Torah for Dollars

A brightly-lit room on a dark night in Kiryat Sefer. The office is abuzz as the men, all in black pants, white shirts, and velvet yarmulkes, place phone calls to commercial customers in the US and Canada, trying to sell them furniture.

That’s right, it’s a hareidi call center, staffed by men in their thirties. This is a noble enterprise that enables the ultra-religious to support their families, earning an honest wage to supplement their yeshiva stipends. Except that the enterprise is not noble, the wage is less than honest, and the yeshiva stipend is not legitimate.

The enterprise isn’t noble because these men are paid in cash. That’s right, every penny they earn is unreported to the tax authorities. They pay nothing into the kitty that, incidentally, pays a significant portion of their yeshiva stipend.

It gets better. The government subsidy of the yeshiva, which enables the payment of the stipend, requires the students’ attendance at specific times during the day. And so, on this dark night, while the men are on the phones earning their cash, they are really supposed to be in yeshiva, earning their keep. But no need to worry – there’s a system in place. An alarm sounds suddenly: the inspector from the Ministry of Education has arrived in town – better get your butts into those chairs. The phone conversations are cut short, the men grab their hats and jackets, and run to the yeshiva.

In my imagination I see that while these men are running, their peers in the yeshiva are setting out open gemaras and pulling out chairs so that the bodies can get in place and look studious before the inspector arrives. If it weren’t unethical and illegal, it would be impressive.

I know about the call center incident because I was told about it by someone reliable who was there when it happened. You can read about other such incidents by searching for פקחי נוכחות בישיבות (yeshiva attendance inspectors). You’ll see that the yeshivas see these inspections as tricky governmental attempts to stop funding yeshivot. For example, one yeshiva complained that the inspectors wouldn’t allow students into the study hall once the inspection began. Clearly, though, the inspectors shouldn’t wait for the alarm to go out and the room to fill before they take attendance.

What I find most frustrating about this incident is that I’m not sure what to focus on first, or what I should be most angry about:

– That my hard-earned tax-payer shekels are paying thousands of middle-aged men to study Jewish texts all day, not in order to prepare them for some useful function in society, but just so they can study?

– That my shekels are paying an unknown number of men to study, but they’re not actually studying?

– That “religious” men are accepting money to perform a task that they are not actually performing? That is, that I’m making payments to thieves in tzizit? That this is a prominent and disgusting characteristic of religion in Israel?

– That the same men are earning a second income off the books, in violation of their yeshiva commitment and Israeli tax law?

– That all of this, and many other troubling and expensive organizations and behaviors, are supported by all of us because the working people of this country vote again and again for right-center and left-center political parties that won’t form a coalition without religious parties that hold the country hostage until a ransom is paid?

– That our leaders can’t extract us from these hostage situations?

– That all of this pales when compared to sacrifices our children make to serve in the army, while these men don’t?

Any one of these is enough to make one stand in the middle of the town square and yell, “Enough!”. So here I am, yelling “Enough!” in the town square.

Of course, yelling “Enough” is not enough. Here are two suggestions.

The first is for the Ministry of Education. It’s your responsibility to recover those funds, or to stop paying them to yeshivot that are cheating the system. Try this. Dress the inspectors in hareidi costume. Send one or two to sit in the study hall for a couple of days. If the hall is empty, end the subsidy, and sue the yeshiva for one year’s funding.

The second is for everyone else. If you’re tired of being held ransom, and of working hard so that others can sit and read, of sending your children to fight while others kick back with a book, unite behind a party and leader who, after the election, won’t make those expensive deals.

About the Author
Nathan Bigman is a writer and musician, living in Jerusalem.
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