Charedim and The Gap
Apologies for causing an unwarranted adrenalin surge in some of our readers who may be hostile to our Israeli cousins. This will not be an expose about black-hatted people on the dole squandering public funds at upscale clothiers. Most charedim in Israel never heard of The Gap. But then again, most of them don’t know enough about the other gap, the one we are going to talk about. And it does make a catchier title than “Are They All Really Resha’im, Part Two,” which is what the piece is really about.
You may know the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) by its colloquial name, Machon Lev, after the founder of the venerable institution of applied science, Prof. Zev Lev z”l, a former ben-bayis of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky z”l. JCT students combine Torah learning and the pursuit of their academic careers. In other words, it has been mostly avoided by charedim, at least until recently. JCT took a leadership position in not only welcoming charedi students, but in creating special options for them that would respect their sensitivities and needs.
On one particular day, six JCT students were selected to be interviewed by Rabbi Shai Piron, Israel’s Education Minister (often seen in the charedi world as hostile), who was visiting the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) together with the head of the Council of Higher Education. One of the interviewees had learned in Ponovezh for seven years. He told them, “I am now completing a BSc in electro-optics and I already have my own start-up. I came to Machon Lev to find a way to earn a living and I am happy I came, but, I would much prefer to still be sitting and learning. I hope to be successful enough so that my sons can just sit and learn”. One of the girls (unmarried) said: “I came to Machon Lustig (JCT’s separate program for charedi women) so that I can support my future family so that my future husband can just sit and learn.”
The moral of the story according to JCT’s new President is “The most successful way to impact the current situation is not to drag people kicking and screaming out of the beis medrash but rather to offer them good options for getting respectable, well-paid, employment while being trained in a ‘chareidi friendly’ setting.”
Judging from some of the murmurings in the last few days from Israel’s Supreme Court, that conclusion is lost on them, as well as on many of the populist politicians who will sacrifice long-term benefits to Israeli society for short-term votes. (Noteworthy, among other misadventures, is the recent failure of a Knesset bill to ban discrimination in the workplace against charedim. The result, of course, will be more people taking refuge behind the argument that what purpose can there be in diluting our chinunch by adding the core curriculum, when we won’t be able to land jobs anyway, since they all hate us.) The campaign to finally break the charedim has only succeeded in empowering the most rejectionist parts of the charedi world, while convincing the rest of it to dig in and resist the coming assault.
Unfortunately, assuming that the experience of the two interviewees described above is typical might be mistaken. It could be overly optimistic. JCT’s President Dr Chaim Sukenik (the former Dean of Exact Sciences at Bar-Ilan, and an old friend who is decidedly not hostile to charedim) acknowledged that the success rate of his mechina program (which is already self-selecting for more motivated students) is only about 50%. The culprit is The Gap: all the knowledge and skills that are needed to succeed that are not in place for people who have been learning full-time till age 25 or 30 without acquiring any secular studies at all. Not all people can bridge that gap. Those who tell themselves that they will quickly be able to compensate for what they are missing when they are finally forced by circumstances out of the beis medrash are not fully engaging reality. (Ironically, perhaps, many people in the US charedi community are making the same mistake, believing that they can easily make up for lost time. Many find out too late that they cannot.)
How has the ill-advised behavior of the politicians and the overheated rhetoric of Yair Lapid impacted programs to help charedim? Dr. Sukenik wrote to me: “Overall, the Chareidi men will tell you that the political pressure has made life a little bit more complicated, but, at the end of the day, the process that we have seen over the past ten years, is continuing. Our women’s program in Ramat Gan adjacent to Bnei Brak hit a bump in the road with this year’s registration due to severe rabbinic pressure that the girls not get an academic degree but in the end the numbers stayed stable.”
It would also be a mistake to assume that everyone outside of the charedi community who is working on the revision of the draft law shares in the blood lust. For many people, the work goes on to find ways that will be as accommodating as possible to those men and women within the charedi world who wish to find ways to enlarge their potential for parnasah, as well as make a contribution to the State (besides that of their avodas Hashem), be it in the military or in National Service. Here are some examples:
* Carrying a dual program had been a cornerstone of Machon Lev for decades. Nonetheless, JCT set up a Machon Naveh program for charedim who wanted all their Torah learning on their turf and their terms. It begins only after 3PM, allowing participants to still salvage most of the day’s learning before heading for their secular JCT classes.
* The government is actively reaching out to help the Chareidi community and has allocated 500 million NIS over the coming five years through Naftali Bennet’s (another figure anathematized in some charedi circles) ministry. This money is being used for one-stop vocational centers where chareidi men and women will be able to get help with academic and vocational training, and with specialized employment services. The Jerusalem Municipality has already set up one such center. That one and the one in Bnei Brak have already been very active.
* Just in the last few days, the Jerusalem Municipality announced the creation of a charedi wing of the storied Bezalel School for the arts. This will allow right-brained charedim (who so often have to stifle their leanings towards the arts, other than on a very basic level) an opportunity to develop their creative talents at a top-notch school.
* The current head of the Council of Higher Education has declared that they have copied the Machon Lev gender-separated model and have encouraged and financed the establishment of “Macharim” (educational frameworks adjacent to each of the major universities). This is a major step in trying to create charedi friendly frameworks of higher education. This has not come easily. Devoutly secular Israelis have fought the idea of polluting the academic atmosphere with concessions like gender separation. Yet, the government has fought back, and in some cases prevailed in preparing the way for charedim who want to earn the advantage of a university degree.
And so we return to the theme of our earlier piece. Multiple parts of the charedi message have penetrated to all sorts of places in Israeli society, governmental and academic. Many Israelis understand that charedim will not compromise on their adherence to principle. They will demand tzniyus and gender separation in the classroom. Israelis also understand that charedim are not going to emigrate back to the Russian Pale of Settlement. They are, one way or another going to be an important part of the future of the State – and at least some people are willing to accommodate their sensitivities to make them less of a people dwelling apart. The process of opening doors to charedi participation is not helped by politicians pandering to punitive feelings in some of the public, nor by charedi stonewalling against any discussion with those who are trying to map out an Israeli future that includes all of its citizens.
Briefly put, there are indeed some resha’im out there, but they are certainly not all resha’im.