Two Cases for Decentralization

Last month, the English Yated Ne’eman bravely published a two-part article by R’ Avraham Birnbaum on some of the consequences of the ever accelerating dominance of Lakewood within the American learning community.

While the transformation of Lakewood is largely a tale of the remarkable growth of the American learning community, the changes have not come without costs.

It is now a standard rite of passage for American bochurim who are ready to marry to head for Lakewood. While they are in shidduchim, they will learn in overflowing batei medrash, with a thousand or more bochurim. After marriage, the default assumption is that the young couple will continue to live in Lakewood.

The presence of most of the eligible young learners in one place also has its effect on young women. Those from “out-of-town” communities must either leave their parents’ home and move to New York or endure costly and draining long-distance dating.

The Lakewood community of today bears little resemblance to that of even twenty years ago. At the time of the petirah of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, in 1962, the number of kolleleit was no more than a hundred, and only a few hundred when his son Rabbi Shneur Kotler, zt”l, passed away almost two decades later. Today the number is 4,000.

Twenty years ago, most of the community lived in aging homes on a few tree-lined streets around Bais Medrash Govoha. Today it sprawls over vast suburban housing developments far beyond walking distance of the Yeshiva. Many of the capacious new homes are occupied by young couples drawn by cheaper housing than they can find in Brooklyn.

The changes in the community are ones of kind, not just quantity. The kollel couples in Reb Aharon and Reb Shneur’s day were idealistic pioneers charting a new course for American Jewry. By and large, they had left their home communities in response to Reb Aharon’s call of learning Torah lishma. Today, Lakewood is the most comfortable place for young Torah families to live, and a new trend is emerging of parents purchasing homes in Lakewood and eventually joining their married children there.

Not surprisingly, there have been tensions between the denizens of the “old yishuv” of idealistic kollel families and some of the newcomers, who bring a different lifestyle to Lakewood.

Perhaps the most significant development discussed by R’ Birnbaum is the “brain drain” from other established communities to Lakewood. He suggests that an infusion of a large number of young kollel familes from Lakewood into established communities would not only inject needed new blood into those communities but also be good for the kolleleit. The latter would regain some of that pioneering idealism to spread Torah that Reb Aharon instilled in his closest talmidim. (That is already taking place in many towns around Lakewood, where kollelim have been established and to which groups of kolleleit have moved.)

The presence of larger kollelim might also attract bochurim returning from Eretz Yisrael to the yeshivos in which they previously learned and where they have a personal connection to the rabbonim. In smaller yeshivos, the danger of bochurim falling between the cracks, with no one to guide them personally, would be reduced.

THE CENTRALIZATION OF FULL-TIME AVREICHIM in Lakewood is, in part, economically driven by the lack of affordable housing in major cities with large Orthodox populations. In Israel, economic factors are pushing in the opposite direction.

In Eretz Yisrael too there is a great centralization of the learning community. The dream of every yeshiva bochur is an apartment in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, or, failing that, in one of the new all-chareidi communities within commuting distance – Beitar, Elad, or Kiryat Sefer.

Yet that dream is increasingly beyond realization for many young couples. In outlying Jerusalem neighborhoods in the process of “chareidization,” the price of a small apartment that the couple will likely outgrow in a few years is rapidly climbing towards $200,000. Recent government-imposed housing freezes in Beitar and elsewhere have sent housing prices skyrocketing, if one can even find an apartment to buy.

Clearly, the dream of an apartment in or near Bnei Brak or Jerusalem for every young couple is not sustainable. Few parents can afford even half of one $200,000 apartment, much less of many such apartments.

What the long-range solution is no one knows, but part of that solution will have to be more young couples moving to the periphery, whether in the South or North, where apartment prices are less than half of those in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

That move will encounter resistance from both young couples and their parents. The former will claim that their growth in Torah learning will be imperiled by being removed from the major centers of learning.

Not necessarily. When Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was a young rav in Tzitevian he had no one with whom to talk in learning regularly. And the same was true of most of the other 300 communal rabbonim in Lithuania. And yet Reb Yaakov testified that you could not catch one of them on a Tosofos anywhere in Shas.

Today there are many great talmidei chachamim in communities like Tifrach, Ofakim, Netivot, and Rechesim. And there is a special atmosphere of mesirus nefesh for Torah to be found among those who did not insist that they could only learn if they received an apartment in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, and who may have even followed the Gemara’s recommendation to seek the daughter of a talmid chacham, even one without a handsome dowry attached. Young couples in these communities also do not have start married life with the burden of guilt of watching their parents crumbling under debts they can never hope to repay.

And finally let us not forget an old A. Amitz story – which, as readers know, are all true – in which the narrator is the youngest sibling of a large family. By the time she gets married, there is no money for her to buy in Jerusalem, and she must move to the periphery. But in the end, it is she who ends up living surrounded by all her married children (and nieces and nephews as well), and who can, as principal of the school, provide jobs for all her daughters and daughters-in-laws.

