Our Aliyah Chronicle
By Shmuel Katz
This past Shabbat, I had the chance to reminisce with my friend and neighbor MK Rabbi Dov Lipman for a few minutes. He mentioned that he had been speaking with his wife about not remembering how he initially met me; she reminded him that we used to spray-paint over graffiti-marred sidewalks the first year that we had come on aliyah.
As you may recall, writing about those times and the further conflicts that developed between neighbors generated a lot of criticism in these pages. I also received e-mails taking me to task for being critical of the chareidi world. Many people who identified with the label “chareidi” took my criticisms quite personally.
At the time, I pointed out that there is a major difference between an American chareidi and an Israeli chareidi. Many people who read this column and view themselves as chareidi would never be considered such if they lived in Israel. Some would. Many would not.
I have repeatedly voiced my concerns over the state of affairs and the leaders of the chareidi community’s lack of a reasonable approach for the future of their community and systems. In response, I was asked why I hate chareidim and was criticized for the audacity of thinking that there could be anything wrong within the “ultra” (ultra-Orthodox) community.
Things continued to worsen. Last year’s disgusting display (and I will agree that both sides stepped over the line) and chillul Hashem regarding the Orot girls’ school (which my younger two daughters attended, where both our younger sons attend the boys’ school next door, and which is also the home for Rabbi Rosner’s shul, of which I am a founding member) brought us to new lows.
Throughout it all, my friend Dov Lipman thrust himself, voluntarily, to the fore of the fight for the rights of his neighbors to live comfortably and safely. When there was a traffic hazard in the highway that the city refused to deal with, instead of complaining, Dov organized and led a group of volunteers in clearing the road obstructions and making that road just a bit safer to drive on. Dov and I and many of our neighbors stood shoulder-to-shoulder in facing down thugs who harassed and threatened local teens. Dov led the fight to see continued growth in housing, schooling, and opportunities for all of Bet Shemesh’s demographic groups, when the mayor tried to curtail municipal support and funds. I could go on and on.
I wrote a few months ago about the then upcoming elections. Despite the fact that he is my friend, I did not vote for Dov’s party. I disagreed with some of the things they were saying and with many of the things that the leader of the party had said in the past. I did not think that Dov had even a glimmer of a chance to get voted in. Yet he did. He earned his position through hard work and dedication to causes and a message that he believes in, which I respect.
I was simply astounded when Larry Gordon told me how hostilely Dov has been treated by the chareidi press there. I expect it here. But there in the U.S., Rabbi Dov Lipman shares many more values with his critics than they are acknowledging. If they were a bit smarter, they would wake up to the fact that, in the current climate, they have indeed become irrelevant, as Larry quotes me as saying in this week’s “From the Editor” column. It has been coming for some time.
A few years ago, a local Bet Shemesh shul held a fundraising dinner. At the dinner, the mayor reportedly told the crowd that we lived in a wonderful city, where the people of the community where this shul was located are the “Zevulun,” supporting the Torah-learning people in the “Yissachar” neighborhoods of the city.
The people who told me about the speech were at the dinner and were stunned. To their understanding (and mine), both sides need to agree to such a relationship in order for it to be valid.
Yet this seems to be the prevailing attitude at large—a sense of entitlement. That something is owed to people simply because of who they are. A demand that the Israeli public provide financial support to an ever-growing segment of society is simply unreasonable and financially unsupportable. I believe it is the chareidi leadership’s failure to come to grips with this emerging truth, among other things needing change, that has led in part to the current war of words.
Let’s go back for a moment to the Yissachar/Zevulun metaphor. In the past, the chareidi parties used their position to establish just such a relationship. They exchanged their votes in the Knesset for financial support and responsibility for things like education, housing, and urban development. Despite the many calls and warnings that the general public wanted to redefine these arrangements, they decided to work towards continuing the status quo. And that decision has hurt them.
In the recent elections, the voters supported parties that were quite comfortable to sit in a government excluding the chareidi parties. For their part, the leaders of the chareidi parties announced that they were quite comfortable sitting in the opposition. Which is where we stand today.
With this result came consequences. Love chareidim, like chareidim, dislike chareidim, or hate chareidim—it really is immaterial. The ruling parties have decided to discontinue the special status and rights that they had enjoyed. The country has voted for change and it looks like change is inevitable at this point.
It all could have been avoided. The calls for change are not new. Nor is the emerging financial crisis in this community. Had there been an internal call for change, for some sense of forward thinking, the most radical of the voices calling for change would have had neither an argument nor a multitude of votes to stand upon.
Instead of working toward a reasonable financial and political framework for a palatable change that would ensure the continued viability of chareidi communities, lifestyle, and institutions, their leadership refused to discuss any change at all. And now their intransigence has led to them not having input into decisions being made for them.
