Not a Zero-Sum Game

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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

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26 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    The above excellent column deserves the widest circulation and discussion, and not just within the Charedi world. This is an issue where Charedim in Israel could learn much from their American brothers and sisters, who work for a living. That is one of the primary reasons why many American Charedim own summer homes, take vacations, and contribute to the American economy without compromising their values.

  2. Zachary Kessin says:

    I will be the first to admit that my Gamara skills are totally non existent , but I have been a professional programmer for 15 years or so.

    Anyone who can hold kop in Rabbi Akiva Eiger can be taught to be a highly skilled computer programmer. The problem is that you have to learn to be a computer programmer, and that takes years. Most people in this biz have at least a BA or BSc in computer science or something similar (mine is actually in physics) and even so spend the first 2-3 years working at pretty low level jobs. To become a top notch programmer takes at least 5 years of work experience and a fair bit of on the side learning time.

    Also remember that Programming is an art that changes very fast. The technology that you learned 5 years ago may well be totally gone today. There is a reason that the book I am currently proofreading for the publisher is the 6th edition of a programing book.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Shira,

    1. I don’t know about your area, but here a secretary in the traditional sense is a rarity.

    2. No one suggested that all training or work activity had to be done inside the protective cocoon.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Ori, it’s all a matter of degree. From the dawn of history, Jewish merchants, for example, have always had to meet and communicate with others unlike themselves.

  5. Shira says:

    “workstations at home” is limited to techies and data entry. Can’t be remote secretarial work – that would require proper English and some knowledge of the business culture they are servicing.

    “in the community with full access to the needed data” – what fields does this include? Can a Charedi can train among the secular for 10 years to become a radiologist and then return to the community to read scans remotely? Lawyer? For that matter, how solid is a plumber’s training if he’s restricted to the COPE* version?

    Further, if they only work within the Charedi community, what can we project for their income prospects, in any field?

    (*COPE is a successful NYC program founded by Agudath Israel which offers 1-2 years basic training in computer skills and other fields for Bais Yaakov and Yeshiva graduates, awarding them a certificate and giving them job placement assistance.)

  6. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, of course you didn’t. I didn’t make myself clear enough, because I made implicit assumptions.

    It is nearly impossible to judge in advance what data would be needed and what wouldn’t, or with whom you would need to communicate. This means that professional workers need access to the whole world to do their jobs effectively.

    This means that even if your putative workers stay in Bney Brak, they are still going to be exposed to non Charedi people and non Charedi views. It is hard to believe this will not erode Jewish values, compared to the isolation of a Yeshiva where everybody is Charedi.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Ori, I didn’t rule out workstations at home or in the community with full access to the needed data.

  8. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, I assume you mean groups like the Amish. That is doable, but any such group has to buy things on the national market, and therefore sell things on that same market.

    You can sell agricultural products or hand made furniture without too much contact with your customers, because those are commodities. However, for the same reason, you cannot sell them for a lot of money. If you choose to be like the Amish, you end up poor like the Amish. 8 years of schooling, very little medical treatment, and so on.

    The more lucrative professions these days almost always have a big information processing component. That would be hard to do while staying close knit.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Ori, in many countries there are closeknit communities who keep to themselves but also run their own businesses and institutions, and have occupations covering the full range that a community needs. The autonomous Jewish communities that used to exist in the Old World were examples of this.

  10. Shira says:

    has a guiding assumption of Chareidi society, that Jewish religious values are eroded by close interaction with secular society, been disproved?

    Charedi assumption: exposure to secular influences risks causing Charedim to become secular
    compounding but never-admitted-to factors: Charedim with superficial education and/or insufficient support for handling temptation which puts them at a natural risk
    Charedi attempt to protect its high-risk members: build a higher wall

    One can’t really prove or disprove any of this, because there are far too many factors, and many diverse individuals who either fall prey or do mightily well within a secular work environment.

    Nowadays there is a sore lack of personal Rabbinic guidance. That guidance could help identify who should or shouldn’t enter the secular workforce. That guidance, with a smaller audience, could also speak more kindly about secular Jews without worrying about misleading one’s flock directly into bad influences.

  11. Ori says:

    Bob Miller raises an important point. It’s quite likely that Jewish religious values would be eroded by close interaction with secular society. In general, when people work together they tend to learn from each other.

    However, before we discuss what it preferable (not eroding religious values, for example), we need to discuss what possible. It might be better to go back to the desert, and have G-d provide Manna every day except for Shabbat. But that is unlikely to happen.

    Can Charedi society continue in its isolation, without extreme poverty that would make it difficult to feed children or get them medical treatment? Can it continue to rely on the welfare state while becoming a large enough population to make the welfare state economically untenable?

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Shira, my January 14, 2010 @ 1:12 pm point was not specifically about a secular society of Jews, but about any secular society.

    Forgetting the economic aspects—has a guiding assumption of Chareidi society, that Jewish religious values are eroded by close interaction with secular society, been disproved?

