Looking for Win-Win

Eight or nine years ago, I received a visit from a kollel student in his late ’20s. The young manyoung man in question had been one of the outstanding students in one of Israel’s most prestigious yeshivos. Yet by the time he came to visit me, he was angry, even bitter, about what he viewed as a lack of communal leadership over the increasingly untenable financial situation of many kollel students.

Two months ago, he came to visit me again. Gone was all the bitterness that had been so evident at our first meeting. “I could never in my wildest imagination have anticipated the changes that have taken place in recent years,” he told me. He is right. Despite the conservative nature of chareidi society – evolutionary, not revolutionary – change has been rapid.

The change has come about in two areas. The first is in the acquisition of training for entry into the job market. Today there are close to 3,000 chareidi young men and women in academic degree programs. Academic campuses in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak each offer courses under the auspicies of Israel’s leading universities to over one thousand students, and colleges have established programs for haredim in a number of professions.

In addition, there has been a massive jump in vocational training. Mercaz Chareidi Institute of Technology, the largest group of vocational training centers, has more than doubled it enrollment to close to 2,000 over the past four years. These are not rinky-dink programs, but in subjects such as architecture, civil engineering, computer programming and networking, with national exams.

Much of this expansion has been made possible by the infusion of millions of dollars annually from abroad to provide scholarships for chareidim – mostly men – pursuing academic or vocational degrees. Whereas previously chareidi men feared to leave kollel and lose even the minimal kollel stipend or to assume the costs of years of academic or vocational training, the scholarships have made it possible for them to contemplate the jump.

The second area of rapid change has been in army service, both in the number of 18-year-olds entering Nahal Haredi, which is now over batallion strength and will soon have its first reserve unit, and in the number of older, married men entering special programs developed primarily by the air force and IDF intelligence. The growth of the latter has been rapid and offers the greatest possibility for expansion. In return for sophisticated training in an environment that takes careful account of the religious needs of the chareidi enlistees, chareidim are helping the IDF meet some of its most critical manpower needs. The re-enlistment rate of married chareidi men in the Shachar Kachol program has been the highest in the IDF.

YET THESE CHANGES in chareidi society have taken place largely under the secular radar. In part, that is a function of a certain mythology – shared to a degree by chareidim themselves – about chareidi society. According to that mythology, hundreds of thousands of chareidim are automatons who tune in every morning to receive their marching orders from the senior Torah leaders (gedolim) of the community, which orders they march like lemmings to fulfill. Thus if there have been no orders from the gedolim on the front pages of the major chareidi daily papers (nor will there be) announcing that all but the most accomplished scholars should go out to work, the assumption is that nothing major has changed.

But no society, even the most totalitarian, functions in such a fashion based exclusively on directives from above. All societies follow a more complex dialectic, a mixture of changes based on new directives or laws from above and trends from below based on the accumulated decisions of hundreds of thousands of individual decision-makers. And chareidi society is no exception.

At least two factors are driving change from below within chareidi society. The first is the impossibility of applying an elite model, based on a few hundred highly idealistic, self-selected, largely homogenous group of young men who rallied to the Chazon Ish’s call in the early ’50s to rebuild the citadels of Torah learning destroyed by the Holocaust, to a much more heterogenous society of over half a million souls, of all intellectual and spiritual levels.

The second is the inability of large numbers of chareidim to support themselves. Contrary to popular belief, Israel’s levels of social benefits are low by Western standards, and do not come close to covering the expenses of large chareidi families. Nor do chareidim receive cheap apartments from the government for their children. It is hard to find an apartment in the major chareidi centers, even one purchased on paper, for much less than $300,000.

One breadwinner is simply no longer enough to support a large family. And as economist Glen Yago has sharply observed, “Trends that cannot continue forever, won’t.” The model of the last two decades of nearly every chareidi man in full-time Torah studies for as long as possible after marriage is increasingly unsustainable.

THE CHANGES TAKING PLACE in chareidi society will never take place fast enough to satisfy the secular public. The pent-up anger is too great. Yet the choices made by the secular leadership will to a large extent determine whether current trends continue or a major pushback develops in the chareidi community. Incentives to speed the entry of chareidi men into the work force are far from exhausted. A negative income tax and allowing men, and not just women, to benefit from child deductions are just two examples.

