There is a tendency in the Israeli Torah community to view the world as a zero-sum game, in which that which benefits the secular population is at our expense and vice versa. An intelligent friend of mine once argued with a straight face that the chareidi community is overtaxed because the funding we receive for education constitutes a lesser percentage of national budget than our share of the population. When I explained to him that we also use the roads, are protected by the IDF, and drink the water, he reacted as if he had never thought of that.
Of course, everyone appreciates that we are in a common boat with respect to security. An Iranian nuclear attack would not distinguish between religious and non-religious. When a decree of destruction. comes to the world, it sweeps before it the tzaddik and ordinary person alike. But common interests are by no means limited to matters of security. The perennial problem of Israel’s lack of drinking water is another example of a crisis affecting one and all.
Israel’s poor transportation infrastructure is yet another example of a problem affecting religious and non-religious alike. One of the great challenges facing the Torah world today is the lack of housing. A one-bedroom apartment in an old, slum neighborhood in Jerusalem runs over $100,000, and in neighborhoods that were considered a “buy” just a few years ago, two to three bedroom apartments, usually in need of renovation, cost close to $200,000. Such prices are far beyond the means of large families struggling to cover just their day to day expenses. In the meantime, there is almost no building in satellite communities relatively close to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak – Beitar, Elad, Kiryat Sefer. As a consequence, thousands of young couples find themselves living in tiny, windowless apartments reminiscent of the cages used to study the impact of overcrowding on laboratory mice.
In the long-run, there is no alternative but to develop communities on what are now considered the periphery. The ability of such communities to attract residents will depend to a large extent on their accessibility to the center of the country. Without Highway 6, for instance, it is doubtful that planning for a new community in Harish would have proceeded as far as it has. Fast trains linking Beersheba to the center of the country would go a long way to encouraging young families to move to the South. And similarly rapid transit to Haifa would greatly increase the attraction of numerous Northern communities.. An expansion of the periphery would, in turn, lower demand in the center of the country and bring down real estate prices.
Improvements in mass transportation and alleviation of congestion are no less crucial for the general population. Rapid access to the country’s commercial center would make communities on the periphery far more viable economically and more attractive residentially. And infrastructure investments in more highways and faster mass transit would contribute to increased productivity. Every hour a truck driver spends stuck in traffic is a wasted hour and contributes to economic inefficiency.
Chareidi employment is another area in which there is an intersection between the interests of the broader Israeli society and the Torah community. (The two interests are not necessarily identical, just overlapping.) The ability of Israel to compete economically in the world is primarily dependent on brainpower. And the Torah world represents Israel’s greatest untapped source of that brainpower.
From an economic point of view, Israel has no interest in chareidim performing menial work when they are capable of much more productive labor. As a professor of computer science at Bar Ilan University commented recently, “Anyone who can hold kop in Rabbi Akiva Eiger can be taught to be a highly skilled computer programmer.”
In the chareidi world too there is a growing recognition of the importance of new employment opportunities. At HaModia’s last annual Forum for Administrators, Bank of Israel head Stanley Fischer, spoke of the impact on Israel’s economic future of its high rate of non-employment. A number of chareidi MKs and communal leaders responded. Their responses took two forms. The first was to argue that even if both parents in large families worked, their income would still be inadequate (not an argument likely to command widespread sympathy when government welfare payments are growing 2.5 times as fast as family incomes). The second was to claim job market discrimination was responsible for low chareidi employment rates.
Both arguments implicitly accept the necessity of higher and better paid chareidi employment. In his interview with the English Mishpacha two weeks ago, Bnei Brak Mayor Yaakov Asher spoke of the upsurge in vocational education in the wake of dramatic cuts in child allowances.. Still, according to the article, there are only 13,000 employed individuals in Bnei Brak, a city of 165,000 souls. Clearly, it is a rare salary that can support 12.5 individuals.
The impact of poverty on Bnei Brak emerges clearly from the interview: a 20% drop-out from educational institutions among the youth (reflected in rowdiness on Purim requiring “literally thousands of police” to control); women who “are fairly collapsing under their burdens [of working and raising large families].”
Even assuming Rabbi Asher is correct that learning difficulties, rather than sociological dysfunction exacerbated by unremitting economic pressures, are the main cause of drop-outs, poverty still plays a crucial role. Strapped parents and schools (with 45-50 per classroom) cannot afford the testing to identify problems early or the tutoring and therapies necessary to overcome them. Similarly, municipal-sponsored tea parties to help stressed out women with their coping skills are likely to provide no more than a temporary band-aid.
As important as security, water, transportation, and employment are, all Jews in Israel share an even more fundamental interest: the need for a stronger connection to Torah. Without a belief in a unique Jewish mission and the sense of purpose it provides, secular Israelis with the skills to do so will eventually leave rather than live with under constant threat.
It is the responsibility of the Torah community to bear the message of Torah to our secular brethren. The more we show ourselves as feeling bound to them by a common fate the more receptive they will be to that message.
English Mishpacha, January 5, 2010