A single mother living in the Midwest with her three young children, she’s deeply unhappy because of the news she received the other day.
Although Cindy does some sales work from her computer at home, her income is insufficient to cover the monthly mortgage payments for her small home and food and clothing for her family. Until now, though, she has managed to make ends meet, with the help of various social safety-net needs-based programs like WIC and food stamps.
Earlier this week, though, Cindy, and hundreds of thousands of others like her, received word that the government is ending those programs. Budgetary concerns were one reason given but the letter Cindy received also noted that she could still qualify for some of the benefits she was receiving if she found and accepted a full-time job. “When citizens like you, Cindy,” the personalized form letter explained, “are a regular part of the workforce, it benefits not only you and your family, but the economy as a whole. And that is something that every loyal citizen should appreciate!”
Well, says Cindy to herself somewhat bitterly, I don’t. The state of the economy is important, but improving it isn’t my main personal goal. Raising my children myself is what I consider my immediate mandate. Spending my days in an office or behind a counter and entrusting my children to some sitter is not what I consider good parenting. Being a full-time mother, she tells herself, may not make me a model citizen, but it makes me, at least in my mind, a model human being. My children are my most important asset.
The new bad news, moreover, came on the heels of some earlier unhappy tidings, the repeal of the federal mortgage interest tax deduction, which increased Cindy’s tax bill by a good chunk of her income.
Making Cindy even more outraged and despondent was the popular move to require that every American child join a “junior civil service program” where values she (as a conservative Christian) doesn’t endorse are taught. And then, to top things off, there were the relentless media and public assaults on “welfare” single parents like her, the newspaper editorials and talk-show hosts labeling of them as “freeloaders,” “unpatriotic” and even “parasites.” It made her angry enough to cry.
Cindy, of course, and her troubles, are hypothetical. Our country still extends a generous safety net to its neediest citizens, and the mortgage interest deduction is alive and well. Children are not forced into any educational program and can even be home-schooled. But can you relate to how hypothetical Cindy would feel if the nightmare scenario were in fact real? If so, then you might better appreciate how charedim in Israel are feeling these days.
Over the past decade or so, their social services – primarily in the form of child allowances – have been drastically cut, several times. Now what is left of the allowances is under the knife again. And charedim are being pressured to forgo full-time Torah-study, their “most important asset” and first priority. They are told that they must enter the army, even though there is no need for them in the military (as its leaders have repeatedly stated) and they fear the impact Israel’s “military melting pot” will have on their lives. They are vilified without pause, and cajoled to act not in what they consider their best interest (and the best interest, ultimately, of the entire country) but rather just to do what they are told. All, of course, for “the economy” and the “greater good.”
No one, to be sure, can claim a “right” to social service entitlements. And one can, if he chooses, take the stance that no citizen of any country should expect, for any reason, that the government needs to take care of him in any way. That’s a perfectly defensible position, at least from a perspective of cold logic.
But every compassionate country recognizes the rightness of assisting the poor. And a country that calls itself the Jewish one, it can well be argued, has a special responsibility to underwrite the portion of its populace that is willfully destitute because of its dedication to perpetuating classical Judaism (which, as it happens, is what kept the connection between Jews in the Diaspora and their ancestral land alive for millennia, and allowed for a state of Israel in the first place).
Gratitude for what one has received is a deeply Jewish ideal. And Israeli charedim should indeed feel and express gratitude for all that the state provides them. But absent are calls for non-charedi Israelis – or the rest of us – to consider feeling and expressing gratitude for the charedi willingness to live financially constricted lives in order to remain immersed in Jewish practice and learning. Instead, just the opposite is seen: Israeli charedim are used as political pawns, regarded and portrayed and treated as Israel’s misfortune.
Cindy would relate.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
An addendum to this essay can be read here.
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