Guest Contribution by Paul Shaviv
I am once again pleased to host the words of renowned Jewish educator, Paul Shaviv. His comments are always thoughtful, informative, and incisive. This post is no exception. As always the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect my own. His words follow:
As some readers of this esteemed blog will know, I write a weekly newsletter, which deals with school operational issues. The last two issues, prompted by the failure of “pollsters and pundits” to foresee the results of the Presidential election, talked about missing obvious signs of imminent change. You can read them here (#31) and here (#32).
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Over the coming decades we will see revolutions in the way we work and the way we live. Automation will completely upturn the workplace – even in the ‘thinking professions’.
There will not be any work available for a significant proportion of the population; and that will be the norm. Many professions and occupations will simply disappear. Whatever can be automated – will be automated.
A small number of very highly educated engineers, computer scientists and similar top professionals will enjoy secure, well-paid employment. Unskilled jobs will be low paid and highly competitive. Many will work only occasionally, or never.
Governments will have to devise a system of ‘Universal benefit’.
How will this affect Jewish life in general; and Orthodox life in particular?
Social, economic and political turbulence over the last four hundred years or so generated major changes in Judaism – the Sabbatean heresy, Hasidism, the Volozhin and Pressburg Yeshivot, Zionism, Hirschian Judaism, the Haredi philosophy of the Chatam Sofer, Torah uMadda, Beis Yaakov – and an array of non-Orthodox movements and institutions. They all arose against a backdrop of change (or trauma) in general society around them.
Are the ingredients for a similar change present today?
I would like to discuss just two components of a developing situation, and hypothesize some possible outcomes.
- The most tantalizing – and perhaps the most powerful – is to foresee a Jewish community version of the ‘populist politics’ which characterized recent events in the USA, the UK, France, Italy, Austria and elsewhere.
In all of these scenarios, popular movements ‘of the people’ ignored “elitist” leadership, and acted in surprising ways.
In today’s Orthodox world, it is not far-fetched to compare the Haredi and RWO leadership – their policies, pronouncements and attitudes – to the leadership of the Democratic party in the American elections, or the “Remain” Tory leadership in the UK Brexit referendum.
In both of those cases, leadership completely misread the real concerns of the people they claimed to represent – and paid the price.
- While every Haredi/Hasid that I know is gasping for better (= basic) secular education in the Haredi schools, the Aguda is proclaiming that it rejects it.
- While every Jewish family is groaning under the financial cost of leading a Jewish lifestyle, our leadership seems to be totally unconcerned.
- While every thoughtful Jew is clamoring for solutions to the personal crises around shidduchim (on the one hand), and to the extortion around gittin and agunah situations (on the other) – the rabbinic establishment is largely silent, resistant or in collusion.
- Rightly or wrongly, in the tide of public concern about safety of children, the public perceives that the rabbinic establishment is far too often more concerned with protecting perpetrators than victims.
- Orthodoxy is getting more and more restrictive. The effect of this is to progressively limit ‘social literacy’ -- the flexibility for observant Jews to function in larger society – and thus in the workforce.
In a time of disruption in employment patterns and uncertainty in incomes….. how much longer will the Orthodox public bear these situations?
- Will the current trickle of Orthodox children enrolled in public schools turn into a current?
- Will new voices and new groups begin to organize and be heard?
- Are there nascent signs of these tendencies in such disparate phenomena as the near-universal ignoring of the cell phone ban?
- - or, in a different way, the emergence of the Orthodox womens’ movement?
- - or even the emergence of YCT/OO?
- - or demands for less stringent, and less expensive, Pesach standards?
- Might we see a new Jewish vegetarian movement, driven by cost? Is there a Rav somewhere who will promote that idea – and other cost-saving rulings - ‘l’tovat hatzibbur’?
The possible list is very long.
2. A second component is the rapidly changing Jewish family.
There are growing numbers of single parents, interfaith families, same-sex partnerships (formal and informal), elderly, and, in certain circles, a growing constituency of OTD groups. There is a small, but constant constituency of children where one parent is still observant, and one has left observance entirely. Special needs children and adults are one constituency for whom the Orthodox community has made provision; but real ‘inclusion’ still has a long way to go.
And, of course, there are many stable families, with wonderful parents, across the Orthodox spectrum, looking at mounting expenses and mounting debt.
None of these groups are going away any time soon.
But, with some (laudable) local exceptions, they and their needs are more or less invisible in the Orthodox community.
I have three predictions:
- These groups will not acquiesce in being ignored forever. Sooner or later they will organize and make their voices heard, and demand representation – but how? Social media will be central.
- The community institutions – synagogues and schools – will be changed by the act of recognizing their changing membership profiles. Structure, tone and content will all have to change.
- The volunteer and charity organizations will be stretched to their limit. However, in a shrinking workforce, there may be many more volunteer hours available…. No money, but plenty of volunteers.
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I have no idea whether these brief thoughts are prophetic, or crazy. There have been many similar articles in the press and online recently. As I point out in my newsletters, the situation of the ‘Rust belt’ is already not far from what I describe; that is what propelled Mr. Trump into the White House. Our community, overwhelmingly living on the East Coast and West Coast, is concentrated in non-industrial occupations. It has largely been isolated and insulated from the effects of the collapse of industrial and agricultural employment in the USA. But it will encroach on us soon.
Schools and, probably synagogues, face their biggest reforms for perhaps 150 years. Society is changing; education must change; and our community must change.
Who will lead the way?
Paul Shaviv is an independent Educational Consultant, specializing in School Management and Crisis Support for schools. You can subscribe to his newsletter here.