    Much of the behavior criticized in articles and comments on this blog may result from this assumption, but what if this assumption really is correct?

  13. Shira says:

    Bob that’s it! The Charedi community is stuck – if they praise the secular too much, it sounds like they’re approving of the lifestyle.

    In the diaspora it’s easier – one can appreciate goyim who serve in the army, build infrastructure, pursue social justice – without much concern to their religious morals. But Jews are a different story.

    How can the Charedi community bind themselves to their secular brethren without, um, embracing?

  14. Bob Miller says:

    Has it been really shown that close interaction with secular society does not erode Jewish religious values?

  15. Ori says:

    A. Schreiber, that’s a good point. But is it a relevant point? Do yeshivot require less work ethic than colleges?

  16. A. Schreiber says:

    “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.””

    This is a debateable point. Regardless, oftentimes the hardest part about holding down a job is not the mental acuity involved, but the work ethic.

  17. Shira says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum: And the Torah world represents Israel’s greatest untapped source of [Israeli] brainpower.

    Ori: Why I tell my children they cannot have something they really want, I try to tell them something good at the same time. This cuts down on their innate resistance and lets them actually internalize the message. I think Jonathan Rosenblum is trying to do the same thing.

    Wow Ori! It’s a good point – until now the kollel community has been taught “you too can be a Levi” – a quote from the Rambam that means anyone can choose to join a sort of privileged class of teachers. And stepping out of kollel could mean giving up that aura.

    But a caste system we are not.

    Of course, everyone appreciates that we are in a common boat with respect to security.

    The more we show ourselves as feeling bound to them by a common fate the more receptive they will be to that message.

    I think in order for the above ideas to ring true, some changes need to come in the public messages from charedi society. While some individuals in charedi communities feel this way, the PR rarely incorporates some sort of acceptance of other segments of society.

  18. Dr. E says:

    Yehoshua F. brings up a great possible solution. Who could possibly object? One fundamental problem which will prevent it from gaining traction. Even the greatest of ideas are not so great and ultimately rejected–if someone from outside of Chareidi world came up with it (first).

  19. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Apropos of not taking basic social issues such as security and economics for granted, let me share an idea which has been in the back of my mind for a while. Chareidi men don’t go to the army except for those in Nachal Chareidi who are actually chareidi, which is a small percentage. Chareidi women don’t do either army or national service. It is no wonder that the secular Israeli feels that the chareidi public does not serve the nation the way he does, and it bothers him. Rather than arguing to deaf ears that the Torah that he doesn’t believe in protects him, I suggest a different tack. Suppose a group of chareidi rabbis and community leaders would approach the Defense Minister, hopefully a less impossible person than Ehud Barak, with a proposal for sherut leumi mishpachti, family national service. Without trying to iron out the details here, the broad picture would be like this: Single male and female chareidim would receive a deferment from army service in return for a commitment to perform, as a couple after marriage, alternative national community service. This would entail a number of years living in an area of the country with priority for development and performing a certain number of hours of community service a week in a mutually acceptable area. Both members of the couple would perform some service. The environment for such service would be tailored so as to be friendly to the chareidi life-style and at the same time to be able to genuinely help the general community. The people involved would be set up to be able to earn a living wage. It could include job training to have the necessary skills to perform the service. It could go along with part-time kollel. This is only a sketch, but what do you think of the idea?

  20. Joseph says:

    Jonathan writes, “The first was to argue that even if both parents in large families worked, their income would still be inadequate”. I don’t really get this. How can people insist that they are going to have children that they know will need to be supported by others? Why should a state encourage such behaviour by providing economic support for this? It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m going to have a large family, so I’ll work hard to support them’. It’s another to say that ‘I know that even if I work hard, I won’t be able to support my family, but I expect the state to support me anyway’. The latter seems morally repugnant.

  21. Ori says:

    The Contarian: There is someting troubling about this essay. The notion that charedi mem are – on average – inherently smarter than the rest of the population is stated without any prrof.

    Ori: Why I tell my children they cannot have something they really want, I try to tell them something good at the same time. This cuts down on their innate resistance and lets them actually internalize the message. I think Jonathan Rosenblum is trying to do the same thing.

  22. Dr. E says:

    All of Jonathan Rosenbloom’s observations are well-taken and accurate. What strikes me is that for the issues he cites, the handwriting has been on the wall for sometime within the Israel Torah community*.

    The Dati Leumi (DL) community anticipated this years ago. In order to create a sovereign, self-sustaining, and modern country in any era, people have to confront the realities of the time. There needs to be adequate and affordable housing transportation, and other infrastructure which must be built and maintained. Educational preparation for the job market had to be developed. (Infrastructure and education are just as critical in Kiryat Sefer and Ezras Torah as it is in Modiin and Raanana.) To support this, people have to work, not only in those industries, but in general, in order to ensure national viability internally and externally. The DL community understood that these issues had to be dealt with l’chatchila (a priori) in a manner that balanced a Torah laden existence with practical realities.

