Money Matters

The ADVA Institute has just issued it latest report on Israel’s deepening income gap. According to the report, nearly one in five wage earners are living below the poverty line.

Typically, the release of new poverty figures generates large headlines in the chareidi press, and the figures are seized upon as proof of the government’s failure in this area and of the need to return child subsidies to former levels.

That is not going to happen, I would guess, no matter how grim the poverty figures. Periodically, particular coalition constellations – such as the current government’s need to retain Shas in the coalition – may lead to a temporary increase in child subsidies. But there are important factors militating against a dramatic long-term rise in child subsidies.

By far the largest beneficiaries of child subsidies are the Arab sector: There are over twice as many Arabs as chareidim in Israel. Since the cut in child subsidies, there has been a substantial drop in the Arab birthrate (which, Baruch Hashem, has not been accompanied by a parallel drop in the chareidi birthrate). The decline in Arab birthrates is crucial to Israel’s demographic survival.

Future government efforts to relieve poverty are more likely to take the form of a negative income tax and job-training programs. Even economist Milton Friedman, the great champion of free market capitalism and opponent of the welfare state, supported a negative income tax, which returns money to low-income wage earners. (Unlike raising the minimum wage, a negative income tax does not create a disincentive to employers to hire new workers.) But the negative income tax only benefits those who are working.

Besides the likely futility of relying on a return to previous levels of child support, an over focus on government subsidies can cause us to forget an important fact: the primary responsibility for supporting our families rests upon us. While the Israeli chareidi community has been largely untouched by the social pathologies associated with welfare recipients around the world, a certain “culture of dependency” – the sapping of individual initiative that accompanies long-term dependence on welfare – has not entirely passed us by.

More than twenty years ago, while returning from the levaya of the Steipler Gaon, zt”l, I asked my rosh yeshiva, why the Chazon Ish had chosen to live in Bnei Brak, rather than in the “old yishuv” of Jerusalem. He replied that the Chazon Ish felt that more than 200 years of the “chaluka” system (contributions from Jewish communities abroad) had deprived the “old yishuv” of its vitality, and he hoped to build something entirely new in the “new yishuv.” And that was before there were any government social benefits to speak of.

We tell ourselves that poverty in the chareidi world is a function of our commitment to Torah learning. And to a large extent that is true. But there are large pockets of endemic poverty in our world that have little to do with Torah learning. The majority of those who descend on every affluent Torah community abroad are not in full-time learning nor do their efforts allow them much time for Torah study.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky once explained wryly how the halacha that one should fast on a yahrtzeit had been replaced by serving food in honor of the deceased. The intermediate step, he suggested, was that people who found fasting too difficult made a siyum instead in honor of the departed parent. But eventually, people forgot about the siyum, and all that was left in place of the fast was the food. In a similar fashion, the primacy of Torah learning has too often become transformed into a disdain for work even when the Torah learning has been forgotten. That disdain finds no support in Torah sources.

A 19-year-old appeared at my door recently, and told me he was collecting for his family of 13. I gave him a fairly large sum, but when he returned a few weeks later, I asked him whether he was still learning in yeshiva. He looked at me as if I were crazy to think that he could still be learning while serving as the principal support for his large family.

I told him that I was impressed by how articulate he was, and felt that he had talents that could be developed. But if he continued on his present path, he could look forward to remaining a schnorrer for the rest of his life. If so, he would simply join a growing community in which begging is the most common “profession,” and in which there is no social safety net in tragic cases because there are so few within the extended family or social circle who work. He was profoundly grateful when I referred him to a chareidi-run job training program.

Severing the relationship between individual effort and money, as government welfare benefits tend to do, leads to distortions of everything connected to family finances. Shmuel Margulies, the founder of Mesila, an organization that assists debt-ridden chareidi families and businesses, told me not long ago that when he first opened his doors, he thought it would be sufficient to provide families with loans and a bit of counseling to help put them back on their feet. He soon realized, however, that without financial counseling the families would, in most cases, quickly find themselves back in the same position as before. And eventually, he came to the conclusion that even before counseling there needs to be a full-scale revamping of how we educate our young about finances.