Which has led to their current situation and my “irrelevant” comment. Larry and I were talking about how the American chareidi press was overwhelmingly harsh and critical of Dov and the Yesh Atid party. He told me that they were calling him a traitor and that the message was that he stands for everything that is wrong.
I responded that the press there can say whatever they want, because nobody here really cares about the American chareidi press, whose opinion has no relevance to the Israeli populace. Yes, they influence a lot of charitable giving, no question. But in the political arena, at the current time, they can jump up and down and scream (like several members of the Knesset) all week if they want—it won’t stop the changes that are coming.
These changes are going to end up being much more radical than anyone could have dreamed of a year or two ago. These changes are issues that have been at the core of conflict in the various religious (and non-religious) groups for some time.
Am I in favor of women davening in their own minyanim and reading the Torah at the Kotel? I really don’t care, so long as they do not interrupt my ability or my family’s ability to daven there in the manner of my choice. If it is good enough for the rav of the Kotel, it is good enough for me.
Am I in favor of drafting every yeshiva student? No. Many yeshiva students? Yes. I feel there is an importance to reserving exempt spots to real scholars, whose best use is in the bet midrash and classroom. How many of them should there be? I don’t know. But the gedolim greatly reduced their ability to influence that number by totally ignoring the issue.
Do I think that we need all those guys in the army? Not really. Some of them, yes. Many, even. But I do not object to them forming, like religious girls do, some form of National Service Corps. There are so many unbelievable chareidi chesed organizations. Can you imagine how much more amazing they would be if they had cheap volunteer labor of bachurim for four hours a day for a few years or maybe for a full day for a year or two?
Can you imagine the real world work/earning skills that these young men would develop? Can you imagine what a positive influence they could be on the entire country? Yet that solution is long past us. Now, we will have to see how the draft/army integration will proceed; I expect that there will simply be more fighting, name-calling, arrests, protests—and a massive chillul Hashem on both sides.
Am I in favor of cutting all funding to chareidi schools? Of course not. But first, I would point out the simple fact that the State of Israel has been and continues to be the largest financial supporter of Torah learning in our history. Look at the amount of money that the Yeshiva World News reported will remain in the budget for yeshivot—NIS 700 million (almost $200 million). That is an annual number and I am not 100% sure, but I think that this amount represents only the portion for the chareidi yeshivot. We have a huge gift in having a homeland of Eretz Yisrael that can be a beacon of Torah for the entire world.
However, I am definitely in favor of the some kind of standards being set. In New York, our yeshiva got specific funding from the state based upon our meeting certain minimal standards. While they included simple things like having a school day and taking attendance, they also included specific educational objectives and administering certain examinations. Certain minimum standards for education should apply to the chareidi private-school system here as well. Note that I said private. Unlike other demographic segments, the chareidi schools are mostly private, with a large amount of government funding. It is this funding that has been threatened with cuts.
Without these minimal skills, such as math or English, chareidi kids graduate unprepared for the workforce. There are few opportunities for them in skilled labor. While this may have been supportable in the past, continued support at current levels is impossible. We will run out of tax money in a few years, as this population grows and the burden of support for so many will fall on so few.
I admire much of what the chareidi community stands for and can do for each other as a cohesive unit. Yet they needed to start figuring out a way to become more self-sufficient, because the rest of the country simply cannot (and based upon the latest election results, will not) support them at the same level.
So instead of rousing their readers with sensationalist predictions of the terrible things that are happening and bound to happen to the “Torah world” in Israel (as if there is no Torah in the Nationalist Religious yeshivot), perhaps the American chareidi press should consider the following suggestions.
First, come up with a plan. Identify acceptable, reasonable solutions that might not be the best thing for any of the parties, but are also not the worst for them either. Consult with the gedolim, urge them to be leaders of change, of instituting pioneering vision as our gedolim have done throughout our history when change was forced upon us.
Or, do as Rabbi Lipman has done. Pack up your families and come make a difference here in Eretz Yisrael. Leave the comforts of galut, struggle, cry your way through challenge after challenge. Prove that you are leaders by putting everything on the line in support of the systems that you profess are so dear to your heart.
I am an advocate of aliyah. Always will be. Massive American chareidi immigration will affect voting, it will affect demographics, and it can change the entire country. Lead that change. Get back the control that you feel you have lost (and may still return to you), by coming here and voting for it. I would love to see them (and you) join us here.
Somehow, sitting on the sidelines—and being critical of the people like Dov Lipman who have shown true leadership and are working desperately hard to find a solution (even a solution I might not like)—without offering reasonable solutions or strong action does not seem much like leadership to me. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a gap-year yeshiva opening in 2013. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.