Maintaining the accommodations to chareidi religious needs in the IDF is also crucial. The more common it is to see former kollel students in uniform in chareidi neighborhoods, the less IDF service will be seen as somehow not chareidi. And the more young unmarried chareidi men who do not view themselves as suited for years in full-time yeshiva learning will join combat units within the Nahal Haredi framework. The recent resignation of the chief rabbi of the air force, citing his inability to ensure the continuation of accommodations to which he had committed himself, was a major setback in this regard.

On the other hand, if the government resorts to coercion, instead of incentives, to expedite present trends, it will only succeed in giving credence to those within chareidi society who claim that the secular public is motivated primarily by hatred of Torah and those who learn it and thereby strengthen the most conservative elements in chareidi society. The demand that all unmarried yeshiva students, with the exception of some specified number of iluim (geniuses), undertake IDF service or some form of civil service is of this nature. It will be perceived not as some minor tinkering with the structure of chareidi society, but as a frontal attack on the primary value of that society: the primacy of Torah study.

In the chareidi world view, Torah study – all Torah study, not just that of certified geniuses – is the most potent trigger for Divine blessing to the world. No one can predict at 18 who will become the greatest scholars, for that success is only partly a function of IQ. Nor is there a single standard of greatness: The debate between whether depth of reasoning or breadth of knowledge is more important goes back to the Talmud itself. Finally, the battle over a limited number of places in yeshivot would tear apart chareidi society the way the Cantonist decrees tore apart Eastern European communities in the late 19th century.

“FAIRNESS” IS AN IMPORTANT SOCIETAL VALUE, but it is not the only one. The next American election, for instance, will turn be, to a large extent, a referendum on President Obama’s preference for equality of outcomes, in the name of “fairness,” over economic growth and renewed prosperity. In the same vein, I wonder whether most Israelis would choose greater equality of IDF service, even at the price of increased danger.

I spent Shabbos two weeks ago with the chairman of the non-profit organization behind Nahal Haredi. He is himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, and he shared with me a story from his army service that had an impact on his own religious development. While in the service he met and officer wearing a yarmulke. The officer told him that he was a West Point graduate. One day in a course on history’s greatest battles, he aske the colonel teaching the class why he had not mentioned the Maccabees or the Six-Day War. After class, the colonel called him to his office and lambasted him for embarrassing him in class. “Of course we study the battles involving the Jews,” the colonel said, “but they all have an inexplicable element to them, and that’s why we don’t teach them.”

Maybe, just maybe, that inexplicable element is the Divine protection aroused in its strongest form, by dedication to His Torah. At the beginning of parashas Mattos, we read three times “a thousand from each Tribe.” The Midrash explains the threefold repetition as referring to three different groups of one thousand from each Tribe – one thousand to fight in the battles, one thousand to form the rearguard and guard the supplies, and one thousand to pray. Each group was an indispensable part of a successful Jewish army.

No country faces the magnitude of threats to its existence comparable to Israel; no country is in as great need of Divine protection.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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15 Responses

  1. Dr. E says:

    Reb Jonathan

    Chareidi young men and women probably do well on their exams in a purely academic environment. A few questions though:

    (1) Are they starting these programs early enough in life?
    (2) Are the young men given the impression that what they are doing what is l’chatchila?
    (3) Given that the religious and gender segregation is the context of learning here, are the students trained on the social and people skills that they will need to succeed after their training? After all, the better job prospects exist in environments where not everyone thinks and dresses the same way, and some level of professional interaction is needed.
    (4) Are the outcomes of the training being tracked in order to assess their eventual efficacy?

    Also, according to the Medrish, one could also apply those same Tribal proportions to the Chareidi camp in Israel, there would be a third in the Army, a third doing National Service, and a third in the Shuls and Batei Medrish. Wow!