When I was a kid – admittedly not yesterday – it was common for parents, even affluent ones, to tell their children to earn the money for something like a bicycle. And summer jobs were part of life. In that way, we learned something of the value of a dollar. The near year around yeshiva schedule does not provide Israeli chareidi boys with similar opportunities to learn those lessons.

A disconnect between effort and family income, which is one effect of government benefits, creates a sense of entitlement to even those things that would have been considered unimaginable luxuries one or two generations ago, including an apartment for every newlywed couple. Even in families struggling to make basic ends meet, it is not uncommon to find a number of children with their own cell phone and family cell phone bills of a thousand shekels or more per month. In supermarkets catering to the cost-conscious chareidi consumer, one still sees shopping carts piled high with soft drinks and junk food that are not only unhealthy but costly.

Poverty is exacting a terrible toll on the Israeli chareidi community. The government has an important role to play in reducing the deepening despair. But so do we as individuals and as a community.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on December 27 2007.

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26 Responses

  1. Chaim Davids says:

    I know over a hundred Chareidi Jews living in Israel who have no savings and tiny kollel incomes. Most of them learn over 10 hours a day.

    I also know many millionaire Chareidi Jews. Only one of them learns 10 hours a day.

    Both sides break logic. The rich ones should all be sitting and learning day and night since they already have money, and the poor ones should be out scraping out an income for their family. Thank HaShem for the poor one’s lack of logic.

    This article’s call to hold down aid to Torah families and dangle job training in front of them is the wrong way to go. All readers of this site should give the majority of their maaser to Talmidei Chochamim.

    This is the desire of our great leaders. A recent article from Maran HaRav Eliashev and our other great Torah leaders quotes the Chofetz Chaim that “even someone who cannot give all his tithes to Torah scholars, should make sure to give most, or at least half of them, to those who toil in Torah study.” (

    We give them money. They learn. We don’t mevaker their lives.

  2. joel rich says:

    Let me say amen and just build on one point:

    “A 19-year-old appeared at my door recently, and told me he was collecting for his family of 13. I gave him a fairly large sum, but when he returned a few weeks later, I asked him whether he was still learning in yeshiva. He looked at me as if I were crazy to think that he could still be learning while serving as the principal support for his large family.

    I told him that I was impressed by how articulate he was, and felt that he had talents that could be developed. But if he continued on his present path, he could look forward to remaining a schnorrer for the rest of his life. If so, he would simply join a growing community in which begging is the most common “profession,” and in which there is no social safety net in tragic cases because there are so few within the extended family or social circle who work. He was profoundly grateful when I referred him to a chareidi-run job training program”

    The truly sad thing would be if this individual (lshitai-let’s not debate now whether everyone could be the Netziv) could have been a great learner/teacher but because the resources are spread over so many who “stay in it” even though they don’t have those abilities, this individual won’t develop that potential.


  3. Dr. E says:

    This problem is a deep complex one, but I think that the Chareidi world in Israel needs to introspect and contemplate a U-turn of the system rather than the ad hoc band-aids we have seen. The debate over the supremacy of Torah study has been argued back and forth, but because of the problems that Jonathan points out, it’s time to “get over” this notion of a zero-sum-game.

    One of the real issues that I see here is that the Chareidi world lacks role models. Sure, there are Gedolim who are revered and on whose words the world starts and stops. But, I am talking about realistic role models who have been able to successfully balance Torah study with a viable parnassa. Ideally, such a vocation that will not only support one’s family, but also give one fulfillment and maybe even one that will “make a difference” in either the broader community or even just the Chareidi community. If such individuals do exist, they certainly do not seem to be given much attention. As is often the case, the “parnassa” area of the person’s life is totally divorced from one’s true persona (within both the community and from one’s family), both literally and figuratively. While there may be an occasional “g’vir” who is admired for his financial support of Torah, those working individuals (who may very well still keep sedarim in learning with much sacrifice) who have not made it to the “g’vir” tax-bracket–aside from being few and far between–are not looked up to as benchmarks. It is most often portrayed as a “b’dieved” by both the community and even more tragically, by the person himself towards his own family.

