Why Shas fails its own constituency

Maimonides teaches the most sublime act of charity is to give a poor person means of self-sustenance.

Yishai brill 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Yishai brill 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The cabinet is scheduled to vote today on the 2009 budget, and the outcome may hinge on the issue of child allowances. These monthly stipends the state provides to families for each child under 18 carry an annual multi-billion-shekel price-tag. Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, which has 12 Knesset seats and is an integral component of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition, says it will vote against the budget if the stipends are not increased. That would leave matters on hold until after the Kadima primary. But Shas has also made clear that it will join a post-Olmert Kadima-led government only if the stipends are increased. Shas's stance has the potential of forcing new elections sooner rather than later. We can understand Shas's insistence. Families with eight or more children are four times more likely to live under the poverty line. And in 2006 the average haredi household had 4.1 children, compared to the general population of 2.1. So a large chunk of Shas's constituency stands to benefit from boosted child allowances. Less money for child allowances appears to have had a regrettable, negative impact on the number of Jewish babies born. The number of children under two years of age in haredi families is marginally down and the average number of children has fallen, from 4.3 in 2001 to 4.1 in 2006. In heavily ultra-Orthodox cities like Beitar and Modi'in Illit, there has been a 10% drop in the birth rate. AND YET it would be a mistake to let Shas have its way. Cuts in the stipends were originally initiated in 2002 during the tenure of prime minister Ariel Sharon's Likud government, by finance minister Silvan Shalom, and continued in 2003 by Binyamin Netanyahu. This reduced the monies channeled to households blessed with children, but it also set in motion a process nothing short of revolutionary. Haredim, who embrace an insular lifestyle, were forced to get off the dole and into the labor market. In 2001, roughly 23 percent of haredi men worked legally; by 2006, the figure had risen to 28%. Among haredi women the change has been even more dramatic: In 2006, 49% were employed, compared to 42% in 2001. Since many haredim work off the books, the actual number of those employed is probably higher still. Meanwhile, in response to the need felt by haredi parents to compensate for child allowance cuts, a whole network of colleges and job training programs geared exclusively to the community has sprung up. Thousands of young haredi men and women are flocking to these institutions to learn skills that can gain them entry to the labor market. Even if a significant portion of haredim go out to work, there will remain, we trust, an elite group of gifted Torah scholars devoting themselves to fulltime Torah studies, thus keeping the embers of Jewish learning glowing. Perhaps even more important than the change on the ground, however, is the change in perspective among haredi spiritual leaders. The rebbe of the Belz hassidic dynasty, Issachar Dov Rokeach, has called on his followers to find gainful employment - as a matter of religious obligation. A daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Adina Bar-Shalom, has established a successful job training program for women. The Lithuanian yeshiva world, meaning non-hassidic ('mitnaged') Ashkenazi haredim, remains the primary stronghold of resistance. But this, too, is changing. SHAS'S CLAIM that augmented child benefits would save tens of thousands of children from poverty is simply unconvincing. Who is to say that the stipends - directly deposited into parents' bank accounts - benefit their children? Better to earmark such funds for programs aimed directly at children, such as school hot lunch programs. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, teaches that the most sublime act of charity is to give a poor person the means of self-sustenance. Why? Because unlike with other forms of charity, the recipient is not humbled by the benefactor. Shas, in short, may be doing itself a political favor by championing increased child allowances. But it is doing the haredim themselves a disservice, one that could keep them in a condition of dependency for years to come.