Eight or nine years ago, I received a visit from a kollel student in his late '20s. The young manyoung man in question had been one of the outstanding students in one of Israel's most prestigious yeshivos. Yet by the time he came to visit me, he was angry, even bitter, about what he viewed as a lack of communal leadership over the increasingly untenable financial situation of many kollel students.
Two months ago, he came to visit me again. Gone was all the bitterness that had been so evident at our first meeting. "I could never in my wildest imagination have anticipated the changes that have taken place in recent years," he told me. He is right. Despite the conservative nature of chareidi society – evolutionary, not revolutionary – change has been rapid.
The change has come about in two areas. The first is in the acquisition of training for entry into the job market. Today there are close to 3,000 chareidi young men and women in academic degree programs. Academic campuses in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak each offer courses under the auspicies of Israel's leading universities to over one thousand students, and colleges have established programs for haredim in a number of professions.
In addition, there has been a massive jump in vocational training. Mercaz Chareidi Institute of Technology, the largest group of vocational training centers, has more than doubled it enrollment to close to 2,000 over the past four years. These are not rinky-dink programs, but in subjects such as architecture, civil engineering, computer programming and networking, with national exams.
Much of this expansion has been made possible by the infusion of millions of dollars annually from abroad to provide scholarships for chareidim – mostly men – pursuing academic or vocational degrees. Whereas previously chareidi men feared to leave kollel and lose even the minimal kollel stipend or to assume the costs of years of academic or vocational training, the scholarships have made it possible for them to contemplate the jump.
The second area of rapid change has been in army service, both in the number of 18-year-olds entering Nahal Haredi, which is now over batallion strength and will soon have its first reserve unit, and in the number of older, married men entering special programs developed primarily by the air force and IDF intelligence. The growth of the latter has been rapid and offers the greatest possibility for expansion. In return for sophisticated training in an environment that takes careful account of the religious needs of the chareidi enlistees, chareidim are helping the IDF meet some of its most critical manpower needs. The re-enlistment rate of married chareidi men in the Shachar Kachol program has been the highest in the IDF.
YET THESE CHANGES in chareidi society have taken place largely under the secular radar. In part, that is a function of a certain mythology – shared to a degree by chareidim themselves – about chareidi society. According to that mythology, hundreds of thousands of chareidim are automatons who tune in every morning to receive their marching orders from the senior Torah leaders (gedolim) of the community, which orders they march like lemmings to fulfill. Thus if there have been no orders from the gedolim on the front pages of the major chareidi daily papers (nor will there be) announcing that all but the most accomplished scholars should go out to work, the assumption is that nothing major has changed.
But no society, even the most totalitarian, functions in such a fashion based exclusively on directives from above. All societies follow a more complex dialectic, a mixture of changes based on new directives or laws from above and trends from below based on the accumulated decisions of hundreds of thousands of individual decision-makers. And chareidi society is no exception.
At least two factors are driving change from below within chareidi society. The first is the impossibility of applying an elite model, based on a few hundred highly idealistic, self-selected, largely homogenous group of young men who rallied to the Chazon Ish's call in the early '50s to rebuild the citadels of Torah learning destroyed by the Holocaust, to a much more heterogenous society of over half a million souls, of all intellectual and spiritual levels.
The second is the inability of large numbers of chareidim to support themselves. Contrary to popular belief, Israel's levels of social benefits are low by Western standards, and do not come close to covering the expenses of large chareidi families. Nor do chareidim receive cheap apartments from the government for their children. It is hard to find an apartment in the major chareidi centers, even one purchased on paper, for much less than $300,000.
One breadwinner is simply no longer enough to support a large family. And as economist Glen Yago has sharply observed, "Trends that cannot continue forever, won't." The model of the last two decades of nearly every chareidi man in full-time Torah studies for as long as possible after marriage is increasingly unsustainable.
THE CHANGES TAKING PLACE in chareidi society will never take place fast enough to satisfy the secular public. The pent-up anger is too great. Yet the choices made by the secular leadership will to a large extent determine whether current trends continue or a major pushback develops in the chareidi community. Incentives to speed the entry of chareidi men into the work force are far from exhausted. A negative income tax and allowing men, and not just women, to benefit from child deductions are just two examples.
Maintaining the accommodations to chareidi religious needs in the IDF is also crucial. The more common it is to see former kollel students in uniform in chareidi neighborhoods, the less IDF service will be seen as somehow not chareidi. And the more young unmarried chareidi men who do not view themselves as suited for years in full-time yeshiva learning will join combat units within the Nahal Haredi framework. The recent resignation of the chief rabbi of the air force, citing his inability to ensure the continuation of accommodations to which he had committed himself, was a major setback in this regard.
On the other hand, if the government resorts to coercion, instead of incentives, to expedite present trends, it will only succeed in giving credence to those within chareidi society who claim that the secular public is motivated primarily by hatred of Torah and those who learn it and thereby strengthen the most conservative elements in chareidi society. The demand that all unmarried yeshiva students, with the exception of some specified number of iluim (geniuses), undertake IDF service or some form of civil service is of this nature. It will be perceived not as some minor tinkering with the structure of chareidi society, but as a frontal attack on the primary value of that society: the primacy of Torah study.
In the chareidi world view, Torah study – all Torah study, not just that of certified geniuses – is the most potent trigger for Divine blessing to the world. No one can predict at 18 who will become the greatest scholars, for that success is only partly a function of IQ. Nor is there a single standard of greatness: The debate between whether depth of reasoning or breadth of knowledge is more important goes back to the Talmud itself. Finally, the battle over a limited number of places in yeshivot would tear apart chareidi society the way the Cantonist decrees tore apart Eastern European communities in the late 19th century.
"FAIRNESS" IS AN IMPORTANT SOCIETAL VALUE, but it is not the only one. The next American election, for instance, will turn be, to a large extent, a referendum on President Obama's preference for equality of outcomes, in the name of "fairness," over economic growth and renewed prosperity. In the same vein, I wonder whether most Israelis would choose greater equality of IDF service, even at the price of increased danger.
I spent Shabbos two weeks ago with the chairman of the non-profit organization behind Nahal Haredi. He is himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, and he shared with me a story from his army service that had an impact on his own religious development. While in the service he met and officer wearing a yarmulke. The officer told him that he was a West Point graduate. One day in a course on history's greatest battles, he aske the colonel teaching the class why he had not mentioned the Maccabees or the Six-Day War. After class, the colonel called him to his office and lambasted him for embarrassing him in class. "Of course we study the battles involving the Jews," the colonel said, "but they all have an inexplicable element to them, and that's why we don't teach them."
Maybe, just maybe, that inexplicable element is the Divine protection aroused in its strongest form, by dedication to His Torah. At the beginning of parashas Mattos, we read three times "a thousand from each Tribe." The Midrash explains the threefold repetition as referring to three different groups of one thousand from each Tribe – one thousand to fight in the battles, one thousand to form the rearguard and guard the supplies, and one thousand to pray. Each group was an indispensable part of a successful Jewish army.
No country faces the magnitude of threats to its existence comparable to Israel; no country is in as great need of Divine protection.