Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dependency and Isolationism as a Way of Life

Chasidic children. What does their future hold? (Image fromVIN)
People who belong to Chasidic communities like Satmar and Skvere are known to have some of the happiest lifestyles in the world. Family life is relatively stable. People there not only get along, but are like one big family. Their lives surround serving God in joyous ways. They are led by a Chasidic Rebbe who sees them all as his children. They see him as the ultimate caring parent that will go to superhuman lengths for his ‘family’ of Chasidim. 

Some of the benefits include being relieved of major life decisions, most of which are decided by the Rebbe. People get married very young - with minimal effort. No dating takes place. One or two meetings in the home of one of their parents who have put this young couple together – and that’s it. They get married, have a family and live happily ever after. There are few communities where the divorce rate is so low. (Although I’m told it is increasing.)

Even those that have left these communities angry - and under less than ideal conditions - will tell you about the beauty of that lifestyle. So why in heaven’s name would I have any problem with a community like this?

Well, we’ve been down this road before. But when I see a video like the one below, it really makes me angry. Because to whatever extent they are successful, it comes with a price. One that shows a less than flattering picture of what is really going on there. A material price for many of the families. And an actual cost to federal and state governments distributing funds they could not live without.

With all of that legitimate joy experienced by these families, that is one other thing they have in common. Poverty. Now they will probably say that they are happy to live in poverty because of the trade-off of in satisfaction and happiness they get. But at the same time I have to wonder if they could survive even at a poverty level without government aid in various forms of welfare. Or even if they are all telling the truth about how they really feel about the level of poverty they live under. 

Are they as happy as they say they are? Are they perhaps afraid to say anything negative for fear of communal consequences? I know that there are some in that community that complain about it and blame their circumstances on the lack of preparation they get to help them help themselves. That was made clear in that video by a Chasid that is still a part of that community. The only question is how many of them are like him but fear the consequences of dissent?

Not that I would deprive anyone in need of legal government assistance. Certainly they have the same right as anyone else to take advantage of our government’s generosity. But when their needs are based on a purposeful failing, I begin to question the morality and ethics of it. Their poverty is real. But the reason for their poverty is due to (among other things) a lack of a decent secular education in a culture that extols ignorance and isolation. A community that rightfully places a high value of religious studies, but wrongfully ignores the basic elements of an education that will allow their members to function in a 21st century world.

The requirement of Judaism to study Torah does not mean that studying other basics of living in the 21st century should be discarded.  And yet they not only do they not offer such studies (to anyone over the age of 13) they discourage it. They even discourage speaking English properly, learning it as a second language. Seeing it as a necessary evil so that one can function at a rudimentary level in the world.

If one listens to a typical Satmar or Skvere Chasid born in the USA, they speak a grammatically incorrect broken version of English that sounds like they just immigrated from Europe. They do this on purpose as a means of isolating themselves from the outside culture. All of which they see as bad - the antithesis of a Torah lifestyle.

Since they are so ill equipped to deal with the outside culture – where most of the jobs are they end up menial jobs that are very low paying. And because most of them have such low incomes and large families they qualify for welfare at maximum levels. Which they are encouraged to take full advantage of. So in essence you have a community where people are raised to be poor and to depend of the government for their basic sustenance.

At this point I should mention that there are exceptions. There are some Chasidim of this type that are multi millionaires that have somehow found success in business. And to their credit most of them are very generous to their fellow Chasidim – providing financial aid to them in a variety of ways. Like funding free loan societies. But these multi millionaires are tiny in number compared to the vast majority.

It’s one thing to be poor because of circumstances beyond your control. No one would deny government aid to people like that. But when an isolationist Hashkafa discourages people from gaining the means to help themselves, that is a horse of an entirely different color. Do such people have a moral right to these funds – even if they have the legal right?

As upsetting as this is to me, it is only half of the story. According to statistics cited in this video, government funding for their schools are in the 10s of millions of dollars every year. Remember, we are talking about parochial schools, not public schools. Just to cite one statistic -in 2014 Satmar received $20 million in federal funds for its Brooklyn schools. That is $1800 per student. Contrast that with the $9 million in federal aid to the Catholic schools. That’s $112 per student.

It would be one thing if that money was used as intended. Much of which is supposed to be for government mandated secular studies programs. But the fact is that not a dime of it is used for that. How could it be if a secular studies program does not even exist past age 13. What does exist before that age is minimal - consisting  of rudimentary English and basic math. Hoe basic? During the course of an interview with an expatriate Satmar Chasid in this video, he tells us about a bright young Chasid who desires to learn more than he is given and when he tells him that he is studying advanced math he that thinks that means studying fractions!

The defenders of these communities will argue that they have a right to live the way they choose. Freedom of religion assures that. Their happy and successful lifestyles should be something to admire and even emulate. Avoiding the evils of the outside world fills their lives with pure Kedusha - holiness of the type the rest of us can only dream about! Why would we want to do anything to undermine that?

If they are happy despite their poverty who are we to challenge their way of life? Who are we to take away the legal welfare resources they need to in order to just survive at very basic levels? Who are we to take away funding from their schools which could destroy them? We should not only not undermine them, we should help support them!

I’m sorry, but I see this as an abuse of the system at so many levels that as a coreligionist - it embarrasses me.

Why should we care? Because they are our brothers. We should care about how the fastest growing demographic in all of Jewry operates in this world. A demographic that touts itself as the most devout among us. What they do, how they live, affects all of us.

Alas, nothing will change. They will continue to get funding because the politicians that get elected and make the laws, need their block vote. There is no way they are going to mess up their chances of getting re-elected by taking away or reducing funding

So why am I writing about this? Because it is the truth as I understand it. And because I needed to vent.