American vs Israeli haredi sector

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If you would like to read a glowing description of the haredi sector in the U.S. and the Agudath Israel of America, to the detriment of that sector in Eretz Israel, read the op-ed essay by Jerusalem Post editorial page editor, Elliot Jager in Monday’s (21 bIyar) opinion section. In a well-written historial survey titled American Haredi Triumph, he compares the different trajectories taken by Agudah (i.e. haredim) in America and here in the Middle East. He concludes by comparing the Titanic sinking in 1912 (about the same time that Agudath Israel was founded) with the disaster he predicts for Israel’s haredim.

I’d like to believe that today’s Torah sages are not unaware of the disaster that awaits haredi Israel if it does not rethink its response to modernity. I’d recommend along American haredi lines.

Jager gives accolades to the

healthy haredi lifestyle that has taken root in America, one that balances steadfast commitment to religious ultraconservatism with dutiful responsibility to the wider society. Haredi America is raising a future generation of accountants, lawyers, physicians, and businesspeople – many of them also Torah scholars.

It is surprising that Jager, a thoughtful and balanced non-Orthodox writer, does not see the two major problems that are more severe in the American haredi sector than they are here in the Land of Israel. One problem is the gashmius [materialism] of Orthodox American consumerism, that is the product of general American materialism. The other is the level of Torah study in the U.S. which, while very high, does not match the intensity, diversity, and vibrancy of the scholars’ circles in Eretz Israel.

Jager’s call for haredim in Eretz Israel to be more like their American cousins would be equivalent to calling for Lithuanian yeshiva scholars in pre-WWI Slobodka, for example, to be more like their counterparts in the famous Pressberg (Bratislaslava) yeshiva in the opulent Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Slobodka scholars lived in a relatively poor, austere society but reached peaks of scholarship the envy of those in the more well-to-do Central European milieu.

In any case, kudos to Jager for broaching an interesting subject, and for not resorting to cliches & canards about so-called Israeli haredi “parasitism” and army deferments. Nevertheless, he could have shown the strengths and weaknesses of both lifestyles, rather than focusing on the strengths of the Yankees and the weaknesses of their Israeli counterparts.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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26 Responses

  1. NIRCRules says:

    One of Shira’s comments has slipped through without comment:
    >>The Slobodka scholars lived in a relatively poor,
    >>austere society but reached peaks of scholarship
    >>the envy of those in the more well-to-do Central European milieu.

    With all do respect, as a decendent of the Chsam Sofer zt’l, the Pressburg Yeshiva produced all the Rabonim in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the reached their own envious peaks of scholarship and where not envious of their Eastern European counterparts. This is very different from Western Europe, where many left to study in the Eastern European Yeshivos. I am not sure where you got the idea from that the Presburg Yeshiva was inferior to Slabodka et al. If you have a source, please quote it. Thanks!

  2. Edvallace says:

    Joseph,

    Your words demonstrate a serious lack of knowledge on these issues.

    You write:
    “Yes I would like them to join the productive work force. The fact they wish to avoid miliary service and want to subsist on handouts from the government is not my problem to solve.”

    Have you ever spoken to Chareidim who refuse to serve in the army? Are they, as you say, simply looking for a way to receive handouts? It is a fact known to anyone who has ever looked into it that many Chareidim would have no problem serving int he army, if it made a serious attempt to accomodate their religious sensitivities. Simple things like not placing female officers in charge of small groups [designed to “boost morale”], making a serious effort to keep the kitchens kosher [many Hesder refuse to eat army food, and suffer greatly for it], and not force soldiers to perform duties that require desecrating Shabbos [when they are absolutely trivial and non-essential] etc.

    Fact is, the army [according to many Israeli generals] neither wants them nor needs them. And the fact is that very few Chareidim “live” off of govt. subsidies. You’ve never received, so how would you know that they are miniscule and incapable of sustaining the average Chareidi family. The vast majority of the men work. The unfortunate reality is that they must do so secretly, which is bad for them and the economy.

    “The fact is that charedim are resented by the rest of the Israeli society.”