    In the Chareidi community, these issues have been largely thought of as mundane. As such, active participation in them is largely inconsistent with a Torah-centric perspective. Certainly, there has been no notion of balance. Infrastructure and employment have been collectively irrelevant until obviously now. It is unfortunate that the Dati Leumi community has consistently been an ideological battering ram for the Chareidi community since the inception of Religious Zionism. The historical interest and involvement by Religious Zionists was not based on a lack of reverence for the supremacy of Torah. Quite the contrary. It was based on “eizehu chacham, ha’roeh es hanolad” (i.e., foresight) to know that without getting involved, sustaining a society with Torah values would be impossible. And they put their money where there mouth was, putting their sons in harms way and recognizing the need of their daughters to perform national service. Now, it seems that the chickens have come home to roost in the Chareidi community.

    I’m certainly ideologically open to differences of opinion in terms of how one recognizes the State of Israel in one’s religious expression. Celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in some fashion or let the day pass ignoring it altogether. But, at least recognize that if one lives in any country in 1948 or in 2010, national security/Army, income, roads, income and taxes, and technology cannot be taken for granted; and cannot be a spectator sport. One can either recognize that he/she needs to get involved proactively in a responsible way, or suffer the eventual consequences that the Bnei Brak Mayor is struggling with. It should not be implied that the landscape has drastically changed and that this was unexpected. What was ignored “l’chatchila” has led to a confronting the consequences in a way that is now far from l’chatchila.

    *Knowing Jonathan, it was certainly not intentional, but he started his piece with the “Israeli Torah community“–obviously a literary variation of the “Chareidi community” (and he in fact alternates terms). There are indeed other religious communities in Israel to whom Torah values are central as well.

  23. Aaron says:

    “The ability of such communities to attract residents will depend to a large extent on their accessibility to the center of the country.” Attracting residents would happen quickly if gedolim either led by example or encouraged their sons (of which typically only one will inherit the position of the father) to seed the peripheral communities. Once a community becomes too expensive for three consecutive generations of a family to live in, it’s clear that that community will quickly stratify into rich and poor within a generation.

    “Training Charedim for good careers would require accepting a degree of Bitul Torah.” The answer to that is for gedolim to say that training for careers to support one’s family ethically ISN’T bitul Torah. Work today isn’t being drafted into the Russian Army where one has NO personal. As long as one has a seder of learning while training for parnassah, it’s a matter of reasonable load distribution with the eventual goal of balance.

    I don’t think that those who claim to have have allocated 100% of their time to Torah actually spend their entire conscious hours learning.

    Another thing that would help are frum part-time apprenticeships where frum businesses that are Torah-friendly would enable a future baal habayis a place to develop a skillset and work portfolio. Is half a workday a week an unreasonable starting point? How about developing a syllabus of preparatory reading material?

    How about not allowing people into kollel who are too innumerate (and dangerously naive?) to do the basic groundwork of researching what the current cost of living for an modest frum family is in the community where they want to reside and asking them how they expect to be able to afford it 10 years from now. How about not admitting into kollel those who can’t write a coherent 5-10 page essay or report in their native language. It’s reasonable to extrapolate the inability to express oneself clearly to an inability to think clearly. Piling on complex topics while the logical foundation is shoddy, isn’t a recipe for real learning.

  24. The Contarian says:

    There is someting troubling about this essay. The notion that charedi mem are – on average – inherently smarter than the rest of the population is stated without any prrof. An individual that can hold kop with Rabbi Akivah Eiger can be taught highly skilled professions. The question is how many Charedi men cas hold kop with Rabbi Akiva Eiger.

    There is a sense of entitlement that runs throughtout this article. The author hints very strongly that Charedi men are too “good” for menial jobs. In his mind, they are certainly more deserving than the Russians who were academics amd/or held high positions in the USSR but had to take menial jobs when the came to Israel.

    is this seeming “arrogance” that has been explored elsewhere in this blog – job forlorn – come from a true superiority complex or a from a fear that the Charedi masses will turn on their leadership when they are forced into menial labor after a lifetime of learning.

  25. Ori says:

    Anyone who can hold kop in Rabbi Akiva Eiger can be taught to be a highly skilled computer programmer.

    True, but the problem is that the training takes time, during which the future programmer is not earning money and not learning Torah. If you wait until you have to have the money now, it’s really hard to train for a good career – especially if you’re raising kids at the same time.

    Training Charedim for good careers would require accepting a degree of Bitul Torah. Is Charedi society in Israel willing to make that sacrifice?

  26. Mr. Cohen says:

    View the sins of secular Jews not as accusations against them, but as accusations against us, because we did not prevent them.

    Searching for the good points of secular Jews and sincerely praising them is infinitely more helpful than insults, G_d forbid.