A War for the Future of the Torah Community as Well

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Last week, I ran into an acquaintance at a minyan in Boro Park. “The situation is azoi shver,” he told me, as he directed his woeful gaze upwards. I asked him whether he was talking about the financial situation or the war in Gaza.

Actually, the war in Gaza and the economic disaster that has hit the Torah community are not unrelated. The drying up of the vast philanthropic resources of America has hit Israeli Torah institutions at all levels, from high school age mesivtos to yeshivos to kollelim. A number are on the verge of closure. Kollelim have stopped paying stipends and yeshivos and mesivtos are cutting down on food for bochurim.

Housing for young couples in the major chareidi centers of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak is almost impossible to find. Thousands of young couples in Jerusalem are starting married life in tiny apartments consisting of little more than a bedroom and kitchen, often without even a window.

The Israeli system of long-term learning is predicated on the assumption that newly married couples will start life together with their own apartment. Otherwise, it is argued, rent alone will gobble up most of the couple’s income from his kollel stipend and whatever she can earn. With even the kollel stipend increasingly in doubt, that argument only takes on added force.

The problem, however, is that the number of parents who can afford apartments of $160,000 in “projects,” like Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, or Ramat Beit Shemesh, much less $200,000 (minimum!) in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak is dwindling rapidly. Fewer and fewer families have the savings to buy half of one such apartment, much less eight or nine.

As a consequence, more and more young couples committed to the husband’s long-term Torah learning will have to consider communities on the periphery, where apartment prices are one-third to one-quarter of those in the main Torah centers. Those willing to make the sacrifice of moving away from their families represent the future of Torah learning in Israel. These are the avreichim who did not hang a price tag around their necks, but instead chose their spouses based on their commitment to Torah learning and capability of building a Torah home. That is why the gedolei Torah have made support for kollelim on the periphery a high priority.

The catch is that most of the communities on the periphery are also well within the range of Hamas or Hizbullah missiles. Ofakim, Netivot, and Tifrach in the south are just three examples of communities with a Torah presence, hit by Hamas missiles last week. Ashdod, Israel’s fifth largest city and home to a large Torah community, is now in missile range of Gaza. In addition, any new communities built in response to the critical chareidi housing shortage are likely to be on the periphery, which by definition means within missile range of Gaza or southern Lebanon.

Thus the outcome of the current Israeli military operation in Gaza is of crucial importance for the future or Israel’s Torah community. If the operation ends with Hamas’s missile launching capacity largely intact, and with the terror group free to upgrade its missiles, as it did during the recent six-month ceasefire, it is unlikely that southern Israel will witness a rapid growth in the Torah-learning community. The large yeshivos in Ashdod, for instance, all left the city after the first fatal missile hit last week.

The choice facing the Israeli government is between two precedents: the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The former, following a month in which 130 Jews were murdered in terrorist attacks, resulted in the virtual elimination of terror from the West Bank.

By contrast, the Second Lebanon War was widely perceived as an Israeli defeat. After a highly effective initial thirty-eight minutes of bombing, which wiped out Hizbullah’s infrastructure in southern Beirut and most of its long-range missiles, the government dithered unconscionably for the next month. On the last day of the thirty-four-day war, Hizbullah was still able to rain 300 missiles on Israel, and in the two years since, Hizbullah has succeeded in obtaining twice as many missiles as it had at the outset of the 2006 fighting.

Last week’s fighting in Gaza brought back painful memories of the Second Lebanon War. Once again fighting began with highly successful pinpoint bombing. Yet for all the power of the Israeli air campaign, it failed to suppress Hamas missile fire, just as it failed to suppress Hizbullah missile fire in 2006.

And once again, after the initial successful bombing, the Israeli government showed signs of confusion about what to do next. After less than three days, Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly entertained the idea of a new ceasefire that would have left Hamas with pretty much the same capacities as at the beginning of fighting.

As it had in Lebanon, the government hesitated about committing ground troops, likely out of fear that the public would not tolerate heavy military casualties — a consideration that took on added force in the midst of an election campaign. As former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon said last week, “We have reached a dangerous point in this country in which we are no longer willing to accept military casualties. Instead we accept civilian casualties. But the role of the army is to defend civilians, and not vice versa.”

Even when Israel finally sent in ground troops on Saturday night, there was talk of a short ground action ahead of French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s visit early in the week. Yet any ground action that does not result in Israel taking control of the northern Gaza Strip, from which most of the missiles targeting Beersheba, Ashdod, and Ashkelon are fired, and end Hamas’s ability to smuggle in advanced weaponry via tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor, will only return us to the previous unstable ceasefire. Hamas used the ceasefire to attain longer-range missiles from Iran and to vastly improve its defensive capacities against Israeli troops. Thus any delay in a ground operation now only guarantees a more costly operation, in terms of Jewish lives, at some future date.

Even as we look to the south and pray for the safety of Jewish soldiers and the 800,000 Israeli civilians under mortal threat from Hamas missiles, we should also add a prayer for the future of the Torah community in the south.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha, Wednesday January 7, 2009.