    I’d submit that it depends who you’re talking about. The rift is not nearly as great as you think. Try living there for a while and you’ll see it for yourself.

    “and at some point the government will not be able to provide subsidies”

    The same must be true for university students, Kibbutzim, the Arts, and so many other dependents on the largesse of the Isreali govt.

  3. karina says:

    Do you have any statistics regarding your claim that more chareidim in Israel are leaving orthodoxy than in ths USA, or is it your own personal feeling?

    Even if the claim is unsubstantiated, it may be correct; however; you should note whether this is a statistically proven fact done via a sceintific survey, or if it is your own hunch.

    It’s my very strong impression based on the numbers of programs dealing with wayward youth, newspaper articles and the like. I will try and nail it down.

    No I do not have *proof* that the increasing rigidity of charedi life in the US is contributing to our homegrown problem with at-risk youth. Anyone in doubt of this should talk to the kids.

  4. jabrams says:

    “The majority of Israeli Bochrim are at pretty much the same level as those in Lakewood, Telz, etc”

    no, in understanding not, and in yedoios, perhaps at the high school level, but with the exception of torah she’biktav (an important exception), the Americans typically catch up and outstrip the Israelis.

  5. Joseph says:

    Edvallace,

    Yes I would like them to join the productive work force. The fact they wish to avoid miliary service and want to subsist on handouts from the government is not my problem to solve. The facct is that charedim are resented by the rest of the Israeli society and at some point the government will not be able to provide subsidies.

  6. Moshe Feldman says:

    Consider also that some Israeli Charedi gedolim, such as Rav Shteinman, have tried to be more flexible regarding allowing bochrim who are not successful in learning to integrate into the work world, but the kanoim have tried to stop him. The impression I have is that kanoim are more able to stymie innovation in Israel than they are in America. This has nothing to do with more/less materialism. Rather, it is a function of charedi society in Israel, and of general society in Israel, which tends towards extremes.

    Could the American model work in Israel? Someone I know who sends/sent his kids to Maarava (an American style charedi yeshiva high school) claims that its graduates are very successful in yeshivot gevohot. (Of course, I do get the impression that Maarava is very selective in its admissions.)

    As to why the typical American bochur knows less than the typical Israeli bochur: some posters have claimed that this shows the greater intensity of Israeli yeshivot, or the impact of American materialism. While I do not discount those factors, there is another factor which has been ignored: Israeli yeshiva bochrim have the tremendous advantage of being native Hebrew speakers. This explains why they are way ahead in Tanach, and also explains their head start in gemara (as Aramaic is a cognate language to Hebrew). In fact, there are dati leumi schools which teach secular subjects and whose graduates are much ahead of American charedi yeshivot: for example, at Rav Sabato’s yeshiva in Mitzpeh Yericho, the goal is knowing Shas bekiyut. (I get the impression that that yeshiva puts much less emphasis on secular studies than most dati leumi yeshivot tichoniot, but it probably puts as much emphasis as is placed by many American charedi yeshivot.)

  7. Tstern says:

    As an American living in Israel — and thus able to observe society here from the outside — I can say that Israeli Charedi society is being inundated with materialism. A few examples.

    Clothing — Until three years ago, there were about four women’s clothing stores in the Geula neighborhood, only one of which carried expensive, stylish clothes. Today, there are at least twenty high-end women’s clothing stores in the Malchei Yisrael area.

    Hotels — A quick look in Hebrew-language Charedi magazines and newspapers shows that Israeli Charedim are going to hotels more than ever. This year, Rav Landau of Bnei Brak supervised a hotel for Pesach, something which he, on principle, had always refused to do.

    Apartments — While the typical Israeli Charedi family used to suffice with a cramped two bedroom apartment in the city, more and more young couples are looking for bigger apartments in Elad, Beitar, Bet Shemesh, and Kiryat Sefer.

    Communication — Up to date cellphones are the norm in Charedi society, the recent attempt to ban them notwithstanding.

    The list goes on.

    As for the level of learning in Israel, the comments above are on the mark. A culture of learning does not necessarily translate into actual learning.

  8. Edvallace says:

    Joseph,
    “Karina’s first point is extremely on target. Israeli model of complete insularity and disengagement is NOT sustainable.”