  2. dovid landesman says:

    Interesting post, but you avoid the essential question. Why is this supposed revolution being led from the ground up rather than being openly supported and led by gedolai yisroel? I think that I know the answer, but I would appreciate your take.
    For the record, nachal chareidi – or more properly netzach yehudah – has a small number of what you would consider true chareidim. Until very recently [when their recruitment was specifically discouraged], many of the recruits came from what is termed the world of the beinishim [short for bnei yeshivot – i.e., talmidim from yeshivot tichoniot and children of settlers who prefer not to serve in hesder units on religious grounds]. An additional percentage came from the ranks of young men who had problems in the “black” yeshivot, who had family issues or who were sent from the USA for a sort of rehab. The only gadol who stands behind netzach is Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and even his support is indirect. As far as shachar [the programs in the air force, intelligence and the navy], the bulk of the recruits are taken from the chassidic and sefardic worlds where gainful employment is not considered to be a tragedy.
    Had you attended a recent asifa in Ramat Beit Shemesh – arranged because a majority of students in one of the local chadarim have been enrolled in yeshivat tichoniot rather than yeshivot ketanot – and lsitened to the “divrei hisorrerus” and the utter derision for the olam that works for a living, I think you would be somewhat less confident. This mindset is only reinforced by asifot in the US where a major spokesman can [ab]use his podium to decide that anyone who does not accept the word of the rabbinical participants of that asifa has lost his share in the world to come.

  3. James says:

    Attributing divine providence to yeshiva exemptions is empirically false. At the founding of the State, there were 400 students exempted (and many of those actually fought during the 1948 war). By 1968, after the miraculous Six Day War, the number was still below 1000 students. As the numbers of exemptions grew, Israel has suffered, Lebanon I and II as well as Gaza.

  4. Baruch Gitlin says:

    I agree with most of this article. But I would like to make two points:

    1. It is misleading to use Nachal Haredi enlistment as the benchmark for haredi participation in the army, because many soldiers in Nachal Haredi are dati leumi, who are also attracted by the extra accomodation to religious observance and the chance to serve with other relgious soldiers. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my impression from talking to a few soldiers is that the percentage of dati leumi soldiers in Nachal Haredi may be close to 50%.

    2. All this talk about Torah study protecting Am Yisrael – I agree with the principal that our divine service is vitally important to the physical well being of Am Yisrael, but is Torah study the only form of divine service that matters? The way I read Tanach, it is much more than Torah study that God is looking for from us. It is justice, charity, honesty, and all the other matters emphasized throughout Tanach – in which case, it is not only the yeshivot that we depend on for our protection, but the efforts of every one of us to act properly, from Torah study to honesty in business, and everything in between.

  5. Tzei U'lmad says:

    “a mixture of changes based on new directives or laws from above and trends from below based on the accumulated decisions of hundreds of thousands of individual decision-makers”

    So let me get this right, somebody like Bernie Landers comes along and he’s one of the “individual decision makers” and for decades Daas Torah opposes boys attending Touro College, and then sometime in the mid-80s there is the dawning of a “trend from below” and at an Agudath conference RSK declares, “well afterall, we have Touro”. Isn’t that a case of the horse pushing the cart from behind? (ie constructive initiatives by manhigim in our societies are stridently opposed and then when our need for those intiatives become too great we co-opt them as if they were ours in the first place). What would have happened if Landers had capitulated in the 70s to the “directives from above”?

  6. Dovid says:

    I pretty much agree with everything in this article, but I have one blunt question for Rabbi Rosenblum:

    Do you or do you not subscribe to the “daas Torah” doctrine as it is conventionally understood in the charedi world? You speak approvingly about the rising numbers of charedim going to the army and finding employment, yet it is clear that the charedi gedolim are not encouraging it at all, and in fact have issued statements against army and work. If you think these trends are good, then does this mean you think the gedolim are wrong?

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

  7. MiriamS says:

    “…a certain mythology – shared to a degree by chareidim themselves – about chareidi society…”

    “…the chairman of the non-profit organization behind Nahal Haredi. He is himself a decorated Vietnam veteran…”

    Possibly the worst part of that mythology is that anything a charedi person does outside of learning Torah is a second-class identity.

  8. dr. bill says:

    The gedolim of old looked to community leaders to set policy in these areas. The halakha would refine policy, not set it. Those close to them, who they trust, need to advise them. Instead, a radical fringe has preempted legitimate leadership. To expect gedolim to understand milai de’alma on their own is asking way too much. Gedolim who think they can are not.

  9. Joe says:


    Israel has not been subject to existential threat since 1973. If increased Torah study prevents existential wars rather than protects during those wars, that’s a knock on it?

