Remaining Bnei Torah after Kollel
Few issues are of greater significance for the future of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael than the status of those young (and not so young) men in transition between kollel and either the workplace or academic/vocational training in preparation for work. The numbers of such men increases from year to year..
The primary impetus for leaving kollel is economic, Low child benefits by Western standards, small kollel stipends, increased tuitions, skyrocketing housing prices for young couples, and the exhaustion of any accumulated wealth from previous generations combine to put most chareidi families under great financial strain, even when the mother works.
Yet even for a family struggling to put food on the table, the decision to leave kollel is often an extremely painful one. First and foremost, there is the dramatically reduced time for Torah learning. Then there is the loss of one's carefully nurtured identity as a kollel yungerman. A man's status in the eyes of his wife, his children, his wider family, and the community of Torah learners with which he identifies comes under threat.
There will inevitably be those who try to convince the former yungerman that his departure from kollel is a form of betrayal and that he has set himself on the path of spiritual decline. And he may feel himself to be a failure by virtue of no longer being involved in full-time learning.
The predictions of spiritual decline can become their own form of self-fulfilling prophecy. The norm of long-term kollel learning in Israel, ironically, makes it more likely that those who break with the norm will cease learning altogether.
At the other end of the process of leaving kollel lies unfamiliar territory, whether the work place or an academic setting. In many ways the transition can be compared to travelling to a foreign country where one does not speak the language.
For the former kollel scholar, there is a chasm between the environment which he is leaving and that which he is entering. Until now, he was taught that use of internet is comparable to an issur yichud. Now internet is essential for his work. Until now, he has never been outside a sexually-segregated environment. Now, he may find himself working in a mixed environment. That change can be a shock to the system.
THE CHALLENGE that chareidi society faces with respect to those in transition from full-time Torah learning is two-fold. First, there is the external challenge of ensuring that those who enter the workforce can do so in an environment consistent with maintaining their religious values.
Then there is the internal challenge of ensuring that those who leave full-time beis medrash learning continue to view themselves as bnei Torah, for whom several hours of Torah learning remains part of their daily schedule and who continue to derive their primary spiritual and intellectual satisfaction from that Torah learning.
In response to these challenges, which have such far-ranging implications for the identity and internal health of the chareidi community in coming decades, one of the first projects of the newly formed Haredi Institute for Public Affairs (of which the founder and CEO is Mr. Eli Palay, the publisher of Mishpacha) addresses precisely these issues.
The centerpiece of the project is the creation of appropriate learning frameworks for those no longer in full-time learning. That involves a national survey of existing initiatives in the area, and the opening of new batei medrash for working bnei Torah. The form of learning in the new centers will primarily be chavrusa learning, as in kollel, and a list has already been compiled of fifteen maggidei shiur, some of them prominent roshei yeshiva, to give high-level shiurim. Eight batei medrash have already been established, and the goal is to have twenty – each with its own organizer – by the end of the coming year.
The Institute has commissioned two studies by chareidi researchers – one for men and one for women -- to make concrete recommendations on ways to ensure that entrance into the work force is not at the expense of religious observance or communal identification. The researchers are in the process of conducting in-depth interviews with a cross-section of working 30-50 men and a similar number of women to determine what they felt was lacking in their preparation for the workforce and what steps can facilitate a positive transition from a religious standpoint.
The Institute is simultaneously preparing material for courses to be offered – and hopefully required – by institutions providing academic and vocational training to chareidim that will prepare students for the challenges that may arise in their work environment and guide them as to how they can be handled. Ideally, young people entering a particular field or place of work will be provided with mentors in that field or place of work who can guide them. Such a program already exists for women through Temech.
THE LITHUANIAN WORLD could learn a lot about maintaining the bond to Torah learning after the years in kollel from our Chassidic brothers. Within the largest Chassidic groups – Gerrer, Vizhnitz and Belz – every chassid belongs to a particular shtiebel. Should he be absent from tefillah for more than a few days his absence would be noted immediately.
Few products of Lithuanian yeshivos and kollelim, however, are part of such well-organized communities. As long as they are in yeshiva or kollel, their presence or absence would be noted. But once they are out of kollel, the minyanim where they daven rarely function as a community. The life of a former yungerman, then, is often lacking the web of formal connections to others that is characteristic of the Chassidic world.