    I’m just wondering what you meant by “complete insularity and disengagement”? Almost every Israeli Bochur learns Mathematics and certain sciences. Obviously learning English is not applicable. What kind of integration would you like them to have and what exactly would you suggest? Would you like them all to attend college? Not happening. Would you like some of them to attend college and learn certain skills? Not a bad idea but then there’s the army issue to contend with and that’s an issue that no one has raised yet on this forum.

    As much as we may wish that Israeli’s join the workforce it’s not going to happen as long they must join the army in order to do so. To date a workable solution has not been found and a difficult situation continues.

  9. Joseph says:

    It really does not matter whether more charedim are leaving orthodoxy in US or Israel. Karina’s first point is extremely on target. Israeli model of complete insularity and disengagement is NOT sustainable.

  10. Sara says:

    I am puzzled by the attribution of that position to R’ Feldman, as I have also heard that NIRC is more-than-usually open to its students attending college… perhaps I have not heard the latter contention correctly

  11. Moshe says:

    Karina-

    Do you have any statistics regarding your claim that more chareidim in Israel are leaving orthodoxy than in ths USA, or is it your own personal feeling?

    Even if the claim is unsubstantiated, it may be correct; however; you should note whether this is a statistically proven fact done via a sceintific survey, or if it is your own hunch.

  12. Moshe says:

    Ben Meir-

    While I’m not denying the veracity of your claims, I have a simple question:

    How will these children make a parnassah?

    In today’s world, it is difficult to get a job without a college degree. If children do not get an elementary school education, how will they be able to support their families? Was Rav Feldman suggesting that if he had the choice, he would close the secular studies department of orthodox day schools? Maybe he was suggesting that we should try to imitate the Israeli Yeshivas in their devotion – I’d find it hard to believe that he was calling for abolishing secular education. I was not at the Torah U’Mesorah convention, so I cannot know, but the story sounds fishy to me.

    Allow me to relate something that I heard from Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl, the Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem. He once related to me that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would send students from Israel to the USA in order to go to college, as he felt that a college degree was necessary to earn a living in the USA. You can check with Rav Nevenzahl regarding the truth of this story.

    I don’t know if Rav Shlomo Zalman sent every Yeshiva student from the USA studying in Israel back to the USA, but I doubt it. He realized that many students will not continue on a path of Torah related employment, and as such, they must prepare themselves for their lives ahead, and not just bury their heads in the sand and parrot “Hashem will help, Hashem will help”. Hashem will truly help – but our hishtadlus is required as well. There is no doubt that our personal hishtadlus comes at a cost of a decrease in personal Torah study, yet this is something that Hashem requests and demands from us.

  13. Zev says:

    And where are all the Israeli gedolim that have been produced recently? I don’t see a whole lot of them either.

    Everyone knows that a serious American yeshiva guy is the match, in understanding certainly, for any Israeli. In addition, there was for many years (and perhaps still is), a certain earnestness to be found among the Americans that is rarely found among Israelis. But in the final analysis, I agree with Mrs. Katz: eilu va’eilu divrei elokim chaim! May both camps increase!

  14. Edvallace says:

    Karina,
    you write:
    “It is also worth pointing out that the numbers leaving orthodoxy altogether are higher among charedim in Israel than in America (though they are rising in the US as haredi society becomes more rigid).”

    Is this a fact that you can prove or are you merely speculating? I’m not arguing one way or the other, I’d just like you to back up such a powerful statement. Please show that more Israeli’s are leaving the fold than Americans and please demonstrate that the numbers in America are rising due to the recent trend toward “rigidity”.

  15. ben meir says:

    I heard his words (dehainu I am not interpreting them) and to quote “America does not (could be he even said has not) produce Gedolim”. He laid the blame at the dual program and general lack of intensity in America. I spent many years in E”Y and I can attest to all types of problems in Israeli Charedi society. An adam choshuv once said that as far as lomdus is concerned the typical 17 year old American is far ahead of his Israeli cousin, but in yedius the Israeli is ahead. The American catches up by around 20, while many Israelis drop our due to burnout etc.

