Where to Live?
Channel Two inaugurated a new investigative journalism series, Ha'Ma'arechet (the System) earlier this month. The promo for the first episode was entitled "The Chareidi Invasion," until protests by chareidi MKs led to a change to something a bit more innocuous. But the subject matter remained the same: the threat posed by chareidim moving into secular neighborhoods.
The series was replete with errors. For instance, a resident of Arad was interviewed complaining of how difficult it is to live with a synagogue in the building, but neglected to mention that the synagogue preceded her purchase of her apartment. In pursuit of footage of confrontation, Channel Two sent a scantily clad woman into a chareidi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. If there are any places in Israel where chareidim and secular Jews are living together in harmony, presenter Miki Haimowitz did not manage to find them.
The bottom line of the series was: Chareidi neighborhoods and cities are busting at the seams because of the rapid chareidi population growth, and they are entering "our neighborhoods" where their presence will make life unbearable.
Happily, the documentary was subjected to a fair amount of criticism, and most of it by non-chareidim.
BUT IF THE TRUTH be known, Miki Haimowitz is not the only Israeli who thinks that secular and chareidi Jews inhabiting the same neighborhood is a bad idea. A non-religious buyer seeking to purchase in Kiryat Sefer or Beitar or even in my own Har Nof neighborhood would not be likely to find the welcome mat rolled out. (Of course, I know that chareidi resistance to secular Jews moving into all chareidi neighborhoods is very different, but I'm not quite smart enough to figure out why.)
On both sides of the secular-chareidi divide there are those who would like to see the government build exclusively chareidi enclaves or bantustans. And, in the short run, such a solution probably reduces religious tensions.
In the long-run, however, it is unsustainable. For one thing, the government is not going to build enough affordable housing in chareidi cities – at least ones close to the main chareidi population centers – to answer the housing needs of the chareidi community. But more importantly, the long-term housing separation only reinforces the "otherness" of the two communities in the eyes one another, and thereby exacerbates the fear they have of each other. Physical separation and lack of contact make it easier for each side to maintain their negative stereotypes of the other.
But as the chareidi population grows and seeks greater involvement with the larger society -- if only for the purpose of supporting itself -- it cannot afford the hatred that housing segregation helps to promote.
THE MOST FREQUENTLY RAISED ARGUMENT for housing segregation in our community is the need to protect our children from exposure to negative influences. If the chareidi community ever establishes a research institute to examine sociological phenomena, the question of the impact on children of living in more mixed cities, like Petach Tikva, Rechovot or Netanya, compared to more insular ones, like Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer, or Beitar, would be a fascinating topic for inquiry.
I suspect that there are differences and that they do not all redound in favor of separatism. If I am right that should provide consolation as we witness many more young couples moving to chareidi developments within culturally mixed cities, like Afula, Tiberias, Nazeret Ilit, Carmiel, sometimes with the active encouragement of the local mayors.
On a communal level, I think the secular world has more to fear from our "negative" influence on them – i.e., bringing them closer to Torah -- than we do from their influence on us, with one caveat: that we can avoid the territorial impulse to declare any building, any street, in which there exists a chareidi majority, ours – a place where we get to set the rules. If we cannot do that, we cannot complain that they do not want us to live among them and fight to keep us out. But if we can make peace with the idea that the majority does not have the right to dictate how the minority will live their lives in a democracy – and that is true regardless of whether we are the majority or minority – I am confident in the power of Torah.
From the point of view of our ability to spread Torah, the optimal situation is probably one where the chareidi community in a particular city is too small to frighten their secular neighbors. Then the conversation can proceed without either side fearing the coercion of the other.
A few years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Raanan of Ayelet HaShachar put an ad in the chareidi press for those capable of teaching Torah who would be willing to go live in secular neighborhoods. He received an outpouring of responses, many of them from talmidei chachamim who already held positions as rebbeim in yeshivos. As far as I know, nothing ever came of the project, but it is, I think, an important idea, and a credit to our community that so many were willing to leave the comforts of their own close-knit communities to offer Torah to their fellow Jews.
EVEN ON THE INDIVIDUAL LEVEL, I'm not convinced that more mixed communities do not offer their own advantages. A friend of mine once commented to me, "I raised half my children in Tel Aviv and half in Bnei Brak, and on average, I have to say that those raised in Tel Aviv turned out better. In Tel Aviv, I raised them; in Bnei Brak the street raised them." What he meant – at least in part – was that in a mixed community, the children had to work on their identity and figure who and what they were. In the all chareidi community, everything was just assumed, without ever being thought about. The former produces people whose first question is, "What does Hashem want from me?;" the latter those who ask, "What will the neighbors say?"
The more insular we are, the less we worry about how we appear in the eyes of those outside our community. Conversely, when we are a distinct minority, we become much more conscious of making a Kiddush Hashem.
And finally, as long as the Torah community is large enough to support school systems for boys and girls, there are some distinct advantages to a smaller community where parents do not have the luxury of sending their children to school only with those who are exactly alike them. In more diverse schools, children have to learn a valuable lesson for life – how to get along with and appreciate Jews different from them.
If our children end up making their homes and raising their children in Afula or Tiberias or Dimona it is not a tragedy and should not be viewed as such. In any event, the railroad and Highway Six are bringing the periphery closer to the grandparents in the country's center all the time.
What about Yissachar and Zevulun?
It is no secret to anyone who travels frequently from Eretz Yisrael to America that many American baalebatim cannot wrap their heads around the assumption in Israel that every male will remain in full-time learning indefinitely. And I'm not talking about those far removed from the world of the yeshivos, but rather about those who themselves learned in yeshivos and whose sons and son-in-laws are likely to be found in kollel for a number of years.
I have no intention of arguing about the relative merits of the different social models in the Israeli and American chareidi communities. Nor do I think it would do much good. People will ultimately decide for themselves how they want to give their tzedakah money.
I only want to point out that a lack of agreement with the Israeli social model is no reason for not generally supporting kollel yungleit in Eretz Yisrael. Eretz Yisrael is the nuclear core of Torah learning worldwide. The intensity of the Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael has produced an astounding number of Torah scholars who have Shas at their fingertips. As one of my sons once said to me, "Abba, you would be amazed to come into the Otzar Seforim at the Mirrer and see how many people whom you have never heard of have written on every sugya in Shas.
Everyone who has even a trace of appreciation of the centrality of Torah learning to the existence of Klal Yisrael – indeed the existence of the entire world – would agree that these scholars, many of whom can barely put food on the table, should be supported by the community, especially today when there is both so much widespread affluence and so much waste.
Anyone who wants to support a scholar who does not know day from night, who does not attend simchas of any but the closest relatives, so he can plumb the depths of Torah will have no trouble finding such a Jew in Eretz Yisrael. And the amount needed to remove the yoke of financial worries from such a Torah scholar's family could be taken from the luxury budget of many an American baalebatim. It's hard to think of a better investment.