Haredim are hard hit

This sector of Israeli society is largely dependent on the largesse of Diaspora Jews.

Haredim 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Haredim 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The High Holiday season is a time for giving. Some of the most important pro-Israel philanthropic appeals take place in North America between Rosh Hashana and Succot. But not surprisingly, this year's North American appeals yielded particularly flat results. Even the warmest, most generous North American Jew is reevaluating his/her commitment to Israel's institutions. "This year's lackluster holiday appeal is particularly worrisome because it is an indicator of the future, and it comes after the devaluation of the dollar," says Miles Bunder, a veteran educator and fundraiser who recently immigrated to Israel from Florida. "Donors have made it clear they will not compensate for the weak dollar. And with the global financial crisis, it seems unlikely they will even match last year's donations in dollar terms." Israeli institutions with any dependency on foreign funds are pessimistic. And since it is difficult to imagine an Israeli nonprofit or educational institution that does not rely to some extent on foreign funds, there are many doomsayers. But perhaps no other segment of Israeli society has been as affected by the crisis as the haredim. They are disproportionately dependent on the largesse of Diaspora Jews. Haredi educational institutions do not adopt the curriculum requirements dictated by the Education Ministry, hence they receive only partial state funding. The rest required to run these institutions are supplied by tuition and donations. Another area severely affected are the kollels - study halls for married haredi men who pursue extended Torah education. These men rely on stipends funded almost exclusively by North American philanthropists and a few dozen big donors from Britain, France and Belgium. Says Rabbi Avraham Pinzel, administrative head of Hochmas Shlomo, one of the largest Talmud Torah elementary schools in Jerusalem, "With fuel prices skyrocketing, our transportation costs have risen by 50%. And rising food costs makes it more expensive to feed our students. The majority of our donations are in dollars. In the past, $10,000 was worth NIS 40,000. Now it is sometimes worth NIS 32,000. Plus many of our students' fathers learn in kollel. They get paid in dollars and cannot pay shekel-denominated tuitions. "But," adds Pinzel, "we have always lived on miracles. We have God's promise that no matter what happens, Torah scholarship will continue." Although financial matters have become an obsession for the haredim, there has been little talk among haredi leaders about making changes in haredi society that would reduce its dependence on philanthropy. Dudi Zilbershlag, haredi founder of Meir Panim, a nonprofit charity that provides food and necessities to all sectors of Israeli society, forecasts the deterioration of the yeshiva world. "Dozens of kollelim will cease to exist. And when there is an economic slowdown, there will not be many job opportunities for haredi men, even if they wanted to work." Sociologist Menahem Friedman, professor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University, is convinced the financial crisis will be a mortal blow. "For decades, the haredi community has not been training itself for this world, only for the world to come. Even if haredim wanted to join the labor market, they would not be able to because they lack the necessary skills. With the US economy in the grips of a crisis, we will see haredi society in real turmoil." But Zilbershlag, a Seret-Viznitz Hassid, is not totally pessimistic. "There is a special commandment to loan to one's brother when he is in a tough situation. Hassidism teaches that the commandment is not just talking about when the recipient is in dire straits; it is referring to when the person giving is in financial difficulty. Many religious philanthropists take this seriously. These donors may have real concerns about the future, but they know that when it gets tougher to donate, there is also a greater reward from God for performing the mitzva of charity."