Makes sense.

Mishpacha March 26, 2008

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21 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    How much growth in Torah learning can you have if you leave somewhere unaffordable and have to worry about Parnassah (= making a living) all the time?

  2. joel rich says:

    and who can, as principal of the school, provide jobs for all her daughters and daughters-in-laws.

    General remarks:
    1.Torah has the strangest way of blossoming from what to us may seem the least expected places (for a sharper statement of this principle see Nedarim 81a)

    2.Whenever Jews believe they have found little Jerusalem outside of Israel, HKB”H seems to have a way to remind us that we’ve fallen short (may it not be through pain)

    As to the above quote, I think it probably reflects reality but raises an interesting question as to whether torah was meant to be a meritocracy (no coincidence that this is raised right after reading of nadav vavuihu).


  3. zalman says:

    I am surprised that you did not mention the spiritual benefits that bnei torah might bring to nonchareidi communities (and themselves). You have noted this before in other contexts.

  4. A.Y. says:

    Orthodox Union is having a conference a week from today on “emerging Jewish communities,” or US Orthodox communities outside of the big ones.

    There are little descriptions of the community in various cities, many of which have a kollel.

    I think it would be wonderful if young Orthodox couples, and others as well, were to fan out to the smaller, “emerging” cities. Right now your average American Jew probably doesn’t even know a single Torah-observant Jew. If there were a good-sized Orthodox community in most big and mid-sized cities in the country, I think we’d begin to see more Baalei Tshuvah, since more Jews would know Orthodox Jews, and there would be more local resources (even having a few kosher restaurants would be very significant!) making it easier to become frum without having to uproot yourself.

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    All this fanning out and decentralizing sounds good in theory but as a friend of mine reminded me today, Homer Simpson once noted: “In theory communism works!”

    I live and work in a small Jewish community that has no local education after grade 8 (we send our kids to the much larger community 70 km away and have lost lots of families that decided to follow those kids). We have a great butcher shop, a decent kosher section in the local supermarket, a very nice mikveh and we’re only 45 minutes away from that larger community for anything that we can’t get locally or on the Internet.

    So, to all of you reading this, we need the following two things:
    1) One large group of young families (preferably with kids) who are interested in being important members of our community. You can learn hard and work hard (and we will work you really hard) in our local school to improve the Jewish experience we give our children.
    2) One doting millionaire (at least) who’s willing to sink lots of money into supporting the product in the preceding paragraph because, frankly, it’s all nice to be a Jewish community with a local millionaire and a kollel, but we don’t have the latter so we can’t afford the former and are eager to accept endless aid from someone with a kind heart and deep pockets.

    Interested applicants, please contact me at [email protected]

  6. Charlie Hall says:

    Take half of the 4,000 currently learning in Lakewood. Disperse them in groups of 50 to 40 different US cities with struggling Orthodox communities, with preference for the many communities with a low cost of living (and there ARE many!). The effect on Jewish life in America would be electrifying!

  7. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Hey Charlie Hall,

    4000/40=100. If you know of 100 millionares willing to pay for this dispersal (since, by definition, none of the 4000 will be willing or able to pay their own way) you let me know!

  8. Ori says:

    Why are those kollel students in Lakewood to begin with? If it’s because they want an isolated, Torah-pure environment then they will want to stay in Lakewood. In a smaller Jewish community they’ll face a lot more temptations, since they’ll have to interact with a lot more people who aren’t Charedi. The Modern Orthodox will tempt them to get out of kollel and into college and the work force. We Heterodox will tempt them, by our very existence, to either disobey Halacha or feel smugly superior to those who do. The women they meet in the grocery store will tempt them to look because of their immodest clothing (immodest by Charedi standards, anyway).

    Of course, trying to live in a temptation free environment is ultimately a useless endeavor. G-d has seen fit to provide us with a Yetzer haRa. But maybe they want to postpone that time by a few years.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Any small, newly formed (or even old, declining) outlying community has to find a way around this problem in order to become at least stable:

    Jewishly motivated kids from smaller communities grow up and get their higher education (yeshiva, beis midrash, seminary…) in larger, livelier, more developed Jewish communities, meet their future spouses there, get married, and start their families there. In part, that is why Lakewood now attracts so many who grew up in smaller communities.

    Small outlying communities typically function now as farm teams for large communities. The best players get sent up or send themselves up to the major leagues. However, unlike farm teams, small communities are generally not restocked with new players, which has caused many communities to wither away (or begin to wither) in recent decades.

    How exactly can the cadres sent from Lakewood and elsewhere, if they’re successful in promoting Yiddishkeit, help reverse this process? They can’t make the young adults stay put if that is against the young adults’ own best interests. I don’t believe economics is enough of a driver by itself, especially if parents in the small communities are forced to send their kids away or drive them long distances to Jewish high schools.

