US haredim seek to share kollels’ ‘burden’

Ultra-orthodox in the US run ads in local papers, encouraging donations to the 'Adopt-A-Kollel' initiative.

November 26, 2014 18:55
Advertisement urging readers to donate to Israeli Kollels

Advertisement urging readers to donate to Israeli Kollels. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)

Open one of the glossy weekly magazines read by the ultra-Orthodox community in the US and you will likely run across an advertisement urging readers to donate to Israeli kollels.

“Now, as in times past, the Torah world is fighting for survival.... Now is your chance to stand up and share their burden,” the plea goes, accompanied by a picture of serious looking men bending, deep in thought, over a holy text.

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Full-time study in yeshivot for married men, known as kollels in Hebrew, is widespread among ultra-Orthodox Jews, but the number of those enrolled in such institutions has declined as the government has cut the budget for yeshiva stipends.

The issue of government support for nonworking adults who have declared Torah study as their profession is a contentious one, with heated rhetoric on both sides, echoing a larger cultural struggle over the role of religion in the Jewish state. Ultimately, critics assert, the kollel system is economically unsustainable and a drain on taxpayers, while supporters point to the importance of study in Judaism and accuse their detractors of seeking to harm the Torah.

While kollels also exist in the United States, full-time learning along the lines of the Israeli model is much less common, with ultra-Orthodox young men learning for only several years after marriage before entering the job market.

Observing the economic dislocations brought about by the cuts to government yeshiva funding, a number of American ultra-Orthodox businessmen started an initiative called Adopt-A-Kollel in 2013 and began running an international campaign to twin local synagogues with Israeli kollels.

“AAK was launched in response to the realization that various government budget cuts would inevitably have an adverse effect also on the world of the kollels in Israel,” program director Rabbi Yaakov Bernfeld told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “We felt that we needed to be proactive in seeking out additional funds, and not sit passively watching the budgets being slashed.”

According to Bernfeld, 176 synagogues and communities, most of them in North America, have partnered with kollels, bringing in donations totaling around $360,000 a month.

The campaign is well regarded by the powers that be in the ultra-Orthodox community, with Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the mouthpiece of American ultra-Orthodoxy, telling the Post that his organization supports it wholeheartedly.

“Many of our members are supporters of the initiative, and it was touted by at least one speaker at our recent convention,” Shafran said.

The campaign focuses on targeting individual community members for small donations through their synagogues rather than on the much smaller pool of big money donors usually targeted by visiting fund-raisers from Israel, he explained, adding that he has been “pleasantly surprised” that even some who are against full-time learning have opened their pockets.

“We found communities whose children are not going to kollel and still they felt [that] in Israel there is a certain importance [there, that] there will always be people who are learning. It wasn’t so much seen as ‘let’s push this idea of full-time learning’ as ‘let’s have a partner in Israel that we are proud of’… We have a very wide gamut of all types of backgrounds [supporting us],” he said.

“We’re not here to promote kollel,” the rabbi cautioned, explaining that “that wasn’t the concept. The concept was that at the moment there was a crisis, this is an opportunity for people to help.”

Bernfeld said that the program isn’t about underwriting the entire budget of participating institutions but about providing “the top 20 percent that makes or breaks” a kollel.

The campaign has not been without its critics, however.

Adopt-A-Kollel “is a disastrous proposal, as well as being extraordinarily offensive in its execution,” author Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote on his blog Rationalist Judaism in March.

According to Slifkin, “the modern kollel system is a disaster for the haredi community” that foments “institutionalized poverty [which] causes myriads of problems” and is “a problem that constantly gets worse; people in kollel don’t just make a personal choice for their own lifestyle, they raise their children with no secular education and no desire to work.”

“Asking shuls in the US to help perpetuate the cycle of enforced poverty is not a solution.

Instead, we need to help people help themselves,” Slifkin suggested.

Slifkin also objected to one of the campaign’s early posters which bore the verse “In every generation, they stand against us to exterminate us,” an apparent reference to the Israeli government, given the context.

Writing on the haredi website Cross Currents several months ago, pundit Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a supporter of Adopt-AKollel as well as greater haredi participation in wider society, lambasted the ad, which appeared around Passover.

“Israel is not populated by evildoers. Neither is its government, generally. There is no campaign to destroy Torah. The social engineering that many Israelis demand aims at the defusing of an economic time bomb,” he wrote.

“Giving to Adopt-A-Kollel will not artificially keep the old system alive. There are just too many kollels for that to happen. The strongest will survive – and we should help make that happen, if only to teach ourselves and our children that we value all Torah that is learned.”

Asked about the ad, Bernfeld said that he was supportive of efforts to bring Jews together and that the campaign worked hard to stay out of politics.

“That ad was definitely out of line,” he admitted. “We actually pulled that ad because it gave the wrong message. It was not positive. The original thinking was, obviously we weren’t referring to our own brothers, but the point was Torah is in danger. This was the message that fell flat.”

MK Dov Lipman, himself an American- trained rabbi, said he hopes “donors check to make sure that the men they are supporting are truly learning Torah day and night as their passion and not simply staying in kollel because of a culture which tells them to do so.”

“The various programs in our Knesset task force to help haredim enter the workforce receive close to 500 resumes per month and have helped thousands of haredim find jobs. I believe there can be no greater mitzva than helping them support their families with dignity instead of remaining in kollel when this is not their true desire. I think it is counterproductive if they support those who are not truly learning day and night as their passion. We need to aim to return to our tradition, which is the mainstream, combining being Torah scholars while going out to work and unique individuals remaining in full-time Torah study.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, sees the Adopt-A-Kollel initiative from a historical perspective.

“What is so interesting about this program is that it is located in Lakewood, New Jersey. Lakewood, of course, is home to perhaps the most famous and distinguished of all American kollelim, and Lakewood gets no support whatsoever from the US government.

“Adopt-a-Kollel hearkens back to historic traditions of religious philanthropy for the Jews of Eretz Israel, begging Diaspora Jews to provide support to the Holy Land’s suffering and impoverished scholars.

Whether synagogues in North America will heed this plea remains to be seen,” he told the Post.

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