Borderline Views: The yeshiva and the workplace

Vocational training within the haredi world has taken off in a big way in recent years and haredi community leaders and MKs had better get on board.

The haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have threatened to leave the coalition if their demands for extra subsidies for yeshiva and kollel students are not authorized. The arguments on both sides are well known.
The haredi parties argue that yeshiva students are discriminated against compared to university students, and should be accorded equal status. The government argues that university students, unlike most of their haredi counterparts, have served for three years in the army, begin gainful employment when they finish their studies and, with or without subsidies, have to pay tuition costs of NIS 10,000-12,000 per year.
Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s desire to maintain good relations with his haredi coalition partners, many of his ministers, including Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, have come out strongly against the attempt to increase the yeshiva subsidies, as this will only contribute to greater poverty within the rapidly growing haredi world.
And despite the threats to leave the coalition if the additional funding is not authorized, the haredi parties will remain within the coalition, if only because they are unable to give up the present levels of funding. Enough or not enough, there has never been a situation where the haredim have enjoyed such massive public funding for their yeshivot.
But there are also many haredi leaders who are well aware of the urgent need for longterm yeshiva students who only remain fulltime students because of social pressure rather than a real desire to devote their lives to Torah, to be given an opportunity to enter the labor market.
TO THAT end, there has been a move toward setting up training programs and even degree courses aimed at the haredi population.
Vocational training within the haredi community has taken off in a big way in recent years. The most notable institution is the Haredi College in Jerusalem, which was set up and headed by Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Initially aimed at women, there is now a concerted attempt to offer similar opportunities to the male population. The government has announced its intention to support these educational projects, and to invest significant resources, through the Council for Higher Education, as an alternative to increasing subsidies for yeshivot.
Many spiritual leaders of the haredi world see this move as a threat to their way of life.
In recent weeks they have made a number of public statements against this trend. They became particularly alarmed when advertisements for new study options began to appear in their own papers, and have issued a statement condemning these media outlets for not following a Torah-true way of life.
The number of people learning full time in yeshivot has increased dramatically over the past two decades, as has the haredi population.
Where large family size used to mean six-to-eight children per family, this has now become 10-12, and even more. It is difficult enough to provide food, clothing and schooling for such large families even when the head of the household has gainful employment; it is becoming virtually impossible when he is studying full time and has to rely on a small stipend which the yeshiva or kollel is able to provide.
The fact that the government provides much of this funding is something unique to the State of Israel, and is not always appreciated by the haredi leaders in their demand for even greater subsidization of the yeshivot.
The leading yeshivot in the world today, such as Mir and Ponevezh in Israel, or Lakewood in the US, have thousands of full-time students. This contrasts with the great yeshivot of Eastern Europe before World War II, which had no more than a few hundred of the best students even at their peak. These yeshivot created the religious leaders and rabbis of the next generation. Despite all their arguments, the haredi population, both here and in the Diaspora, have never had it so good, and their attempts to portray the pre-war situation as being a world in which everyone was pious and spent their lives in studying, with no poverty or hunger, is false nostalgia.
THE ISSUE of vocational and professional training is not an easy one for the universities to take on. They are requested to create separate courses for the haredi population, in locations within the community (Bnei Brak and Jerusalem) rather than on the campus itself for fear of visual contamination, separate courses for men and women (until now it has largely been for women) and only in specific areas of study, which will make a clear contribution to their own communities.
Courses in computers, accountancy and a variety of paramedical professions are the most popular, while general courses in the humanities or social sciences, or in any area of study which may raise questions concerning their own beliefs and way of life, are not on the agenda.
Not all university heads are happy with these demands, as they negate the principle of diversity. At the same time, they understand that they can make an important contribution to the country’s economy by assisting in the training of tens of thousands of people lacking anything but a yeshiva education, to enter the job market.
The need to find gainful employment has become an acute problem in the haredi world. If Shas and United Torah Judaism really want to contribute to the well-being and further development of their communities, they will support the government-sponsored educational and vocational programs for their constituents, rather than insisting on expanding the grants and stipends which keep them in poverty.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics.