Josh Shaynason was the star quarterback of the Solomon Schechter Jewish day-school in Philadelphia. Armed with a lethal right hand, a conquering smile and Robert Redford-esque red hair, Josh was the Jewish equivalent of The Way We Were’s Hubbell Gardiner. Despite his rather large yarmulke, Shaynason was always a ladies’ man, hosting A-list social events in the basement of his suburban house.
Unlike many of the rich kids who attended our exclusive private day school, Josh’s family belonged to the American middle class. Therefore, it identified with the all-American values of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and putting in a hard day’s work. There are no free rides in the American class system,and despite the high expenditure associated with it, Josh’s parents saved up penny by penny, making it possible for him to earn a much sought-after private education.
Over the years I had lost track of Josh — until a chance meeting two years ago at a friend’s wedding. Imagine my surprise when I saw his boyish good looks concealed by a heavy beard, a black suit and a Haredi high hat. Josh had made aliya after high school and was now living in Jerusalem and studying in a yeshivah. “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell,” I said when he introduced me to his wife and two children.
What amazed me most about the meeting was not his appearance but rather the fact that, to an extent, Josh had found a free ride after all. By making aliya, and devoting his life to the Torah, Josh was able to afford bringing up his children in Israel. While my tax money was putting a roof over his kids’ heads and meals on their table, he was puttin’ on the Haredi Ritz.
As Irving Berlin might have commented, wearing his high (Haredi) hat and narrow collars, white spats and fifteen dollars, Josh was spending every dime, on a Talmudic wonderful time.
Josh’s story is not a unique one, as the ultra-Orthodox make up almost nine percent of Israeli society. Of that nice percent, only 52 percent are part of the work force, according to an analysis published by the TheMarkerWeek magazine [Hebrew] on July 13. The analysis reveals the financial benefits Israel would gain should the remaining ultra-Orthodox join the work force as well. Each 10,000 Haredi workers would translate into a 2.6-billion shekel increase in Israel’s gross national product. Overall, the Haredi workforce is potentially worth a whopping 15 billion shekels.
These figures demonstrate the monumental importance of altering the status quo that currently exists in Israel. But they also shed light on the true issue at hand.
In the past weeks, the “suckers movement,” which demanded the immediate enlistment of the Haredi community into the armed forces or the national service, has gained much popularity. The suckers protest last week in Tel Aviv attracted some 20,000 supporters, as well as high profiled members of the Israeli security establishment such as former IDF chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi and former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin.
The debate regarding the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox has also sent the political establishment into a tizzy, with the Kadima party threating to bolt the government given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reluctance to adopt the Plesner Committee’s recommendations.
However, the current debate reeks of political spins and lack of focus. The IDF has no real desire to enlist Haredi youngsters. The costs of such a move would be staggering, given the salaries that would have to be paid to 23-year-old soldiers with children. Likewise, the need to transform into a glatt kosher army would be accompanied by negative outcomes such as segregating women from key positions.
Calls to enlist young Haredi men into the IDF are no more than empty slogans around which all Israelis can rally. It would not be surprising to learn that the Israeli tycoons are behind this new spin, as the suckers protest has attracted much media attention at the cost of the social justice protests that have been targeting Israel’s wealthiest one percent. Just last month, Haaretz reported [Hebrew] that Itzik Shmuli, head of the student body at Tel Aviv University and one of the leaders of the suckers protest, had raised funds from Nochi Dankner, a lifelong member of the tycoon club.
The call for national service for all is an important one, as it relates to the core values in which we believe as a society. Indeed we should educate our children to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.
However, it is the integration of the Haredi community into our national workforce that is of the upmost importance. The Haredim are an untapped resource of immense prospects that could contribute to our prosperity as a society and as a country. It would, however, necessitate not only legislation but also a commitment to equip the ultra-Orthodox minority with the tools necessary in order to succeed in the workplace — starting with a worthwhile education. That way, Josh and his friends can mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks, or umbrellas, in their mitts — Puttin’ on the Ritz.