Yesh Atid Sets Back the Clock
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 14, 2013
"The great task of the first 50 years after the Holocaust was to rebuild a world of Torah learning almost entirely destroyed by the war. The task of the next 50 years will be preserving what was built. And I'm not sure that the task of the second 50 years will not require even more siyata d'Shmaya than the first." So I heard recently in the name of a major chassidic rebbe.
From this we can deduce that the second 50 years cannot be just a matter of continuing to do everything that was done in the first 50. The challenges are different.
The growth of today's Israeli Torah world from the group of no more than 500 bochurim or so at the time of the Chazon Ish's passing can only be described as miraculous. The total number of yeshivah students and kollel yungeleit in Eretz Yisrael dwarfs the numbers of those engaged in full-time Torah learning in pre-War Europe. The battle to build a community around the preeminent value of Torah learning has been won.
BUT IT IS CRUCIAL to recognize that Israel's present-day Torah world is not simply the post-Holocaust group of dedicated idealists who rallied to the Chazon Ish's banner writ large, but something entirely different. That original group was composed of self-selected young men of almost uniformly high spiritual and intellectual caliber who were bucking the trends.
Today's Torah world of over 700,000 nefashos is far more heterogeneous, consists almost entirely of those who were born into the "system," and includes members of all spiritual and intellectual levels.
The ideal of long-term, full-time learning for all males ensured, and continues to ensure, that the finest minds in the chareidi world remain devoted to Torah study. But the imposition of the standards of the elite on an entire community entails its own costs. When the number of those whose human needs are not met by a particular society reaches a critical mass, the society must make adjustments.
The task of preservation requires maintaining the ideal of long-term learning as the highest aspiration. I would go further: It requires actualizing that ideal by maximizing communal support for those who are learning with passion and feel themselves growing. It also requires providing more opportunities to teach Torah so that their learning is "in order to teach." But at the same time, we must address the human needs that are not being met.
What are some of those unmet needs? The first concerns those who feel themselves unsuited for long-term, full-time learning, for any one of many possible reasons. They will experience the message that the only respectable thing they can ever be is a yungerman as a virtual prison sentence — a guarantee that they will never excel in anything, that they will never employ their talents in a manner commanding respect. Most of these young men do enjoy learning, and would continue learning several hours a day, even outside of yeshivah or kollel.
Kavod is a fundamental requirement of every human being. And those who feel they can never earn it within their community are more vulnerable to dropping out of that community, or worse, dropping out of life while continuing to live within the community.
Widespread poverty — not living a simple lifestyle, but the inability to provide food, shelter, educational fees, and clothing for oneself and one's dependents — also exacts a heavy toll. Holocaust reparations are no more, and in large families where full-time learning has been the norm for three or four generations, any accumulated savings have long since been eaten up. The cries of pain in response to threatened cuts in government transfer payments demonstrate the thin edge on which many chareidi families live and how vulnerable they are.
Few young people are willing to live in the extreme simplicity of Rav Elyashiv ztz"l or yblcht"a Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, and even if they were, one-bedroom hovels in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem can now easily fetch up to $200,000.
Some women are breaking down under the combined burden of being the primary breadwinner and the primary child care givers. Most women cannot obtain the type of high-paying job in computers or accounting that will support a large family. And even those who do, so that their husbands can learn, often find that their children are being raised by others or that their husbands have to take off large amounts of time from learning to care for the children.
Finally, the imposition on yeshivos and kollelim of a new role as arei miklat (cities of refuge) from the outside society can detract from their primary function as places of advanced Torah study.
NO HUMAN SOCIETY remains stagnant. Chareidi society is no exception. Often those changes reflect, as in market economies, the cumulative decisions of thousands of individuals. The last decade has witnessed a substantial movement of chareidi men into the workforce, and of both men and women into programs granting academic degrees and high-level vocational training. (Those studies are often pursued in conjunction with ongoing kollel learning.)
