By Larry Gordon
“I cannot emphasize how far off the record these conversations need to be,” said MK Dov Lipman over the phone on Monday. He was providing me details on a topic I have heard him speak about several times in the past, regarding those in the chareidi community who support his efforts to loosen the binds and bring segments of the community into the 21st century.
I had written him again on Monday asking him to allow me to speak to people and hear with my own ears from the mainstream yeshiva community who support him and his party’s efforts. He immediately wrote back that he is sitting with a rosh yeshiva who continues to encourage his efforts to bring segments of that community into the mainstream, a move that will result in both a healthier community and happier individuals.
“But you cannot under any circumstances reveal the name of the rosh yeshiva or the name of the yeshiva,” he says, “because if the name is revealed, the rosh yeshiva and his yeshiva will be ruined.”
I explained to MK Lipman that while the simplest thing would be for me not to know the person I was speaking to, the ground rules for this sort of thing is that I know the name of the man I am speaking to and the name of the institution but that I am sworn to absolute journalistic confidentiality. And that is the case here.
So not only did I speak with this rosh yeshiva this week, but Lipman also connected me with several young men, Israelis and Americans, who are attending large mainstream yeshivas in Israel. I heard their feeling about the efforts to change the state’s laws and the lifestyle of a community, in a sharp departure from the way things have been for more than half a century.
As far as the Americans and other foreigners are concerned, the only substantive change is the cutting back and perhaps elimination of all government subsidies that previously supported the yeshiva lifestyle. How does this impact on the study of Torah in Eretz Yisrael? “This means that in order to attend the yeshiva now there will be more pressure to pay increased tuition, whereas earlier very little or nothing at all was paid,” says the young man, who told me he was 20 years old and from New York.
The rosh yeshiva that I spoke with at length on Tuesday views Reb Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak, the senior and recognized leader of the chareidi world, as his mentor. He says that Rav Shteinman, while for the most part reserving comment on the ongoing legislative changes that impact on the relationship between chareidi yeshivas and the government, has long supported involvement in the IDF or in national service for yeshiva boys who are not equipped to spend long stretches of the day in the beis midrash.
“And this is the majority of the boys,” says the rosh yeshiva, “and it is a terribly unhealthy situation to protect the status quo.”
While these issues will play themselves out between now and when the changes are fully implemented in 2017, the matter that needs to be dealt with at present is the lack of communication between the government and the chareidi community, as well as within the community itself, where the leadership is being secretive about the reality of the situation so as to maneuver into stronger positions politically.
Lipman said that the rosh yeshiva that I spoke to is chareidi and fully on board with maintaining a high and intense level of learning in his yeshiva while also preparing his students to successfully integrate a Torah life with a secular education (mostly math and English) and the ability to ultimately be gainfully employed.
“There are all kinds and different types of boys,” the rav said. “Offering them no alternative other than to be cloistered in a yeshiva building all day is not helpful to anyone, not to the young men and not to the community.” He added that many other roshei yeshiva that run other schools and yeshivas agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be dramatic change in the system, but so far just about all have refused to step up or speak out.
On the other hand, because of the lack of communication between the government and the community, he says, large segments of chareidim feel that the maneuvering is not designed to help or assist them, but rather to hurt them and damage the only lifestyle they have ever known. I asked the rav to estimate for me what percentage of boys currently enrolled in Israel’s yeshivas would benefit from a system that allowed them to study, serve, and then, after their service is completed, go to work, and he said that he felt that it was about 50 percent.
What to do about this rather large segment of young men is an issue that the leadership today simply refuses to address or even acknowledge, and it is gnawing at the fabric and substance of the community. The unidentified rosh yeshiva says that the only Knesset member or government official addressing these issues head-on is MK Lipman. “He understands the problems in the community and he communicates with us in a realistic way about the options.”
After my talk with the rosh yeshiva, I mentioned to Rabbi Lipman that there still seems to be a great deal of resistance to the proposed changes. He says that this is to be expected and that this is one of the reasons why the changes are not set to take effect fully until 2017. “You will see—the yeshivas and the roshei yeshivos will come around to the way this benefits them, one at a time.”
Of course the young men that I spoke with, who are between 18 and 20 years of age, see things differently. I asked the 20-year-old from New York how his Israeli friends feel about the new law and having to either enlist in the IDF or sign up for a national-service job. He said that many of the boys he knows would like to serve in the IDF in some capacity but are reluctant to do so because it may figure negatively in making a shidduch down the road.
I thought that this was a stunning observation. Here we are so focused on shidduchim in our community to the extent that it will even impact on the ranks of the fighting forces that defend the State of Israel. Two of the other boys I spoke with, one from Chicago and the other from London, now residing in Israel with their families, said that they would like to have the opportunity to join the IDF and not be ostracized or vilified in their communities.
“Here in our yeshiva we have started to learn about the army and the vital role it plays in defending Eretz Yisrael and the role it can play in helping us develop as young men,” said the Chicago native. “I think that the army, more than anything else, teaches you about life and dealing with the problems that you will have to deal with in life,” he said.
For now, the consensus seems to be that there is a failure of the different sides of these debates to effectively communicate with one another. The most startling thing at this early stage is the deliberate withholding of information about all the positive and productive things that can be accomplished by having members of the chareidi communities interface more extensively with society overall.
Of course the detractors and some politicians will insist that the objective here is to reduce the ranks of the people committed to Torah study or lessen the intensity of that commitment. In time, says the rosh yeshiva I spoke with whose identity needs to be protected to avoid blistering criticism, many more will slowly but surely come around and see the rightness of this new and productive direction. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.