Monday, December 17, 2001

Unorthodox Economics

During my annual August hegira to Israel the summer before last, I began an analysis of the economic situation of American charedim, they being the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy. Much of the paper had been drafted by the time I arrived home and I turned to a study of Bureau of Labor Statistics data to determine how what I knew about the charedim meshed with work patterns in the general society. It became evident that workforce participation by charedi men is at least as high as it is for Americans generally. Many do not enter the labor market until they are well into their twenties, which parallels the behavior of Americans who pursue advanced degrees.

A similar point is made by Joel Rebibo in an important article on Israeli charedim that appears in the latest issue of Azure, the fine journal published by the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem. He writes that “among North American haredim, the age of entry into the workforce varies according to the particular religious stream. In Hasidic communities, for example, men tend to begin working in their late teens or early twenties; in the Lithuanian communities, on the other hand, they leave yeshiva in their mid-or late twenties. Overall, however, the pattern is a consistent one, in which very few students beyond the age of thirty remain in full-time study.”

It remains that there is a significant incidence of poverty among charedim in this country. The situation may be worse in the yeshiva world sector than amongst chasidim because the latter 1) do not as a rule stay in yeshiva as long and 2) they have what may be termed an instinct for entrepreneurship. Some writers, usually with an ideological axe to grind, have concluded that because many charedim are mired in poverty, it must be that workforce participation is low and that those who work settle for poorly paying jobs because they are bereft of skills and training.

In fact, while nearly all adult male charedim work, there is considerable poverty because of a confluence of factors. Many teach in yeshiva or have other low-paying positions because they regard this service as spiritually rewarding and fulfilling. Those in the regular job market are often hampered by job discrimination against religious Jews and, more importantly, by their lack of geographic mobility. Chassidic families are large and they are getting larger, a factor that obviously impacts on housing, food costs and much else, including yeshiva tuition charges. Simply put, an Orthodox college graduate or Ph.D. is certain to be in far more difficult financial straits than others with comparable degrees and jobs.

This is the reality and yet it is a certainty that knownothing bigots who venomously fabricate a picture of charedi parasitism will continue to spew out their messages of hate and that there will be newspapers eager to publish their material.

Because charedi families are large, they obviously have more weddings and other simchas to celebrate. It is presumably the desire to alleviate financial pressure on these families that inspired certain Rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel to draft mandatory guidelines aimed at holding down the cost of weddings. For all of the good intentions, the idea misfires, although it has provided a field day for frum kibbitzers. More to the point, families in need will scarcely be affected or helped. Now that Agudath has reaped the publicity, hopefully it will pull back.

Restraint is admirable, as it is a cardinal principle of religious life. Living within one’s means is both sensible and appropriate. This is how an overwhelming number of charedi families act when they make simchas. There have been quotes aplenty that even a bare-bones Orthodox wedding costs $35,000. That’s nonsense. Apart from the evident downgrading of simchas in recent years, most charedi weddings cost much less. What can be expensive are other financial considerations, notably parental support to allow for extended yeshiva study.

Agudath has inadvertently promoted the inaccurate notion that the charedi world is awash in ostentation. That’s way off the mark, although there are some who regard showing off as a religious obligation This small group gets attention, including from Agudath leaders, and is an embarrassment. As an unfortunate example there is the forthcoming three or four day “gayvah” trip to Israel, ostensibly to study Torah there.

It does not take a sharp eye for sociological detail to know that the more modern Orthodox elements and the non-Orthodox are far more lavish in their weddings and bar/bas mitzvahs than the charedim, although the Agudath’s message is likely to result in a distorted perception.

The Rabbis seem to have lost sight of the critical difference between what is discretionary and what is mandatory. Making a wedding is obligatory; spending a ton of money or going beyond one’s means is not. If some do overspend, as a small number do, that’s no justification for the overheated reaction that we have seen or for the institution of conditions that are likely to be untenable.

Financial pressures on Orthodox families arise from mandatory expenses, notably tuition. This is what causes anguish in many homes – disrupting shalom bayis – and yet there is not a peep about this severe problem. Nor is there a word about other mandatory costs engendered by a religious life-style.

It may be that the Rabbi’s message is intended for those who are wealthy and indulgent, for those who go overboard. If so, a good place to start is at home, for the yeshiva world which is truly the glory of the Jewish people in its fidelity to the ideal of hatznea leches (modest living) is being harmed by the small number of exhibitionists whose antics are condoned, if not encouraged, by some leaders who should know better.

In fact, if reform is needed, the Agudath convention may be a good place to start.