Do you know about the CD that is causing much grief to yeshiva-trained Americans? There is no mp3 version. It is not a message from Lipa, or Mattisyahu, or a Modern Orthodox subversive. CD here does not stand for compact disk, but for cognitive dissonance. The difference between reality the way we have been taught to accept it, and the way we personally encounter it. Cognitive dissonance is driving more and more of us to an uncomfortable psychic place. We dwell firmly in the charedi world in which we grew up, and in which we raised our children. We fully live the charedi life style, but our hearts are sometimes not so enthusiastic about it, and our minds are increasingly alienated from it. We are victims of repeating memes with which we were bombarded, and then discovering that they are not true.
Some of these memes have come into sharper focus with the legislation of the current Israeli government. One of those, repeated again and again in the charedi press both in Israel and the US, is that the government is composed of rasha’im who are intent on fighting a war to the finish to obliterate Torah.
I have no doubt that there are people in the government, both elected and appointed, who will do all in their power to try to stamp out Torah, c”v. I also have no doubt that they are a minority element. I find it difficult – impossible, really – to square the slogans I read about in the charedi press with recent experiences. Here is a report about a few of them. It will be spread out over multiple postings.
A call from the Israeli Consulate asked that I attend a small breakfast get-together with the Consul General and some visitors from Israel. The phone connection was poor; I did not fully understand who the visitors were or the purpose of the meeting. I knew it had something to do with government plans about charedi inclusion. I make it a practice to be as helpful as humanly possible to any request from an Israeli governmental official, so I readily accepted.
Two things bring Los Angeles traffic to its knees: Precipitation is one. (We are not used to weather. Any weather.) A Presidential visit is the other. President Obama’s presence in the city caused a massive disruption of traffic right during rush hour, so I arrived 40 minutes late at Eilat Café, to find a group patiently waiting for me. David Siegel, the Consul General, has been a national trend-setter in reaching out to different groups within the Jewish community, including charedim. We had discussed and debated government policy towards charedim in Israel several times before, including at a small meeting of charedim at my home. He wanted me to hear about one aspect of the draft plan straight from the source. Moreover, he wanted them to hear from me what American charedim thought about their efforts.
Both of the visitors work for the Ministry of Science and Technology. Both were kippah-wearing dati’im. Sar-Shalom Jerbi did almost all the talking. He is the General Director of Sherut Leumi/National Service, the alternative to army service that has been the favored option for Dati Leumi girls.
Mr. Jerbi was enthusiastic as he explained his background and the evolution of his thinking. Typical DL trajectory: Bnei Akiva leadership; years in a hesder yeshiva. He was a tad more acquainted with charedim than others, however. His grandfather was Rav Getz z”l, the former Rav HaKotel. He came into his current position, therefore, with more of an appreciation than others for positive aspects of the charedi community. This led him to battle – successfully – against some original conceptions about the place of charedim within Sherut Leumi. (Readers will recall that the new policy calls for charedim to declare after their 21st birthday whether they will report for army service, for national service, or ignore both and continue learning. The first two options will be incentivized; the third will not carry the threat of jail time, but will forfeit the incentives.)
Mr. Jerbi’s task was to imagine forms and conditions for charedi male participation in Sherut Leumi, a program in which participants spend time in organizations that enhance the quality of life in the State. He has succeeded to date in drawing some 3000 Arabs into the program, all of them working in agencies serving the Arab community. (Traditionally, Arabs do not serve in the IDF. Druse have been an exception. More recently, Arab Christians have enlisted in larger numbers.) He founded programs to take kids at risk and turn them around through programs of productive service combined with individual counseling. He currently has 700 such kids serving. He set up a similar program for “special needs” youth, providing them with an opportunity to see themselves as productive members of society.
He applied himself to finding suitable areas for charedi service. He immediately identified three areas: classroom education, gemachs, and working with kids at risk within the charedi community. The last two sound like shoe-ins, and sometimes can be uncomplicated. This is not so when it comes to larger, national efforts. Jerbi had candidates interested in working with Magen David Adom – but the work environment was mixed. He asked for a separate work space for male charedim, and was successful in getting it. In these and similar applications, Jerbi asked for – and got – the ability to limit the commitment to four hours a day, over two years. This way, charedi males can fulfill their service requirement while preserving the bulk of the day to learn, if they wish, or to seek other employment.
There was intense opposition to allowing classroom teaching to meet the requirements of National Service. Jerbi could not overcome resistance to the feeling of many that allowing this would simply pay for rabbeim to continue as before educating their students to stay away from any kind of association or cooperation with the government. (Those who serve are not unpaid volunteers. They are compensated.) Jerbi succeeded in convincing highers-up that primary education is different. Thus, one option within National Service will be serving as rabbeim in the classrooms of grades 1-6, at least in areas that the government sees as needing more teachers in front of the room.
Jerbi realized that creating a cadre of charedi police could go a long way in better servicing the community. He fought for a commitment by the National Police that charedi inductees would not have to share a squad car with a female colleague, and that they would be able to return home every night during the months of their training. He argued that there were special security considerations in having such police, and got the government to increase the monthly stipend from 2500 NIS to 4000 NIS.
(My response to the two officials is not as important. For the curious, however, I conveyed that I understood and appreciated what they were doing, and offered berachos that they have the siyata de-Shmaya to make the proper decisions. But I stressed in the strongest terms how counterproductive Yair Lapid’s actions had been after unveiling his program for charedi participation in army and other service. Like others here in the US who have been in contact with the government, I underscored the damage that had been done to existing programs by a diabolic pincers movement: strengthening the position of the most extreme rejectionists in the charedi world by giving the impression of a holy war being waged against them; shooting charedim who wanted to enter the workforce in the kneecaps by drastic cuts in the stipends for children, curtailing the possibility of parents taking advantage of training programs and opportunities. The cutbacks were the equivalent of California trying to get citizens to be energy- and environment-conscious by giving up incandescent bulbs for fluorescents, and then tripling the price of fluorescent bulbs the next day.)
Is Jerbi trying to obliterate Torah? What about those in the government who had to authorize the special consideration (including the Prime Minister himself) and the little tweaks to make the positions charedi-friendly? Are they all part of a diabolical plot to gradually wean charedim away from Torah and deliver them to the flesh-pots of Tel Aviv? Or are they acting on what they see as legitimate concerns for the financial viability and social cohesiveness of the Jewish State?
Decades ago, I had occasion to visit a brilliant young Leningrad refusenik in his apartment. He told me that the authorities in the former Soviet Union asked you to look in the mirror and tell yourself each day that you were sane. But when you looked there, you did not see sanity. I’ve tried repeating many of the lines that come from Eretz Yisrael. But when I look in the mirror, I can tell that I don’t believe them anymore.