By Larry Gordon
Two years ago, at the Jerusalem Post annual conference here in New York, the most intriguing comments amongst all the diplomatic and military analytical presentations came from General (Ret.) Elyezer Shkedy, who was then the CEO of El Al Airlines. What he said at the time seemed misplaced, and certainly not anything near a top-priority issue. It was still a half year before the most recent elections in Israel and Shkedy—a former Air Force general—spoke about integrating yeshiva students into the Israel workforce.
While his listeners may not have known it, it seems that he was well aware that this matter would become item number two on the Israel agenda, right up there with the issue of Israel’s ongoing security needs and the ever-increasing threats from her neighboring countries. Some might even argue that it is agenda item number one.
General Shkedy said that he’d initiated a program that offered yeshiva students the opportunity join the Air Force and be trained by base commanders in technical and mechanical matters. The program met immediate resistance from the base commanders. The most vociferous objections were that the students were not sufficiently equipped with knowledge of English and math, which are essential in this type of work.
General Shkedy told the conference that he’d told the air base commanders that they were right; the yeshiva students did not possess ample—or in some cases any—knowledge of those subjects. However, he said, given the nature of their Talmudic studies and Torah background, they had analytical minds and knew how to study better than most.
Shkedy said that, after a half-year of resistance, the calls started to come in from the Air Force bases. Across the board, the request was the same: “Send us more yeshiva students.”
The image being projected that young men will be dragged from behind their shtenders and put in uniform at the Gaza or Sinai border is intellectually dishonest and wrong. We’ve been over this more than a few times. It is human nature for the leaders of families—whether mothers or fathers—to want to provide for their families. Encouraging them not to, or denying them opportunities to do so, is unnatural and unhealthy. If there has to be a new way of thinking hammered home, it is that being educated and seeking to support oneself are not things that diminish a commitment to the study of Torah or the Torah lifestyle. If anything, this approach is a healthy one that enhances those opportunities and abilities.
Resistance to this change—which is slowly dissipating—is only productive to those who make their livings encouraging others to remain dependent on them, often in the throes of extreme poverty. It is one thing to choose to live in an austere environment because it might inspire your commitment to higher spiritual pursuits. It is a whole other thing to be given no choice in the matter.
I have always been intrigued, even mystified, by the success and comfort of those who urge others to live poor. It sometimes seems like something akin to the old communists preaching communism to the masses, which ultimately failed because all the communist leaders were capitalists, making money and living well while discouraging others from doing so. And it is not unlike the Obamacare fiasco we are currently witnessing here in the U.S. Those advocating for the plan—which limits access to quality medical care, most often at an inflated price—do not subscribe to the program. That’s right: if you want your doctor, you can keep your doctor, so long as you can afford to pay him or her outside whatever insurance plan you currently maintain.
Our sages have said, “Who is considered a wealthy man? One who is satisfied with his lot.” For some, that has become a satisfaction that is only possible to experience or achieve so long as you have more in comparison to the next person. It is then that the satisfaction these days is much more manageable to accomplish.
And then there is the argument that this entire movement is part of a leftist conspiracy to undermine Torah and weaken the Torah community in Israel. It is easy to understand the suspicion and to even convince oneself that if this is not the entire agenda, then it certainly can be found somewhere in the minds of those seeking to effectuate such dramatic change.
Certainly those who have come up through the secular ranks in Israel, like Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, do not like what they see for a whole host of reasons. I’ve often wondered why is it that secularists, especially in the Israeli government, are so comfortable in disparaging chareidim and their lifestyle. And I suppose we can also ask the same question in reverse. Why do members of the chareidi officialdom, as well as the everyday man in the street, often refer to the chilonim so condescendingly? Where is the ahavas Yisrael? Is that just a concept to be studied, analyzed, and admired, or is it possible in this day and age to actually implement and practice it?
And this is especially true as Israel faces so many trying, critical issues from just about every direction. Doesn’t anyone with influence over there see that the public infighting and the virulent debates on things like national service for yeshiva students only serve to weaken the entire Jewish community? It’s one thing to argue or debate amongst ourselves about the finer points of Jewish law, even about controversial issues. But this knock-down, drag-out approach to making a point about the rightness of a position gives our critics—and, yes, our enemies too—hope for their sordid objectives for the future.
So are the differences between the parties about the needs of the country and the contributions that should be made by all citizens, or are they about trying to diminish the influence chareidim are gaining by virtue of their burgeoning numbers? Or perhaps the situation is somewhere in between, in a place that it seems neither side is interested in addressing seriously. And that is: what is best for the average G‑d–fearing, Torah-learning, religiously observant Jewish family?
Issamar Ginzberg is a Brooklyn-born chareidi resident of Kiryat Sanz in Israel. He is a business consultant who travels frequently around the world to lecture on subjects pertaining to business. He works within the Chassidic world and has insight into the thought process of many in that community. Ginzberg says that, as far as he can see, the current controversy is not about resisting any traces of secular education in the chareidi system; rather, it is due to a dislike of the Israel government forcing it on them, whether it is for their own good or not.
He says that there is a lack of interest in working in the community because there is a serious lack of knowledge on how to conduct oneself or interface with others at work. He adds that, in the average chareidi family, there is already some knowledge of what is going on in the outside world, and there is no need to limit children’s exposure to subjects like English and math. “Middle-of-the-road chareidim want their children educated so that they can function in society,” he says. At the other end of the spectrum, however, he says that there are still many chareidi schools that will not accept a child into their cheder if the father is working.
MK Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid adds, “I am in regular touch with chareidim who don’t want their children to grow up like they did, with no base for higher education or training to enter the workforce. They speak about the disconnect between the rabbinic/political leadership and the street. The new draft law which should pass shortly will actually enable tens of thousands to go to work legally immediately and this will no doubt create a major shift for the community.
“I have visited the chareidim serving in the Air Force program for chareidim and they are so happy. They have minyan three times a day, Torah learning at least once a day, and they learn a trade—engineering, computers, electronics, and more. And many of them expressed how good it feels to be serving their country and contributing to the defense of Israel.”
Change is a difficult thing to deal with and it seems that is particularly so in communities steeped in tradition. In this case, the tradition is about not being educated in secular matters and not working. It’s one thing that the country is not pleased with the way things are going, but it is a whole different matter when the people themselves are unhappy. And it looks like that is what we are dealing with here. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.