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21 Responses

  1. Leah says:

    LOberstein: I hear you on “times are not now good.” Yet, we just had a raffle here and we were down almost ten thousand dollars from last year. everyone was calling left and right and saying that the times are tight. I was discouraged and you know what? In under two weeks we raised almost six thousand more than last year. It made me think that the Jewish community comes together when times are tough- not only when “the times are good.” We did it because we had the “cause” in mind.
    I believe that times really are very tight and that many people just don’t have the funds and are hurting. I have seen them give, though, in spite of this.

  2. Oren says:

    Where can i get a Jerusalem dira (apartment) for only $200,000, approx 725,000 shekeles?

  3. L.Oberstein says:

    We need to avoid reflexive “chareidi bashing”. Ths doesn’t mean that I sudlenly realized that there was nothing to criticize,rather, it isn’t the only issue and at a time of danger, it isn’t the issue to focus on.There is no simple solution to the viability of the State of Israel. It boils down to religious faith, which makes it easier to carry on. If one lacks faith, then the long term issues are worrisome. None of the solutions are quick and easy and those that seem so would not be allowed by the nations of the world. What will keep Israel strong is internal peace, a common determination and a willingness by all to do their part. My son in the Mir honesly in his heart and soul believes that his learning is defending Israel. I hope he is right.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Most here have pen-to-paper or keyboard-to-computer combat experience.

  5. Steven says:

    Dovid –

    You are correct and I apologize for my comments with respect to Gedolei Israel. In general, people in their 40’s, 50’s, etc. should not be infantry front line troops. I over reacted and am truly regret that comment.

    Having said that, I have two issues; firstly as other posters have stated, it demonstrates a lack of personal faith as well as general lack of support to flee. These rockets have been coming down for a long time and the risk has decreased if anything (fewer rockets). If they feel that they are in great risk, then study in the shelter but stay put. Perhaps go to the staging areas and lead a service (if this would be allowed). The point is even if you don’t show active support, at least don’t undermine moral by fleeing.

    Also raising a navi or sage misses the point. I don’t think you are claiming that that those that moved are Navi’s and Sages. These are for the most part able bodied young men and at times of war, even they have been known to do battle. Even if there are potential navi(s) or sage(s) amongst them, these roles are also about public leadership and this would an opportunity to demonstrate this.

    Secondly, while it is always nice to look to the future and plan for expansion, you should not talk about a feast (certainly not at other peoples expense) when there is an ongoing famine. I think is demonstrates a great insensitivity when so many people are in crisis that Jonathan Rosenblum is looking at how his community can take advantage of the hoped for results.

    Steven

  6. dovid says:

    “If / when the avreichim and gedolei Torah have been on the front lines and return from hand to hand fighting, then talk to me”

    Dovid HaMelech was a greater general than all of modern Israel’s generals combined. He fought and prevailed over all of Israel’s neighbors. He personally was involved numerous times in hand-to-hand combat. Nonetheless, he never told Shmuel HaNavi or Nathan HaNavi that after they return from hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, he would consider talking with them. Before that, they have no say in anything and shouldn’t bother him.

    Neither did Bar Kochva tell Rabbi Akiva that he must pass a hand-to-hand combat test before he, Bar Kochva is willing to talk with him.

    Steven, know your place when writing or talking about Gedolei Israel.

    Please excuse my being curious, have you served in the military? Do you have hand-to-hand combat experience?

  7. dovid says:

    “the hesder boys who you hate”

    Jeff, you confuse this blog with Haaretz. No one on this blog hate hesder boys. What we do hate is allegations such as yours.

  8. Menachem Lipkin says:

    The large yeshivos in Ashdod, for instance, all left the city after the first fatal missile hit last week.

    While clearly one can help protect the country by learning anywhere, there’s something just so disingenuous about this. One of the main Chareidi teretzim for not joining the army is that they can better do their part in defending the country by learning Torah. One has to wonder how much bitochin they have in this ability when they high tail it at the first sign of trouble. One also has to be concerned about the further degradation of Torah Judaism (i.e. all shomer mitzvot Jews not just “avreichim”)this causes among the population these Torah scholars left behind.

    What a contrast to the Hesdar Yeshivot which, while defending the country by learning AND fighting, have the faith to stay put.

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Toby,

    Frankly after seeing the video of the vile anti-semetic demonstration in Ft. Lauderdale, I’d say anyone living in Florida is nuts.

    Also, given the current situation, your words are extremely hurtful to all the wonderful Jews who currently live in the West Bank, including by the way, the rapidly growing Chareidi communities of Modiin Ilit and Beitar Ilit.

  10. Adin says:

    Toby Katz-
    Maybe if enough Jews move to those areas, the gov’t will have their hands tied and be unable to remove anyone.

  11. Toby Katz says:

    Israel is going to drag people out of their homes in Judea and Samaria, just as they did to the Jews of Gaza, and leave them living in tents and trailer parks, but still being forced to pay the mortgages for homes that will no longer exist, as they did to the people of Gush Katif. Anyone who moves into the West Bank now is nuts.