    I am not making a judgement call on which is superior, all I am presenting is one Godol’s view and concerns, which by the way were not shared at all by the other Gedolim there.

  16. Davkanik says:

    “He challenged the other Roshei Yeshiva on the symposium dais to find a 16 year old Bochur who has learned thru Kesubos 10 times and knows every Tosfos by heart (like Israeli Bochrim)”

    I believe that R’ Feldman’s words are being twisted here. The number of 16 year old Israeli Bochrim who know every Tosfos in Kesubos are minute, 1 in 5000 at best. I speak here from experience, having learned with the boys in the Ponevezh Yeshiva Ketana (arguably one of the best places to find a learned 16 year old in Israel) during my time in Ponevezh Yeshiva. To claim that “Israeli Bochrim” are all of this caliber is deceptive and inaccurate. The truth is that there are those very very few Israeli teenagers who make the most of their time in Yeshiva Ketina (i.e. high school) and are far ahead of their American counterparts. The majority of Israeli Bochrim are at pretty much the same level as those in Lakewood, Telz, etc.

  17. ben meir says:

    Lakewood is definitely the prototype, and Lakewood itself is more a product of how many Yungeleit spent time in Eretz Yisroel than Reb Aharon’s original vision. Couple that with the fact that most younger Roshei Yeshiva learnt in Eretz Yisroel (and Brisk in particular) and we will see a rise in the E’Y model as opposed to the Aguda/Torah U’Mesorah model of today.

  18. karina says:

    The moderate charedi model is a *sustainable* model, economically and otherwise.
    The israeli model is unsustainable even with state aid and that aid can’t be counted on permanently.

    It is also worth pointing out that the numbers leaving orthodoxy altogether are higher among charedim in Israel than in America (though they are rising in the US as haredi society becomes more rigid).

  19. jabrams says:

    “At the recent Torah U’Mesorah convention, Rav Aron Feldman, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, pointed out the difference between Israeli Charedim and their American counterparts. He said that America has sold itself a myth, that we can have it all – limudei Kodesh and secular educations, both worlds etc.”

    First, RFeldman errs greatly if he believes that the distraction in America is the few hours of secular studies the boys have each day. The distraction is built into American culture and is due to our prosperity; getting rid of secular studies won’t change matters. Chassidic kids, with no secular education also are more distracted in the US. Materialism, shopping, the fast pace of life here, the attractiveness of *popular* culture (not higher culture or education), these are the distractions in the US.

    Second, american kids understand learning better, on average, than the israeli kids. Every american who learns in israel knows this. The memorization and high concentration model doesn’t work well on average. It is true that when it works, the americans don’t catch up, but this is at the *very* tip of the culture, as I’ve written. This is not a phenomenon that would justify changing the culture at large, since apart from the isolated individuals (and they are really individuals) who benefit more from the israeli model, the americans are producing more who learn well.

    We are not doing as well keeping the elite in learning for the long term, this would be because we don’t have the threat of army service and also because our economy has more and better jobs.

  20. jabrams says:

    “The other is the level of Torah study in the U.S. which, while very high, does not match the intensity, diversity, and vibrancy of the scholars’ circles in Eretz Israel.”

    WADR, are you qualified to evaluate this?

    The average level of Torah study in the US is as high as in Israel, the difference is among the superelite. By which I mean top half of one percent. Nonetheless, despite rank and file Americans routinely coming to Israeli yeshivos better prepared than Israelis of the same age , the Israelis still condescend to the American Haredim. And you’ve picked up their attitude.
    The area where israelis are typically stronger is in torah she’biktav, which they absorb at a young age and american yeshivos teach badly. The irony here is that americans going to israel find their learning more superficial, iow, the travel from slabodka to hungary is in the direction of us to israel.

  21. Dov Wachmann says:

    Moshe,
    Lakewood is not the face of the contemporary American Haredi scene but I suspect that it may well be a sound predictor of what the American Haredi scene will look like in 20 years from now (if Moshiach has Ch”v not yet come). There can be no question that HoRav Aharon Kotler’s founding of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha in the old European model eventually impacted all Yeshivos. The “trickle-down” effect of the “Olom Hayeshivos” has even reached (directly and indirectly) the Young Israel movement.

