Friday, December 31, 2004

Who Pays for Israel's Orthodox?

The title for this piece is the title of a Hillel Halkin article a few days ago in the New York Sun. In response to a letter from a young fervently Orthodox Israeli woman named Sarah asking for support, Halkin - a significant writer who made aliyah many years ago - castigates Israel's "ultra-Orthodox" for taking "for granted that pious Jews are owed a living by someone," mainly the Israeli government which in return for political support transfers large sums every year to this community "in the form of child allowances to maintain its high birth rate and of transfer payments to its religious and educational institutions."

Halkin's flawed analysis - government support has no impact on the birth rate - raises two linked and familiar issues that have been used to clobber those whose lives are devoted to Torah study. One question is the appropriateness of this life style. The other is who pays for it. Thankfully, Halkin writes with a measure of sensitivity, a quality that is lacking in those who borrow from Russia's Communist past and refer to these charedi or fervently religious Jews as parasites.

It is hard for persons outside of our religious life to appreciate the intense commitment to Torah study, whether by those who arise early to study the Talmud or those who attend classes at night or use lunchtime or when they travel to study or who have chavrusas (study partners) or who devote themselves fulltime to this activity in yeshivas and kollels. Torah study is for religious Jews a fundamental obligation and yet it is an experience that is even greater, an oasis in the world of tumult, self-indulgence and crassness.

High Orthodox fertility has resulted in the rapid and substantial growth in the number of young men engaged in fulltime study. This obviously has serious financial consequences for families and the community. It is appropriate to ask whether so many students should remain for so long in yeshiva/kollel, provided that the basic concept of commitment to Torah study is respected.

Three points need to be made about the situation in Israel. The first is that the growth in the number of students was unplanned and, in a sense, unanticipated, although demographic data should have indicated what lay ahead. The seeds for government support of advanced Talmudic study were planted more than fifty years ago by David Ben-Gurion and his avowedly secularist Labor Party because they recognized that this activity was vital to Israel's well-being. Over the years, there arose a kind of social imperative impelling young charedi men to greatly extend their period of study, paralleling in an interesting way the far more widespread social imperative in modern societies impelling young adults to attend college and to continue at professional and graduate schools.

Secondly, the situation is changing as more young charedi men are entering the labor market, a development noted by Halkin and other writers and encouraged by key community leaders.

Thirdly, as Jonathan Rosenblum astutely pointed out several issues back in the Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's magazine, the pace of change will be retarded by attacks against yeshiva study because community leaders will understandably conclude that the attacks are motivated by hostility to Torah study and not by a desire to improve the lot of the students and their families.

Who pays to maintain these families and charedi educational institutions? How much does it cost Israel's government and taxpayers? The figure must be high - it would be good to get a reckoning - but it must not include the cost of basic education because that is a governmental obligation. Also, expenditures on behalf of the charedi sector should be considered in the context of outlays for other segments of Israeli society, such as kibbutzim.

There is, importantly, the other side of the budgetary ledger, the funds flowing into Israel from Orthodox Jews around the world. For openers, there is their inordinately high proportion of tourists and what they spend, money that has an economic impact and contributes to the income side of the budget. Added to this are the expenditures by thousands of yeshiva and seminary students during their year or more in Israel, which is apart from the substantial tuition paid by their overseas parents to Israeli schools. Then there is what is spent by the Orthodox who made aliyah and the homes purchased by them and overseas religious Jews. The calculation should include contributions sent to individuals and to the hundreds of institutions and agencies that serve the Orthodox and often other Israelis. The richness and diversity of Orthodox communal life and the aggressive fundraising conducted by many institutions ensure that the transfer of hard currency into Israel by Orthodox Jews is quite substantial.

I am sure that I have omitted key sources of Orthodox contributions to Israel's economy and the Treasury. It is not possible to know what all of this comes to; hopefully, the subject will be tackled by economists. At the least, the total is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps considerably higher.

Accordingly, the financial relationship between the Orthodox or even just the charedi sector and Israel's government and people is far from one-sided. The answer to the question, "Who pays for Israel's Orthodox?" is that to a considerable extent the Orthodox do.

Beyond the determination of what belongs on one side or the other of the ledger, there is the transcendent value of Torah study to Israel and to Jews everywhere. What religious Jews understand and too few secular Jews now acknowledge is that the Torah and its study is a tree of life for all who grasp it. Sadly, this wisdom, confirmed by centuries of experience, is today beyond the grasp of most Jews.