  12. jeff says:

    join the army enough is enough join a haredi nachel not a female soilder within in a mile you are protected by the hesder boys who you hate

  13. Ori says:

    Yehoshua Friedman: In addition, precisely because of the proximity of the Palestinian Arab population, the enemy is not about to start firing missiles in this direction.

    Ori: Because Palestinian leaders will suddenly start caring about their civilian populations? We’re talking about the world leaders in the use of human shields.

    During the July 2006 war, the Hizbullah hit a number of Arab villages in the Galilee, which were sadly unprepared (Israel didn’t think Arabs would send artillery against their own people, so shelters weren’t prepared).

  14. cvmay says:

    “You are silent about the possibility of kollel families settling in Judea and Samaria”
    The huge torah and kollel community of Beitar is located in Yehuda, just a few klm from Gush Etzion. The city of Emanuael is also located in the Shomron and the population is growing there also.

  15. dovid says:

    “and return from hand to hand fighting, then talk to me”

    Talk to you about what? Your willingness to cut a check?

  16. dovid says:

    “R. Meir Porush, who failed to get elected”

    He didn’t fail. We failed and that’s why he didn’t get elected.

  17. Benzion N. Chinn says:

    Interesting take on things.
    “That is why the gedolei Torah have made support for kollelim on the periphery a high priority.”
    What have Haredi Gedolim done to support kollelim on the periphery? I have not seen any pronouncements saying that the “real” bnei Torah are those who move to the periphery and do not hang a price tag on their necks. Last I checked hanging a price tag on your neck is still an honorable profession in the Haredi community. Keep in mind that living on the periphery means exposing yourself to secular Israeli culture. Would the Haredi community really support the periphery for anything other than kiruv.

  18. LOberstein says:

    A gentleman collecting for a Sephardic Kollel in Yerucham in the Negev just came to my door. He told me that a man who gave him $2,000 last year in Miami gave him no danation at all this year. This tells me two things, Jews give a fortune of tzedakah in good times and that times are not now good.
    Guerilla warfare is hard to win, whether in Iraq, Afganistan or Gaza. As long as people will blow themselves up for their cause, it is hard to stop them. This is a world wide problem and I hope that there is something going on behind the scenes, some cooperation to diminish Iran’s mischief that we don’t know about.
    It is always easier to have simplistic solutions to complex problems and to say that anyone who disagrees is not a true believer. We have too many “true believers” on the other side. What we need is that the “Am chochom ve novone” would have a little “schel”.

  19. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Steven — I couldn’t agree more. The current state of affairs in the hareidi world in EY is that a temporary, compensatory situation intended to replace the numbers of Torah scholars lost in the Holocaust has come to be thought of as permanent. The secular public which also wanted Judaism to be kept in operation in Israel does not support the idea of every hareidi adult male being financed as a permanent professional student. Now the money will not be there. The long-range solution will have to be to go back to the Rambam’s ideal of combining work and learning. The need to solve the problem of men having to go to the army and be immersed in an inimical culture is being faced by the national religious public as well. It is time to work together so that both communities can achieve realizable goals. As the demographics of Jewish Israel become more frum and as this affects the army, the army will be seen less as a danger to the religious way of life.

  20. Steven says:

    It is all very well to be concerned about where centers of learning will be located but how about the people currently ‘in range’. How much of Israel (including Jerusalem) is already in range of the West Bank. If another generation of rockets are allowed to be developed / deployed, virtually (if not actually) the entire country will be under fire (read as no place to hide).

    Also, as with virtually all institutions, operations much more then startup costs in the long term. You are talking about how this has to be successful so that new centers can be built when the existing ones can not cover their daily (monthly) needs.

    I will not rehash the argument of how having this many people in full time learning and separated from the larger society is almost the antithesis of the Avot and generations of leaders that followed but this disconnection from reality would be funny if lives were not being lost / at risk. If / when the avreichim and gedolei Torah have been on the front lines and return from hand to hand fighting, then talk to me

  21. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    You are silent about the possibility of kollel families settling in Judea and Samaria. There are security issues involved, but the areas are in the center of the country and are not in range of missiles. In addition, precisely because of the proximity of the Palestinian Arab population, the enemy is not about to start firing missiles in this direction. Another advantage is the proximity to Jerusalem and Bnai Brak. The point man for promoting this direction should be R. Meir Porush, who failed to get elected mayor of Jerusalem and has extensive experience in promoting housing in Judea and Samaria when he was deputy housing minister under the Likud government. If the Likud gets in, hareidi housing in J&S could be a plausible option. The regional councils in the area would, of course be happy to help, and many national-religous families would be happy to patronize the educational and other institutions which would develop, thereby making them more viable. Hareidi positions could attract national-religious Jews if the hareidi parties would give a hand toward mutual support. Major housing projects, unlike small hilltops, could not easily be threatened by ill-conceived political actions.