Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Orthodox Survival in Israel

Charedim studying at Kiryat Ono College (Failed Messiah)
After dealing with the survival of Orthodoxy in the United States yesterday, let us analyze Orthodoxy in Israel. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Orthodoxy in Israel is surviving quite well. It is in fact thriving. Much like its counterpart in the US, the growth rate is soaring and if this demographic continues on its current course, Orthodox Jews will eventually become the majority someday. The reasons for this are the same as they are in the US: Jewish education. Those children that receive a Jewish education will be the ones that will perpetuate the Jewish people.

I should add that what I mean by Jewish education in Israel is a religious education. Secular Israelis get a Jewish education that is not particularly religious. Whereas in the US public education is entirely secular. But that is all beside the point.

But things in Israel are not the same as they are in the US. There are really 4 categories of Orthodoxy  in Israel: Charedim (Yeshiva), Chasidim, Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox), and Sephardim. One of the major differences between the US and Israel is in how the Charedi communities live. While their Hashkafos are the same in the sense that they both believe in full time Torah study as the pinnacle of Jewish endeavor, the US mainstream has had a secular education. Israeli mainstream has not. Most of them do learn the knowledge or the study skills to attend a school of higher education.

Most Charedi men stay in Kollel full time for as long as possible. If and when it comes time to leave they are completely unprepared for the workforce. While this is changing somewhat with various programs being created for them (such as the establishment of a Charedi college by Adina Bar Shalom)… the fact is that those taking advantage of it are still in the minority. I’m sure this is at least in part attributable to the fact that they have no secular education in their background.

The Chasidic world in Israel is much like its counterpart in the US. While they support working for a living, they do not receive any training for better paying jobs With the exception of a few very wealthy entrepreneurs - the jobs they do get are menial with the attendant low pay.

Datim generally do quite well financially relative to the Charedi world. Most of them have had good secular educations and have been able to get better jobs.

Orthodox Sephardim have a different problem. They are generally in lower half of the economic spectrum of Orthodox Jewry in Israel. I believe this is due to prejudice by the dominant Ashkenazi culture.

Economic conditions for Sephardim will only get better if prejudice is eliminated and they return to having pride in the great heritage they possess.  Unfortunately there has been a trend of late by Sephardim in the Charedi world to ‘become’ Ashkenazim.  I’m told that there are even schools that teach Charedi Sephardim how to be Charedi Ashkenazim so as to better fit in.

This is tragic in my view. Instead of teaching their children to be proud of their heritage, they are teaching them to reject it! Furthermore, by ‘becoming Ashkenazi’ they too will be bereft of any secular education that would prepare them for the workplace.

Jewish education is not the problem for Orthodox survival in Israel. There is no lack of it there. Charedim  get it in spades. The cost of it is minuscule compared to the cost in the US. There is no danger of eliminating it.  Orthodox survival requires something else. A major change in their financial condition. This is their great challenge.

 I therefore predict a change in that regard. A system that ignores its financial problems cannot last. They can no longer afford to rely on government programs to help sustain them. There just isn’t enough money. As their proportion of the population increases, the government tax base shrinks. Charity from abroad – even with the current increase is  not enough to replace lost government subsidies. Belts are being tightened. Additional stress on families surely causes Shalom Bayis problems. That can and sometimes does result in family dysfunction and children going OTD.

While many – perhaps most Charedim will retain their idealism in the face of all this, there are far too many that will not be able to withstand the pressure. They will seek work. Some will get training. But some will simply fall through the cracks. Increasingly so, if I had to guess. There is just so much crushing poverty a community can take until it is totally crushed.

The government in Israel has tried to ‘force the issue’ withholding government subsidies to Charedi schools that do not include a core secular curriculum. There has been a lot of pushback… and it has been successful in getting the government to extend the period of compliance so that schools without a core curriculum will continue to be subsidized without penalty until then.

There are those who say that change cannot be forced and point to the government blinking on this issue as proof.  Change they say - must be internal. I agree that internal change would be best. But the economic situation in the Charedi world does not have that kind of time. The clock is ticking. People are struggling. Waiting until they ‘do it themselves’ will not relieve the increased crushing poverty that so many of them have fallen into. It will no doubt keep increasing if nothing drastic is done.

Sometimes you have to force someone to do something he doesn’t want to do for his own good. It’s kind of like forcing an alcoholic into rehab. He may resist. But forcing him to do it is necessary for his own survival. Which is why I am disappointed that the government has blinked on this issue.

Another problem articulated by Marty Bluke on his blog is that the solution to Charedi poverty cannot be solved by changing the system from one of learning to one of working. He argues that the large families that typically constitute Charedi families cannot be sustained even by even an above average income. Modern economies are designed to support families of much smaller size. Not to mention the fact that religious Jews need even bigger incomes because of their greater expenses. In the US there is the added burden of back-breaking tuition. 

Marty runs the numbers and concludes that Charedim may very well be better off staying where they are. There - they are able to take advantage of government programs for the poor. And their working wives will be more motivated to support them if they remain loyal to the Charedi ideal of full time Torah study.

While his numbers make sense, they do not really reflect reality. Most working Orthodox families live decent middle class lives. They are usually 2 income families. And their tuition obligations are met with relief as per the financial needs of the family applying for it. Yes, they are pressured to pay as much as possible but no family is bankrupted. They are left to lead more or less middle class lives. Most of them do. There are other intangibles that factor into family sustenance that can’t be quantified with numbers.

But even if Marty was right and large families wouldn’t be much better off if their men worked instead of learned, that doesn’t mean we just give up.  Even if it just increases the tax base and reduces the need to rely on government hand-outs, that alone makes it is worth doing. Except for the most elite Torah scholars among us who should be learning full time and communally supported with a living wage - working for a living is the way of the world since the time of Adam. This is what God requires of mankind. We cannot therefore abandon it.

The wave of the future for Orthodoxy in Israel is indeed Jewish education.  Just as it is in the US. But if Charedim do not modify it to include preparation for the work place with an attendant de-vilification of working for a living, their future is in my view – uncertain.