    Yes, it is entirely possible that only Lakewood and Monsey will get closer to the Israeli model while NYC Haredim will in general stick to the current model but I wouldn’t bet on it…

  22. Toby Katz says:

    Eretz Yisrael and Bavel cross-fertilized each other for centuries, during the entire period of the Bayis Sheini. Those who wanted to learn Torah intensively, full-time, went to E”Y to learn (remember the famous Hillel — Hillel the Bavli? His sayings in Pirkei Avos are written in the language that was natural for him, his native tongue, Aramaic.) When the yeshivos in E”Y needed to do some fund-raising, they sent emissaries to the more affluent communities in Bavel.

    When the Second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, Torah as well as money fled to Babylonia and remained there for a thousand years. That part of our history will not be repeated. Torah will not leave Eretz Yisrael again — that is the mesorah I was given and my firm belief.

    But it is no accident that chareidi communities in Israel and chut la’aretz have taken different paths. It’s Providential in the fullest sense of the term. These two communities have a symbiotic relationship that enriches both, materially and spiritually.

    Yes, the yetzer hara of America is materialism. But the opportunity of America is wealth, without which the yeshivos of E”Y cannot survive. To bring the pursuit of wealth (even for noble causes) into the culture of E”Y would be to diminish its greatness and its intensity. Instead, each chareidi community has to continue to develop in its own way.

  23. Moshe says:

    Dov-

    Not to disrespect you, but Lakewood is not the face of the American Charedi public. Lakewood is definitely in a trend to become more like Israel (see this post by Marvin Schick http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2005/05/20/kollel-only-schools/), but who says whether this is the general trend? I’d guess that the trend is not like you think – see the entire Slifkin Book fiasco, in which the American Moetzes refused to put the book in Cherem, even though Lakewood Rabbonim signed onto the Israeli ban.

  24. Dov Wachmann says:

    The contemporary wisdom seems to be that the American Haredi model is a long-term alternative version to the Israeli Haredi model. How many consider the possiblity that the American Haredi model is slowly becoming and will increasingly become closer to the Israeli model than vice versa?

    I know people in Lakewood NJ who are college-educated who send their sons to Kodesh-only mesivtos. As to Rav Feldman’s question about 16 year old bochurim who have learned Kesuvos 10 times and know every tosafos just this motzoei Shabbos I attended a siyum here in Lakewood made by a 14 year-old mesivta bochur (yes he attends a kodesh only mesivta) who completed Bavli Seder Moed (709 dafim) in his spare time.

  25. ben meir says:

    At the recent Torah U’Mesorah convention, Rav Aron Feldman, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, pointed out the difference between Israeli Charedim and their American counterparts. He said that America has sold itself a myth, that we can have it all – limudei Kodesh and secular educations, both worlds etc. He challenged the other Roshei Yeshiva on the symposium dais to find a 16 year old Bochur who has learned thru Kesubos 10 times and knows every Tosfos by heart (like Israeli Bochrim). The American Roshei Yeshiva defended the American model, but Rav Fedman — who while American born and bred, has only recently returned to America — definitely struck a cord at the convention.

  26. Edvallace says:

    Shira,

    Essays such as Jager’s are so laughably ridiculous it boggles the mind why one would comment upon them. I’d no sooner give a moments thought to what he has to say about how “Hareidim” ought to conduct their lives than I would if a Bhuddist priest gave a similar lecture. The only ones qualified to make any point in this matter are those who are currently living an Orthodox life. Media members and others looking to fill space in a paper or blog are invited to try their hand at something more wothwhile than advising religious people on how to style their brand of Orthodoxy. At some point I have to believe that even a writer lige Jager will come to grips with the fact that no matter how balanced he is, his views on how we go about living our lives and how we need to modify them to fit his image of the ideal Hareidi, are about as realistic as my childhood dream of being an astronaut.

    If he’d like an exchange of ideas, I have more than a few points for him to consider on how the media in Israel must style itself after the media in America. Boy would that be a discussion!