In each of the largest Chassidic groups, there is an established time when every chassid is expected to be in the beis medrash learning, and that is true whether he is currently a kollel yungerman or it has been decades since he last learned full-time learning. Absence from learning seder will be duly noted by the gabbai of that particular beis medrash, Anyone who misses a few days can expect a call inquiring about his well-being and where he has been.
That one hour a night is a minimum; many learn more hours throughout the day with chavrusos. No one suggests that one can become a talmid chacham learning one-hour a day, but the sacrosanct nature of that hour helps Chassidim retain a connection to the community of Torah-learners and reaffirms the central place of Torah in their lives.
A Belzer chassid with whom I was speaking last week estimated that no more than two percent of Belzer Chassidim regularly miss the designated hour for learning. When shidduch inquiries are made about the family, one of the first questions to be asked will always be about the father's kvias itim l'Torah. And the subject is invariably emphasized in the Rebbe's annual "standing Torah" drashah, the "state of the union" speech delivered on Motzaei Simchas Torah.
But it took a good deal of effort to get to this situation. One year the Rebbe invited a number of Chassidim to join him for Kiddush on Shabbos. None of those invited were informed as to why they were singled out for such a kavod. When they discovered the source of their distinction, however, they were somewhat less thrilled: Each of them had been reported by the gabbai of their respective shtiblach for non-attendance at the nightly learning, and on that account "earned" a fervent talk from the Rebbe on the importance of consistent, nightly Torah study.
Social pressure in the far less cohesive Lithuanian community can never achieve the same results. That makes the search for new ways of maintaining a vital connection to Torah learning for those who may be overwhelmed by the pressures of their work or their studies or struggling with a loss of identity so absolutely crucial.
Another Nail in the Coffin
The Conservative Movement has been hemorrhaging for a quarter century. In the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the movement constituted 37.8% of American Jewry. That percentage was less than half in the 2013 Pew Study – 18%. The only growing segment of the non-Orthodox world are those who describe themselves as unaffiliated or having no religion.
The Conservative Movement always proclaimed itself a halachic movement. But that pretense has long since proven unsustainable. Marshall Sklare's definitive study of the movement's apparent flourishing in the '50s and '60s, already hinted at the seeds of its own destruction. Rabbis, wrote Sklare, enter into an unwritten compact with their congregations to never discuss halacha. And to the extent that halacha is discussed, it is in terms of polling the unlearned laity for their opinions.
In a December, 2005 address to 700 Conservative clergy and educators, the movement's leading theologian, Neil Gilman, said that it was dishonest for Conservative movement to continue to describe itself as halachic. At most, halacha is to be consulted in light of "changing social and cultural norms."
Last week, the movement took another step towards oblivion when United Synagogue Youth, its teenage division, voted to drop its previous ban on USY officers dating non-Jews. Now those officers are required only "to strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices," while recognizing the importance of intra-dating for Jewish continuity. (Of course, the very concept of high-school "dating" is foreign to Mishpacha readers.)
The new language was designed, according to senior Conservative leaders, to offer a more welcoming face to USYers who come from intermarried homes and to recognize the reality of intermarriage.
Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, has documented what that welcoming attitude to intermarried couples entails: a member of a synagogue ritual committee appearing on Ash Wednesday (a Catholic holiday) with ash on her forehead; a cogregant challenging a rabbi for not having given equal time to x-mas in his Chanukah sermon.
In it's efforts to be up-to-date and adapt to changing social mores and realities – and thereby avoiding the alleged "fossilization" of the Orthodox – the only thing the movement has done is to join Reform in convincing its young that Judaism is trivial: It has no fixed standards; it demands no sacrifice. And every former red-line proves as flexible as President Obama's threat to Syrian dictator Assad not to cross his red-line by employing chemical weapons.
A Judaism that accepts you what no matter what you do; one where there is no beyond the pale, only succeeds in conveys the message that Judaism is worthless. No wonder the 2013 PEW study found that young Jews are more likely to view a particular sense of humor and taste for certain ethnic foods – both qualities widely shared with non-Jews – as more central to their Jewish identity than any particularistic religious beliefs or practices.
Not without logic, do young Jews conclude: If Judaism validates my every opinion, and legitimizes my every action, why do I need Judaism? The more trivial Judaism becomes the less sense does it make to take one's Judaism into consideration in dating and marriage compared to focusing on shared politics, attraction, even a taste for French films.