Saturday, May 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - May 2003

The yeshiva world, of which we are a part, and chassidim constitute the charedi or fervently religious sector of Orthodoxy. Other Orthodox Jews are labeled as Centrist and still others as Modern. All told, the Orthodox are about ten percent of American Jewry or 500,000 persons. There is something bizarre about so few people being divided into all of these subgroups, but that is how it often is in religious life and certainly among Jews.

The labels used to identify American Jews arise from a development that has profoundly shaped American Jewish life for more than a century. Instead of being regarded as one Jewish community, among which some are more and others less observant, we have been placed into denominational categories that cannot be avoided in any discussion of contemporary Judaism. This is unfortunate because such labels serve as impediments or barriers to outreach and much else. If we did not have them, we would still have much religious diversity, as is true of the Sephardic community, and there would be much disagreement regarding practice and belief, as is evident in Israel where labels are not as embedded as they are here.

For all of their shortcomings, labels are functional which, of course, is why they are used. They facilitate sociological analysis and understanding by focusing on commonalities. Thus, the yeshiva world and chassidim are identified as charedim because for all of their differences, what they share in belief and practice justifies the linkage. This is evident in dress and appearance (which wasn’t always the case) and a wide range of behaviors and attitudes. In general, the two sub-groups have grown closer over the past generation.

There are also differences. While the prevailing view is that chassidim are the more charedi and there is much to back up this notion in dress, food issues, secular education, and separation of men and women, in some ways chassidim are more flexible, even more lax.

For all of their being in a world apart and seemingly impervious to everyone else, there is a certain openness to chassidim, a certain willingness to be engaged in the outside society that, in the main, they are hostile to and which they regard as hostile to them. They are quite ready to leave their cloistered existence in their eager embrace of political activity which they seek to convert into communal and personal benefit. We are all familiar with the visits and photo ops by politicians to the homes of chassidic rebbes who are surrounded by their followers.

Openness also characterizes their involvement in the business world. Here are Jewish men, many of whom can scarcely speak English or read a document, opening up all kinds of businesses and interacting with all kinds of other people. In their entrepreneurial instinct, chassidim manifest self-confidence, a willingness to work hard and a determination to succeed. There obviously are powerful cultural underpinnings that impel them in this direction, amounting to a shared expectation that business is the way to go.

In these respects, the yeshiva world is more closed off. Roshei yeshiva seldom meet with political candidates. The walls of the yeshiva – those that are physical and those that are metaphysical – serve to limit, if not cut off entirely, many outside contacts.

The diversity in outlook is reflected in the attitude toward Torah study and earning a livelihood. While chassidim emphatically dismiss secular study, especially for boys – and some yeshivas are heading in that direction – the tendency in most chassidic groups is to promote kollel study for only the best students and not as a universal expectation. Although it is the norm in many chassidic communities for a married young man to spend a year or more in a kollel, wives are not expected to work after the first child is born and the young fathers generally go to work. Or, they may work before marriage and there is no loss of face or status for a young chassidic man of 21 to be working.

There is, parenthetically, a fascinating parallel between the spreading entrepreneurship of chassidim and the experience of American Jews in the last century, primarily in the second and third generations after they came to the U.S. Many ambitious American Jews went into business out of one necessity or another – they had to work or they faced discrimination – and as a consequence this created the foundation for extraordinary economic advancement. So, too, is it now for chassidim. There is, of course, a good measure of poverty in their ranks, but there also are greater pockets of affluence than is commonly recognized and they are expanding.

In contrast, the yeshiva world exalts full-time Torah study after high school and after marriage. Wives often continue to work after they have become mothers. Within this sector of Orthodoxy, parents of a 21-year young man who is working often have to fumble for words to explain why he is not in yeshiva. The transcendence accorded to Torah study is our glory and our strength and it is beautiful to behold young men removing themselves from a world that is profane and devoting themselves to lives of study and sacrifice.

It remains, however, that nearly all kollel students sooner or later must enter the job market and when they do the contrast with the chassidic sector becomes even sharper. For those who go into chinuch or klal work, whether to teach or do outreach or work for an organization, there is a trade off. Salaries are low but they are somewhat compensated for by the ability to teach Torah, to serve the community and to remain within the comfortable confines of the Torah world.

For the even larger number whose work takes them outside the community, although many go into business, in general any entrepreneurial instinct has been stifled. One senses that there is a lack of confidence among ex-yeshiva students that they can succeed in the outside world. Many tend to accept jobs that are not financially or emotionally rewarding.

This has led to a potentially tragic, even explosive, situation. As we know, among yeshiva world families, parental support often constitutes a significant share of income. There is much that is praiseworthy about this and it is an arrangement that does not merit criticism, if only because what parents do to help their children is no one else’s business. It’s been said, however, that inter-generational support cannot continue endlessly, that those who now rely on parental assistance will not be able to do the same for their children, that even if grandparents fill the void, they can only stretch out the arrangement for another generation. It seems inevitable that within two generations, the financial illogic of inter-generational support will overwhelm the arrangement.

If we add the numbers – what is being earned in salary, the cost of tuition and housing and religious life, family size, etc. – this conclusion seems to be irrefutable. But what happens one or two generations down the road is not my present concern. History has a way of defeating logic and those who predict what lies ahead often are seen to have been fools. When we consider how our community has changed during the past two generations, there should be at least a sense of modesty in projecting with confidence what lies ahead.

My concern is the present, the former yeshiva students who are now young adults with family responsibilities and who already seem to lack confidence, some even seem depressed and nearly defeated by life. They struggle to meet obligations and many do not succeed. Of course, their wives struggle as well. This is sad, even tragic. I see fellows in their thirties and forties who not long before were vibrant and full of fun and energy who now seem to be always tired and sad. This worries me and it should worry the leaders of the yeshiva world.

If only because of its role in chinuch and kiruv, the yeshiva world is vital to the beneficial development of American Jewry. This vitality is, in turn, dependent on the young men and women who are being raised in yeshiva world homes. Their devotion to Torah living and Torah study is complete and tremendously inspiring. They are our pride and glory. We have an obligation to do more to ensure that when they enter adulthood they will be properly equipped to deal confidently with the challenges they face.