    I’d like to see the case histories of any small outlying communities that have become more Torah-oriented and also stable.

  10. Ori says:

    Garnel Ironheart, who is paying for the kollel students in Lakewood? Is it cheaper to be a kollel student there than in other communities?

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I live in Eretz Yisrael (for the past 37 years) and therefore only know mostly what I am told about what is going on in the various communities in America. I had been hearing about emerging communities of both the MO and yeshivish varieties. I have heard about hareidi community kollelim and RZ kollelim developing in these communities. I have also heard of yeshivas such as Lakewood and Ner Yisrael starting branches in other cities. Isn’t this the “farm system” being restocked? To extend the metaphor, you can see a good Triple-A ballgame played in Rochester, but you don’t expect it to be attended by 50,000 and have a lucrative television contract. Modern communications draws people to the center. People have largely stopped asking serious shailos in halacha of local community rabbis since they can e-mail a gadol hador or his gabbai. People figure, why settle for less than the best. This is somewhat of a pity, but it is not destroying the grassroots communities any more than television has destroyed the minor leagues. They just made a comeback as the farm teams of Lakewood and Ner Yisrael. Barring either catastrophe or the soon arrival of Moshiach, growth will continue. But aliya is a great option anyway, quick before your dollars go down more.

  12. A.Y. says:

    Three questions:

    Is this discussion relevant only to the Yeshivish community, or are the same dynamics at play for the Modern Orthodox, Chassidish, and Sephardic communities?

    If there are strong mechanisms shifting young couples from periphery to center, what kind of mechanisms can we create that shift couples in the opposite direction? Local committees devoting to attracting people, giving them incentives to come, marketing themselves, and so on?

    If small communities are limited in how many people they can attract, would perhaps a better strategy for building these communities be a dispersal of kiruv efforts to the local level? Presently it seems that Chabad dominates outreach outside of the big cities — perhaps locals would respond better to the outreach methods of different groups, whether nationally organized or locally put together? National funding for this would help, but locals can start doing some kiruv work with little or no investment.

  13. Ori says:

    May I ask a couple of questions?

    1. How long do kollel studies last? I assume that earning a living takes a higher priority when you are 35 and have five kids than when you are twenty and just go married.

    2. Does Lakewood have jobs for all kollel graduates? If not, they will need to move to other Jewish communities to make a living, meaning those communities will be missing the 20-30 demographic but still grow and be vital. Or does the Lakewood area provide the necessary jobs, so people stay there?

  14. tzippi says:

    Re 13: the job market is fairly large, if one’s willing to spend a significant amount of time (up to 2 hours each way) commuting.

  15. Ori says:

    Thank you Tzippi. This means that there aren’t many reasons for people who want the Lakewood lifestyle to move elsewhere. If everything needed is available, does in make sense for the Yeshivish(1) community in the US to center around Lakewood? Other communities, such as the Amish, are also centered in specific places.

    Some people who post here complain about a change to the right within Orthodoxy. If kollel graduates stay where their kollel was located, then they teacher pool for the next generation will be from other, presumably non-Lakewoodian, Jewish groups. Would that be better?

    (1) I’m not sure that’s the correct adjective. As an outsider, I don’t always understand distinctions within Orthodoxy, especially within Charedi Orthodoxy.

  16. Elitzur says:

    Being in a small community you actually need to do what you say you’re doing. How many people are in kollel just because that’s what society tells them to do? How many are in Lakewood just to get married? Do these people really want responsibility?

  17. Ori says:

    Elitzur: How many are in Lakewood just to get married? Do these people really want responsibility?

    Ori: Hope you’re not offended, but to me this is funny. Marriage is a big responsibility. Raising kids is the biggest responsibility most of us will ever have.

    Lakewood is big, but are individual kollels big? Don’t they supervise their students to make sure they’re really learning and not just drawing a stipend? I’m not being sarcastic – I’ve never been in a kollel or a yeshiva, and I truly do not know.

  18. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Here’s a novel idea: How about visiting Lakewood and finding out for yourself the answers to your questions.

  19. tzippi says:

    re 17: It takes some time, years in fact,to be eligible for a stipend. This doesn’t mean that there is no accountability, just not quite what you would think.

  20. Ori says:

    Tzippi, how do Kollel students survive until they are eligible for a stipend? Their parents plus the salary of the wives?

  21. tzippi says:

    Re 20 – you got it. There may be some government programs too.
    (And many people do get off these programs eventually, and are grateful they are there to help them through rough patches.)

    Which is why decentralizatihon, to me, to me seems more possible than ever. Kollel couples now rely on their parents much more so than a generation ago – may as well live somewhere where the money goes further, and the community at large may have more money and be glad to invest in young couples (e.g. tuition breaks) to strengthen the community.

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