Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Perpetuating Poverty in Israel

Image  from Kikar
To say that Charedim are uneducated is a misnomer. They are educated in the most important area of study to the Jewish people: Torah study. There is no question that in the Charedi world, learning Torah is the highest calling.

Listing numerous important Mitzvos, the Mishna (Peah 1:1) tells us ‘Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam’ Torah study is opposite (equal to) all of them. Using this dictum as their guide they push aside all other concerns in favor of it. They are steeped in Torah study from day one. To the virtual exclusion of all other studies.

The problem of course is that by eliminating all other studies, they end up woefully short changed on a variety of subjects necessary for survival in the 21st century. Not the least of which is how to make a decent living. This has been shown yet again to be the case. Reporting on data gathered by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jerusalem Post says: 
In 2014 there were 1,709,300 people, including 444,900 families and 776,500 children living below the poverty line…
The poverty rate among ultra-Orthodox families stood at 54.3%, accounting for 17.5% of poor families in Israel. 
According to Kikar HaShabbat (Hebrew) 2 out of every 3 Charedi children are in this category!

That the other 83% are not Charedi is a sad statistic but one that in most instances is not due to choice. There are a variety of reasons why there is such a high number of poor people in Israel. But the one difference between the Charedi poor and the non Charedi poor is that non Charedim do not have leaders telling them to avoid studies that will help them learn how to make a living.

In the case of Charedim it is a willful mindset instilled in them by their leaders that learning how to make a living while they are in a Yeshiva is an unacceptable  distraction from their Torah studies. Teaching their young how to make a living is not the job of Yeshivos, they will say. The job of Yehsivos is to learn Torah.  Period.

What about making a living?  Sure… they will say that too is important. But that is to be done outside the walls of a Yeshiva.

That attitude would be fine if they allowed their young to study those needs outside of the Yeshiva. But their daily schedule makes that a virtual impossibility. Nor do they trust any curriculum designed by non Charedim. Which by definition makes designing a curriculum impossible since they are not qualified to do so. Besides Charedim study Torah day and night – with little time off in between other than lunch and supper breaks. And breaks for prayers. They do this well after they get married.

As I’ve said many times, by the time they feel they have no choice but to go to work to support their growing families, they are ill equipped to do so. While many Charedim who have left the confines of the Beis HaMedrash do find programs that cater to and teach them skills they can market - many of them find it difficult if not impossible to make the transition to the classroom. Which leaves them with no recourse accept to work at menial low paying jobs. Hence, the poverty.

As reported last week last week, there was yet another impediment to their ability to rise of poverty. Women have been barred from academic study or anything leading to it. They do have secular studies programs that give them a better ability then Charedi men to train for better jobs. But Charedi leadership has pulled the reins back very tightly on that ability. This can only increase the poverty as the Charedi class increases exponentially every generation.

In my view Charedim are victims of a system perpetuated by the kind of leaders that met last week in Bnei Brak. A meeting that served to impede the earning potential of their people.

One very wise person told me in a private e-mail, it’s hard to have compassion for those who are poor by choice. I would revise that to say ‘poor by the choice of their leadership’. A leadership that is determined to keep forbidding the means that will help them help themselves. Which keeps them poor.

Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klien* has written an excellent analysis in the Forward explaining why these rabbis have come down so hard against academic study for their women.  She does not think it has anything to do with being anti-feminist. Here in part is how she puts it: 
This isn’t a gender issue. This is a secular education issue and a government control issue. Historically, the haredi rabbinate in Israel, since well before the founding of the State of Israel, has been vehemently against secular education. It has strongly resisted any attempts to institute secular education, especially from outside forces and especially with regards to men in the community.
Accordingly, there is very little new in this declaration. It did not roll back women’s rights, it restated the status quo — the community’s prohibition against attending secular educational institutions… (The haredi leadership doesn’t) want any haredis in the secular education system… 
All this being said, do these statements reveal an ignorance of or possible rewriting of the history of Bais Yaakov and its attitude towards secular studies?
Absolutely. The original European Bais Yaakov school system was built and supported by Agudas Yisrael [Agudath Israel], the same organization that sponsored the gathering of rabbis that issued these statements against secular education.
Bais Yaakov and Agudas Yisrael were both outgrowths of German Neo-Orthodoxy and influenced by the ideology of its founder, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch believed that secular education was a positive good that could help individuals strengthen their religious commitment and successfully address the challenges to Orthodoxy inherent in the modern world.
The curriculum of the Bais Yaakov seminary, the flagship institution of the movement, contained a strong secular studies component, including pedagogy, psychology, German and Polish language, literature, history, geography, and reading German philosophers such as Schiller and Goethe.
These courses were taught by German Orthodox academics, many with PhDs from secular universities, who Agudas Yisrael imported to Poland to bring some academic gravitas to the movement. But Bais Yaakov and Agudas Yisrael have long shed their ideological connection to Rabbi Hirsch.
I think she hit the nail on its head.

*Full disclosure: Leslie is my daughter’s sister in law and a good friend.