A Charedi Cry for Help

Once again, I have to thank Marty Bluke for paying attention to what is going on in the Charedi world in Israel, and reporting on it to the English speaking world. This time it is about a column in the Hebrew edition of Ynet written by ‘Yisrael’, a former Avreich in Ponevitch. Marty took the time to translate it and publish it on his blog. He obviously cares enough about the Charedi world to share this story in the hope that it will stimulate change.

It is a heartbreaking letter. One that demonstrates what must be on the minds of a great many more Avreichim suffering a similar fate with respect to their level of poverty. A view that most of them will not share except behind closed doors with their most intimate of friends and family.

This is a story about a 30 year old man who complains bitterly at the lack of a formal secular education in high school. He went through the system full bore. And he followed the tradition all Charedi men in Israel follow. He got married at age 20 and continued his full timeTorah study in a Kollel. He and his wife subsisted on a small Kollel stipend and the small salary his wife earned as a secretary.

After a couple of children the financial pressures of living like that became unbearable. Shalom Bayis was affected and they ended up getting a divorce. At age 26 he now had to pay child support and needed a job.

He was hired by a Charedi bank and trained for his position. He then thought that the Charedi argument against teaching secular subjects in high school was validated. That one could get a decent job using the skills they learned via their Torah study plus some additional training at work.  Limudei Chol (secular studies) would therefore unnecessarily take precious time away from Torah study.

This is after all the clarion call of the Charedi world. It is what their leadership instills in them. And it is one of the arguments made in so strongly resisting any attempts by anyone – especially the government – to install an even basic secular curriculum that would enable them to get better jobs if and when they need it.

But as he quickly found out, that belief was not the reality. He was laid off. And the only jobs he could find after that were ones that paid more or less minimum wage. So here you had this very bright young man unable to earn a decent living because he had no education that would have given him career choices and better enable him to make a living.

And he resents it. Remember that this is not some sort of contrarian. This is a man who played by all the rules and believed in them. And now he feels cheated out of an education.

What would he have liked to see?  A system that pretty much emulates the Charedi system in America. Where a core curriculum of secular subjects are  taught.

He laments the fact that there are no Charedi doctors or professionals of any kind in Israel – unless they are Baalei Teshuva. That is of course not the case in the United States. There are plenty of Charedi professionals ere. He might have chosen a field like that had he been given a basic high school education. But he was denied. And he is understandably bitter.

The letter ends with the following:

I turn to the Charedi leadership: For the future generations, combine torah learning with secular studies. We will continue to learn Gemara but at the same time we will get a HS diploma and degree so that the next generation won’t get stuck in the cycle of poverty. Someone has to stop this cycle. It is time to admit the simple truth, we made a mistake.

Yisrael joins people like Lipa Schmeltzer in the US.  Lipa was educated in the insular community of New Square. Whose educational policies with respect to secular studies are virtually identical to the entire Charedi world in Israel. They both feel they have been cheated out of an education. In Yisrael’s case it might just have prevented a divorce. It is well known that poverty is one of the primary things that can disrupt Shalom Bayis; can create family dysfunction; can lead to divorce; and can  cause children to go OTD (Off the Derech). This is not the first case like this. Unfortunately it will likely not be the last.

Yisrael appeals to the Charedi leadership. And he is not the only one that would like to see some sort of change. There are plenty of Charedi voices that would like it. But I believe it is a Bracha L’vatalah (to borrow a phrase commonly used by Charedim meaning ‘a waste of time’).

The Charedi leadership will never allow any secular studies into their Yeshiva high schools. They insist that this is the will of God.  And their die-hard ‘Chasidim’ insist that if ‘the Gedolim’ are opposed, it is the same as God being opposed. And they will bring proofs from various Gedolim of the past (as did Rabbi Doron Beckerman in a Cross Currents post)  to show that this is indeed the Torah paradigm. That a secular education is forbidden if the time taken for it will be from the time designated for Torah study. So when the time mandated for Torah study is all day, then any time taken for it will perforce be taken from Torah study.

But those Gedolim are not the only word on the issue. There were other Gedolim that had a different view of what God wants of His people.  People like R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Dr. Joseph Breuer whom Dr. Yitzchok Levine referenced in an eloquent article on this subject in the Jewish Press.

If the Charedim in Israel want to break free of their chains of poverty, they have no choice but to have a literal grass roots revolt. And that has about as much chance of happening as my becoming the Rosh HaYeshiva of Ponevitch.

On the other hand, if enough Avrechim speak up the way Yisrael did you never know what that will bring.

What about the fact that rebelling against Charedi leadership is considered near blasphemous? Well, again – if enough of them do it, the Charedi leadership may just end up seeing this as an Eis La’asos – a time to act.

When Charedi leaders see an existential threat to their way of life, they make paradigmatic changes. This is how formal Jewish education for women was established in Europe. It is why Rav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld found an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Auerbach, to set up a secular program in Yeshiva high schools in the Yishuv HaYashan – the original area in Israel settled by Chaerdi Jews long before the State of Israel was created.

If it happened then, it could happen now. But first there has to be an outcry like the one made by Yisroel. By a lot more Charedim in Israel. If the Charedi leadership sees enough of that, they will consider it an existential threat. And only then, will the paradigm change. God willing.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.