    I’ll try to be as objective as possible with a familiar scenario here. Take a kid in this community who is 18 and has had endured the traditional Yeshiva education, most likely with no secular studies or vocational skills. She learns another one two years, gets married, and enrolls in a Kollel without any “plan”. He either learns, hangs out, or engages in some proportion of the two. Several years later, he is in his mid to late 20’s with 4 or 5 kids and has never done anything resume worthy. His wife never picked up any employable skills either and they are living in some 2 bedroom apartment somewhere. Unfortunately, the guy is now just a number—in Sociology terms, a statistic. While a minority may have charisma, personality, talent, and protexia to get a job in Klai Kodesh, what about the rest? In many situations, anything done at this juncture is too little-too late. The truth is that the train left the station 10 or 15 years ago and no one gave him or his parents instructions where and when to get off. But, the train is now at the end of the tracks. Hence, the ubiquitous glossy Kupat Ha’ir brochures and collectors who come to the U.S. And this scenario is beginning to play out in communities in the U.S. as well.

    I won’t rehash the debates over the community’s avoidance of army service and aversion to higher education, not to mention the weakening correlation between those enrolled in Yeshiva and the quality/quantity of Torah study. Let’s just say that it’s time for the leadership of the Chareidi community to come to grips with the fact that the answer to this systemic problem is not simply signing on some Tzadaka organization’s letterhead, but a fundamental paradigm shift. Last time I checked with Chazal, entitlement and dependence were not fundamental ikkarim of our faith.

  4. David says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum,

    You are talking like us Ballei Battim, and no matter what sources we bring from the Torah to support what we are saying, we are constantly reminded by others that our opinion is opposite Daas Torah. So you are wasting your time writing about this unitl you get the Gedolei Torah to address this publicly. Until then, the counter argument will always be, “but the Gedolim apparently are OK with this system since we haven’t head anything from then against this, after all doesn’t it say that ‘one student in a thousand reaches the level of horaah’, so apparently it’s OK to have a thousand students ‘learning’, even if they really can’t.” (This is besides the point that the Gemara is apparently descibing a metzius, not advocating the position that students sit there for years not accomplishing and not supporting their families, but whatever.)

  5. dr. william gewirtz says:

    I understand that for Mishpacha, one has to write BeRemizah. I assume cross-current readers understand the root-cause responsibility.

    I am not suprised to learn that even the CI had hopes for a different derech. Sadly, efforts to get at root cause, have only been endorsed by a subset of the community’s Gedolim. Solutions that are more than sensitive to the community’s orientation/hashkafa, have been rejected in favor of the current situation. Sadly, the educational system is not helping; but fortunately gemara learning is reasonable training in structured thinking required by programmers and testers that Israeli high-tech has to outsource due to lack of local talent. Recent attacks in the Charedi press on an individual who perhaps expressed himself too bluntly, but is certainly part of the solution, serve no useful purpose. This will take more than a generation to make progress; sadly it will get worse before it gets better.

  6. Yossie says:

    Excellent article. I applaud you for writing it and I applaud Mishpacha for publishing it. I just hope someone “important” reads it.
    It is sad though that any push to get Charedim away from poverty is met with a stronger push from the Gedolim that “Torah is the only way.”

  7. David says:

    What a breath of fresh air from the charedi community.

    A couple of things that were not mentioned but should be:

    1) When I read the kvetching from the charedim about how little they receive from the government, I get the impression that they see the Israeli government as a bottomless pit of cash. They forget that every nickle given out by the government was given to the government by hard-working citizens, and it doesn’t just grow in the Kenesset.

    2) There is another reason for charedim to work: so that they can begin to influence and inspire the general populaiton which is falling deeper and deeper into spiritual poverty. Israel needs more charedim in the workplace so that the average secular “Shmulik” can see firsthand the beauty and value of Torah life. Also, this is the only way the charedim can dispel the “parasite” conception that many secular Israelis have of them.

    3) Charedim should realize that working is a value; one builds a country and a nation not only through Torah, but also through a vibrant and flourishing economy.

  8. G says:

    Typically, the release of new poverty figures generates large headlines in the chareidi press, and the figures are seized upon as proof of the government’s failure in this area and of the need to return child subsidies to former levels.

    –Typical is right. One could seize upon these figures as proof that people need to do a better job of taking care of themselves.