    You are so confident in the IDF regarding Iran?


    Torah study in particular provides security and success.

    This is not a “Charedi” idea. Harav AY Kook writes in Igrot Haraayah 85 (a letter which all those from the RZ camp who oppose exemptions should read):

    המדינה תלויה במלחמתה על ידי מה שנמצאים בה תלמידי־חכמים העוסקים בתורה. שבזכותם המלחמה נוצחת, והם מועילים למדינה יותר מאנשי־
    החיל הלוחמים.

  10. James says:


    I meant no slight toward Limmud Hatorah. I take exception to the notion that the inexplicable element was the result of haredi yeshiva exemptions.

    I am not confident in the IDF. I am confident in the power of a united Klal Yisrael and I attribute that inexplicable element to the sense of unity that pervaded Israel in 1948 and 1967. I think the haredim should serve in the army because it would be good for them, for Israel, and for Klal Yisrael.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    My son is set to have the ceremony at Amunition Hill after Shavuot. I would have loved to be there to show him how proud we are that he has made aliyah and joined Netzach Yehuda. He has been undergoing very rigourous training including two weeks out in the field sleeping in a hole in the ground for short periods at a time and attacking up a hill with live ammunition. This isn’t the Boy Scouts. He is happier than ever in his life and feels so good about himself. He must be very strong because they have to carry a heavy pack and do all kinds of hard work to become real soldiers. That all of this is done with consideration for religious observance, davening 3 times a day,etc. shows that observantg Jews can and should become part and parcel of the infrastructure of the State of Israel. As the numbers grow , they can’t remain apart from society. I am distressed that more and more of the men collecting tzedaka in shul each morning are young and healthy looking. What is there about Israeli religious society that tells a 21 year old healthy man that his parnossa comes from collecting charity in the Diaspora. I assume he is honest as he has a letter from the Agudah but why doesn’t he have any skill or ability to earn a living besides circulating in shuls and knocking on doors? Maybe if these fellows joined Netzach yehudah they would gain the self confidence to do more with their lives.

  12. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Joe: I did not mean to imply that limud Torah is not important – only to point out that it is not the only element of avodat HaShem that is important. Further, I certainly never thought that the importance of limud Torah is only a haredi idea – far from it. I do think, however, that it is overemphasized in the haredi world to the exclusion of other important values. Specifically with regard to army service, I think the hesder yeshiva programs provide an excellent model for how religious Jews can engage in high level Torah study without leaving the burden and dangers of army service entirely on the shoulders of others. One other point – I have heard some people, including recently a knesset member from Yahadut HaTorah, make arguments that imply, or even state openly, that those not engaged in full time Torah study are not carrying their burden on behalf of Am Yisrael. I think this line of argument can be dangerous in that it can lead those not engaged in full time learning to believe that they have nothing to contribute in terms of our people’s spiritual well-being. I think a far better approach would be to emphasize that even if one is not engaged in full-time learning, a person can still contribute to the spiritual wellfare of Am Yisrael by living according to the Torah and serving God in the best way possible according to each person’s circumstances and abilities.

  13. Phil says:

    Reb Jonathan,

    With all due respect, let’s not point fingers at the secular or the government. Your examples of the tiny percentages of charedim who are in academic degree programs or in Nahal Haredi do not make your case. As you are aware, the charedi gedolim don’t support their choices and the charedi community looks down upon them and even shuns them. Change may indeed be coming but only because the sad economic realities are now undeniable, not because of the vision, support or actions of the charedi leadership.

  14. lacosta says:

    if haredim in israel truly believe that their tora protects the country/soldiers, why during lebanon II did the vast majority continue on their vacations [ though the ‘troubles’ ruined their plans to go to the North] while their brothers bore the brunt?

    —the answer must be they DO believe their tora is valuable…they just don’t truly believe their rhetoric about that’s their share in the burden of the State,
    or they just could care less the fate of the Other….

    [in fairness, many haredi gdolim said to davka stay in the bais hamedrash…]

  15. dovid2 says:

    L. Oberstein, Your son seems to put his mind and heart into his service which is a good thing. He is not burning time. May your son return home at the end of his service shalem in body and mind. And remember to vote Obama out of his office and also tell your son to vote against Obama. He gave Israel enough tzures.

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