A variety of platforms have been created for BA programs and professional degrees in a suitable, single-gender environment, and funding for students provided from private donors (Kemach, Yedidut Toronto), the Joint Distribution Committee, and the government. Over 10,000 young chareidim are now pursuing academic degrees. In addition, sophisticated vocational training — computer programming, computer networking, architecture, structural engineering — has exploded. The number of those studying at the five campuses of Mercaz HaChareidi Technological Institute, the first and largest provider of such training, tripled over the last four years to 1,800.
Once, teaching degrees were the only ones offered by Bais Yaakov seminaries, but the market for teachers has long been saturated. Tracks in computers and accounting are now commonplace and admission highly competitive. New fields — e.g., architecture, speech therapy, and physical therapy — are opening all the time.
The Nachal Chareidi combat unit boasts 5,000 graduates, its own reserve unit, and was recently approved for expansion from one battalion to two. Every year the percentage of young men from chareidi homes in the program grows — to close to 80 percent today. Nachal Chareidi has proven successful in instilling discipline and dramatically improving the self-image of those who go through its rigorous training and service in a crack anti-terrorist unit.
Already five years ago, my son-in-law told me that it was no longer unusual to see former avreichim bringing children to kindergarten in army uniform in his Bnei Brak neighborhood. The IDF's Shachar Kachol program for older married chareidim has proven to be a win-win proposition for many. For the IDF, the chareidi public offers a pool of intelligent young men to fill crucial manpower needs in technical fields. For avreichim in need of a livelihood, the IDF offers training (with application in the general job market as well), long-term employment, and a more suitable work environment than the hi-tech sector. Shachar Kachol boasts the highest reenlistment rates in the IDF.
It must be emphasized that these trends were generated by the internal needs of the chareidi community, not by government policies. And the responses to specific communal needs have enjoyed the support of leading rabbinical figures — in some cases tacit and in others more explicit.
AS WITH ANY SOCIETAL CHANGE, those described above also generated a backlash. Those who entered the workforce or prepared to do so were denigrated as "new chareidim" or "chareidi-lite" in at least one prominent chareidi media organ.
But, in general, the attacks, even when vicious, proved unable to reverse the developing trends, in large part because the position being argued in support of the backlash — i.e., that the dominant societal model during the half century of rebuilding is the Torah norm — has scant support in Jewish history or Torah sources. It is impossible to argue from Torah or Talmud that earning a livelihood or defending Jews from danger are inherently forbidden or degraded activities, though specific ways of doing so — e.g., serving in a mixed-gender military unit — may well be.
THE GREAT "ACHIEVEMENT" of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party has been to hand the leaders of the backlash a powerful new weapon, and thereby to set back all the internally generated changes in chareidi society. The economic sanctions that Yesh Atid seeks to impose on the chareidi community are so draconian, so all-encompassing, that it becomes impossible to read them as generated by a dispassionate concern with rates of chareidi labor force participation or by the manpower needs of the IDF.
Lapid threatened to impose so many cuts, from so many directions — and so precipitously — on the chareidi world, that many families would be faced with starvation long before the male in the family could procure training and find a job. In short, the cuts are punitive; they seek to punish chareidim for their devotion to Torah study. To that add the Peri Committee's gratuitous criminalization of failure to serve in the IDF. Lapid and Peri want to label those who pursue full-time Torah study outlaws, even absent the receipt of any government support for their studies.
Suddenly, the claim that the government is motivated by hatred of chareidi society and the desire to uproot Torah study has become credible. And, as a corollary, those who don an army uniform and who are pursuing academic or vocational training are portrayed as capitulating in a campaign to destroy the Torah world.
That this will occur is no longer in the realm of speculation. There have been widely publicized physical and verbal attacks on former avreichim who made the mistake of coming to shul or even walking in their neighborhood in uniform. And those attacks will be followed, no doubt, by threats that their children will not be admitted to the local cheder or Bais Yaakov.
Lapid may find it amusing if chareidi society rips itself apart in internal fighting. But we should rend our garments. He has set back every trend that he and his fellow "reformers" of chareidi society claim to support by a decade or more, if not irreversibly.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society, Social Issues
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