Millward Brown research company, asked a sample of 500 haredim if they would be interested in earning an academic degree in preparation for professions such as medicine, nursing, economics and law.

53% said they would be interested. Among Chasidim the percentage rose to 59%! On the other hand among the non Chadsidic ‘Lithuanian’ Charedim the percentage is only 42%.

This is good news. My only question is can these numbers be translated into reality? Can we turn desire into actual attendance? Can we get 53% of all Charedim in Israel and the US to go to college? I sure hope so. Because that would mean a major change in the way things work in the Charedi world – for the better. This may not be a win for Torah U’Mada - or even classic Torah Im Derech Eretz. But it is a major win for Torah U’Parnassa.

We need to make it happen. Because the dependency class is doomed to failure.