  9. lacosta says:

    yasher koach to mishpacha for allowing such a commentary to be published. as a charedi with street cred , he could not be seen as critical. Mishpacha is undoubtedly the fairest chareidi publication anywhere. they occaisionaly even show pictures of branches of Orthodoxy not their own, without automatically castigating them.
    may all klal yisrael be zoche to need no matnat bassar vadam….

  10. cvmay says:

    Excellent overview, JR dissected the problem of Charedei poverty and dependency from almost every angle, offering thoughts and possible solutions for those open to them.
    An angle that was not explored, which is unique to Israel’s Charedei community is the connection between financial funding and government coalition building. The dire need for government funding places MK’s (& their voters)in decision-making and voting modes that maintain ‘cash cows’ while supporting less than ideal legislation. ex: A law has been introduced to the Knesset allowing bnei yeshiva to secure employment without fulfilling an army requirement. A SHAS minister was quoted saying, ‘We will not support this legislation, as it will disember the Yeshiva system as well as minimizing the rebbe-talmid relationship’. Mirrored by many, the Torah political parties are described as ‘blood suckers’, ‘self-absorbed’, ‘one issue agenda’, solely occupied in increasing subsidies. Endearing Toras Hashem while engaging in political business is not an easy feat, it is questionable, if it is worth it?

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    R. Yonasan is spot-on regarding most of what he says. The sad point that most people don’t notice is that Mesila is duplicating the efforts of Pa’amonim in the RZ or former RZ world. Why can’t we get together instead of being split all the time? An awful lot of RZ’s are not very Zionist at all since the expulsion from Gush Katif. This is reminiscent of the story about hasidim and misnagdim based on the mashal of the two brothers who were wealthy and bought a great big new house with all the amenities including two separate meat and milk kitchens. One brother was a connosieur of meat and the other of fine cheese and such things. Neither could stand the tastes of the other. After a while they lost their money and could only afford potatoes. But one brother ate his potatoes cooked in the meat kitchen and the other ate his from the dairy kitchen and never the twain did meet. It has to stop. It only helps the forces of evil by splitting the people of Torah.

  12. david says:

    Good article.

    Another few critical issues caused by poverty: One is the breakdown in family structure that poverty causes. Shalom bayis is negatively affected and kids at risk proliferate when there are hunger pangs at home.
    Another; ironically, a society that supports everyone in kolel at a meager existance level merely causes the more talented to flee this angst-ridden existance and search a more reasonable lifestyle. I personally know a number of supertalented who fled yeshiva and left the less talented behind. In effect we are watering the weeds and cutting the flowers.
    Another; Jews historically have been hunted. The lack of resources directly impacts our ability to survive, flee and or advocate for our causes.
    I recognise that post world war two there was a need to temporarily change thousands of years of jewish lifestyle and ask everyone to learn, so as to create talmidei chachomim. The catch word here is “temporarily”
    I remember as a child seeeing a cartoon where a weak, underweight and malnourished boy buys powershakes. In the next frame we see the shake’s success and he now looks heathy having put on weight and mass. In the last frame he is obese with multiple chins as he continues to gulp down powershakes… A good thing without thought and moderation can be lethal.

  13. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I understand that for Mishpacha, one has to write BeRemizah”

    Whether “BeRemizah” or not, the Mishpacha article has value in of itself, as the larger concept of “Money Matters”(teaching children the value of money) applies to all communities; just because there are more fundamental issues doesn’t mean that one can’t address the issue of financial responsibility. I link to the Summer 2004 Jewish Action article which addresses the other issues, and which I liked.

  14. YoelB says:

    The place to start is with ensuring different attitudes for teachers in girls’ schools. If the young women begin to want husbands who can bring a parnassah, the young men will start getting job training as appropriate.

  15. Orthonomics says:

    All readers of this site should give the majority of their maaser to Talmidei Chochamim.
    What of the needs in America?

