Monday, June 15, 2015

Is the Pendulum Really Swinging Back?

Rabbi  Bezalel Cohen, founder of Hachmey Lev  (Jewish Journal)
It seems as if reality is finally kicking in among Charedim. At least in America. And  at least as far as the grass roots are concerned. There are several developments along this front. I was sent an article* published in the Charedi women’s magazine, Binah, where its Charedi author expresses this reality.  

As I have said many times the paradigm in America has shifted since the days of my youth. The writer notes (as I have in the past) that this is because of Rav Aharon Kotler. And adds Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan’s contributions to it for women. They changed it from a system where Jewish men sought to support their families and this is what young women were looking for in a mate - to one where supporting your family was ignored in favor of full time Torah study and women looking for that in a mate instead.

Now only those men are considered marriage material. All this has created what the writer calls a Parnassa crisis. One that is exacerbated by the fact that some Charedi high schools have abandoned secular studies altogether. So when a Kollel man finally feels the need to go out and work, he is ill prepared to do so. Not only professionally but even socially.

It becomes a humiliating experience for him. He has become accustomed to the Kollel lifestyle. One that typically allows him a lot of time off for holidays and pre holidays; most  Fridays off by noon; an entire month off during the Pesach season; 3 weeks off after Yom Kippur for the Sukkos season; and a 3 week summer vacation period after Tisha B’Av. 

They are untrained professionally and unprepared for the culture of the workplace that gives no where near that kind of time off a Kollel does. Days taken off for a Yom Tov often need to be made up using vacation days.  Vacation days that do not usually exceed a couple of weeks a year. Certainly at entry level jobs. Not to mention needing make up the time lost by leaving work early on Fridays during the short winter days.

The culture shock of the workplace alone is enough unnerve anyone used to the Kollel culture. But that doesn’t even come close to the feelings of inadequacy of not being trained enough for the work you are hired to do – even if you are lucky enough to be hired lacking those skills.

The writer acknowledges this lack of preparation in the Charedi world today and sees the pendulum swinging back.  There are some former Avreichim actually attending college to better the financial situations of their families.

But over 50 years of indoctrinating them about the superiority of learning Torah full time in a Kollel and the 2nd class citizenship of working for a living has taken its toll. They now feel that their former mentors and peers look down at them. (I am reminded of friend that left an Israeli Kollel life after 9 years and lost the bond he had with his Rosh Kollel because of it. Soon after leaving – he tried getting some advice from him and basically got a cold shoulder.) So it isn’t surprising that one feels devalued when leaving Kollel to go to college.

I actually sympathize with young Kollel familes that face this dilemma. But at least in most cases they had a basic high school education. So going to college and earning a degree in a profession that will enable them to earn them a decent living is a realistic possibilty – even as it is difficult to adjust to a new lifestyle.

As the pendulum continues to shift more people will take these kinds of opportunities and the community of the moderate Charedim will continue to expand. These new Charedim will still strongly identify with their Hashkafa. What is changing, I believe, is the value placed on working for a living. While those who study Torah full time will still be looked up to, working Charedim will not be looked down upon. They will instead not lose their stature as Charedim and instead be considered valuable contributors to the Klal. They will hopefully no longer feel inferior.

Meanwhile Israeli Charedim lag far behind American Charedim in this regard. And the recent restoration of welfare and child benefits is not helping the situation. Nor does it help that the Charedi leaders continue to reject even a modest secular curriculum in high schools. The poverty of Charedim in Israel is extreme. There is no argument about that.

Any yet I can’t even count the number of times I have heard a comment like the following: These people put themselves into this situation voluntarily. They choose Torah study even while knowing the financial sacrifices that entails. So they willing live lives of poverty so that they can pursue that goal.

While I’m sure that’s true in some cases - I am hard pressed to believe that it is true in most cases.  One need only look at the ‘creative’ ways they try and live middle class lifestyles. Which includes utilizing the welfare system; working wives, financial help from parents, in-laws, and grandparents; free loan societies, and maxing out all of their credit cards.  All resulting in major debt.

I have always maintained that for the Israeli paradigm to change, there has to be a grass roots movement to do so. And it seems to be happening. While there are Charedi college level programs avialble in Israel, there is still a very serious impediment for large scale improvement in Charedim getting the kind of education they need to support their families witrh a decent income: the lack of any secular studies programs in their high schools. But that too may be changing for reasons that may be more serious than the very real problems of Parnassa.

Bezalel  Cohen, has created Hachmey Lev, a Yeshiva high school in Israel that has a secular studies program.  He understands that not everyone is  cut out to do the same thing… not matter how noble that ‘thing’ is. Here is how he puts it in an article in the Jewish Journal
“Educate each child according to his own path,” the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “and he will not stray from it, even when he is old.” And yet, when it comes to educating Haredi youth in Israel, we still have much to learn. Quite honestly, there is nothing short of an education crisis in our community. Rather than providing real choices, our leaders have traditionally insisted that Haredi students have only one path: a formal, rote curriculum dominated by intensive Talmud study, with no option for students to take general studies. 
As this community continues to grow exponentially, so too will the dropout rate: 
The reality is that in the absence of a meaningful alternative, nearly a third of Haredi teenage boys will continue to become alienated from both mainstream Israeli society and the traditional ways of their community. Many drop out of school, spend their time on the streets, or are lost to the Haredi community altogether. They are unable to build families and successful lives.
If his numbers are anywhere near true, this problem is a lot worse now than I could have imagined. And it will only get worse.

The question remains whether the mainstream Charedim in Israel will seek this kind of education for their children – bucking their leadership demand that their high schools remain ‘secular studies free zones’ ...or will they continue their policy of saying their leaders know best and sacrifice (at least some of) their kids on that alter? Only time will tell. 

*Hat tip: Marty Bluke