  16. Dr. E says:

    YoelB brings up an important and probably even a broader point. Most girls have absolutely no idea of what a Yeshiva environment looks like or is supposed to look like. This goes for what is expected and what is acheived in terms of the quantity or quality of learning. Yet, many girls are encouraged to look only for a “learning boy”. For those in the know, this could be a guy who is merely enrolled in a Yeshiva (many without college), but devoid of cheshek, zitzfleisch, acumen, or goals in his learning. There are certainly guys who do take their learning and sedarim seriously. However, many seminary girls are certainly not informed enough to make any sort of discriminating decisions. So, as long as the system keeps feeding on itself in this fashion, the results will be quite predictable.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Dr. E — December 28, 2007 @ 12:12 pm:

    Aren’t parents obligated to check out the credentials of eligible bochurim for their daughters looking for shidduchim? Since when are the daughters vetting the bochurim by themselves?

  18. LOberstein says:

    In some American communities and maybe in some Israeli communities, all segments of the population get along. Rav Simcha Kook of Rehovot tells us that in his town, the frum all get along and that he relates well to the secular as well as the religious. Baltimore is like that too. But, as we move to bigger cities, we all become very segmentend, segregated and live parallel lives. All of the problems we face today have their roots in History. Since few of us know the real history ( as opposed to the tales of the Righteous) we don’t understand that we are seeing re-enactments of scenes .
    One important point, Gedolim who disagree with their followers are deposed, not listened to. Don’t think for a second that any godol or rebbe can go beyond certain parameters and not be deposed. If you think I am wrong, look at the Munkatcher Rebbe who became a zionist after the war and was sent packing. Leaders only lead where their followers are willing to go.

  19. Dr. E says:

    To Bob Miller:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “obligated”, but I guess in shidduch lingo (for which I am merely an often cynical observer), that translates into prudently checking the guy out on behalf of their often clueless daughters. That also assumes that the parents are looking for the right qualities, rather than observing that the prospective suitor wears the yeshivish “levush” and is merely enrolled in Yeshiva X. Sadly, in the era of the “shidduch crisis”, no one wants to be the parent of the 23 year old “alta maidel” and the criteria become more stylistic over substance. This often comes with settling for guys with marginal aptitude, ambition, and “plan” who want the open-ended free ride.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Dr. E — December 30, 2007 @ 2:06 am:

    In my naivete, I wrote “obligated” to mean obligated.

    Anyway, Dr. E’s original point was that seminary girls evaluated bochurim without understanding what goes on in a yeshiva. His response to my point about the parents’ responsibility was that today’s parents were under too much pressure and would/could not reject an academically unqualified suitor who still expected their financial support to stay in learning. If that is common, it’s a separate, although related, problem.

    1. The same families who have daughters in seminary typically have sons in yeshiva. Family members have been known to talk to each other! I can’t see where the alleged ignorance about yeshiva life comes from.

    2. From my vantage point, I’ve seen how comprehensive the due diligence work of shadchanim and their helpers is. They try to get beyond labels and stereotypes, and the better ones succeed. The hardest thing for them is not asking detailed questions but determining actual compatibility, which is a very tough, close to impossible, task. The highly stylized shidduch dating process should reveal compatibility or the lack of it, but nothing in this is foolproof.

  21. Dr. E says:

    To Bob Miller-

    I guess I don’t share the same reverence of the modern day shidduch process. But to respond to your points:

    (1) As a parent of a son in yeshiva, I have seen other parents who are equally clueless what goes on or doesn’t go on the the yeshivas as the parents of girls (and the girls themselves). The same way that parents don’t want to be landlords of their 23 year “alta maidel”, parents of guys want to have a socially desirable answer to “nu, so where will your chossen bochur be learning?”. (No parent wants to have to reply, “he is working for __________” or “he is starting ___________ school”, lest their “deficient” parenting become evident.) As for the reasons for this ignorance, I certainly have my theories. But, that is part of a whole other discussion which goes way beyond the premise of the original post here. In much of the Yeshivish community, anything short of Kollel is at best b’dieved, and at worst embarrassing. Let’s just say that the kashas from Kiddushin 29a/30b are far more compelling than the modern day teirutzim.

    (2) I’m not quite sure what the “highly stylized shidduch dating process” is all about. I will just assume that it is the precursor of a highly stylized (and perhaps stylistic) marriage. 🙂

  22. la costa says:

    on the topic of working together, see the last week’s Mishpacha, which, surprising even for it, featured an article on the Upper West Side. this is a topic unlike say Boro Park, where one could focus only on haredim–because frankly that’s who lives there. one could have imagined not writing about this area at all, because, although the article does feature many haredi neighborhod elements, it had to discuss the MO component of the neighborhood—which frankly, outnumbers haredim. rather than an in depth focus of e g the open sore of the MO singles scene, which needs to be addressed– but is not the constituents of the Haredi community– the article focused on the overwhelming unity of Haredi and non-haredi constituents. this could not have appeared in ANY other haredi publication in a non-disparaging or non-ignore-the-other-frum-jews way. Mishpacha should be seen as the supreme example of the Haredi intellectual vanguard— that can even address other frum communities–and in fact should do so even more. this would break down many chip-on-the shoulder barriers that have been set up between Orthodox jews of various camps. i dunno, maybe daas tora is ther SHOULD be barriers, and maybe even higher;so that borderline haredi individuals might not fall into these other commmunities’ practices. but anyways yasher koach to Mishpacha, AND all the haredi rabbis of the UWS, who co-exist and co-operate with other frum jews….

  23. zadok says:

    I don’t know why Mispacha is considered Charedei.Although they have a nominal focus on Charedim and certain charedei cultural similarities, I’ve never seen anything in that magizine which indicates it identifies with or even values core Charedei values, like the tremendous chasivus of Limid H’Torah,Lomdei Torah,Dikduk B’Halacah etc.All their serials are unfair false stereotypes bashing people in Kollel,they don’t seem to recognize that not every doctor or therapist is the selfless Tzadik they attempt to portray,not everyone in corporate America is an ambassador of Torah and Mitzvos etc.As far as the article about the Upper West Side is concerned is just plain wrong to whitewash what goes on there.I have a brother, an older single who lives there.After going to Touro, entering corporate America,moving to the Upper West Side he dropped Yiddishkeit but still remains part of ‘the crowd’ in the upper west side.He may be an exeption(I sure hope so)but an ‘issue oriented magazine’ that promotes college etc. is being just plain dishonest by brushing people like my brother (or the other older singles) under the carpet.

  24. L Oberstein says:

    We all come to these discussions with our biases and axes to grind. I applaud Cross Currents, Mishpacha and those authors who are willing to deal with issues others prefer to sweep under the carpet. The shiduch crisis is very real but compared with other Jews, the orthodox still are much better off. Some of our children do take longer to find a shiduch but they enter marriage with their morals intact .
    Many naively think that the cause and the solution of the problem ( shiduch or otherwise) are the Roshei Yeshiva and Gedolim. My experience is that these individuals don’t make the rules, they are not as powerful in reality as some think. I was recently told that the Agudah Gedolim are not the ones who set the tone, it is others who for religious reasons won’t join the Moetzes. My source said they are mainly Briskers.

    The gedolim that I knew led people but encouraged them to use their own minds. Those who abdicate personal responsibity and turn to a rav for everything, make our rabbonim overworked and do themselves and the rabbonim a dis service. Here in Baltimore one of our leading rabbonim had to go away on a half year sabbatical and not give his own children his phone number so that nudnicks wouldn’t bother him. He came back and within a year got sick and entered the hospital. People won’t leave him alone, they bother him day and night. That is why Rav Elyashiv et. al have “handlers”. How else could they survive?
    I don’t think the rabbis are the problem.

  25. tzippi says:

    Mr. Miller, you are absolutely correct that the vetting is the parents’ obligations, and many if not most are doing as good a job as they can, within the parameters they confine themselves to. I don’t want to knock kollel. I started out that way and many of my children may well do so too. But we have given ourselves and our children permission to (shocker alert here)think for themselves and figure out what they need for their shalom bayis and to build a strong bayis neeman. That is our starting point, not how many years, or even if they will start, in kollel. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but the sad reality is that many people in certain circles will not consider the finest of young men unless they are still learning full time.

  26. Calev says:

    There are organisations that can help Chareidi communities to help themselves. World ORT, for example, is a completely secular organisation but it has tried over the years to set up IT training programmes among Israeli Chareidim. These attempts failed but perhaps now the situation is so much more difficult for Orthodox families that the time is ripe to give it another go. Lubavitch have seized the initiative by collaborating with ORT in America – see the J’lem Post:

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