Talmid Chacham, wise student, is the highest status possible in Haredi society. It is the status of Torah prodigies (iluim). Talmidim chachamim win adulation from all directions.
In fact, they win more than adulation. They are well-rewarded for their efforts.
Talmid Chachamim are at the top of the heap when it comes to matchmaking, which means they generally get to marry the choicest women in the community. That in turn means women with the biggest dowries.
In the case of a Talmid Chacham, the wife's parents are supposed to provide for all his needs, including housing and furnishings. Not only that: The Talmid Chacham gets scholarships to study.
The bottom line is that Talmidim Chachamim do well for themselves.
"The importance Haredi society ascribes to having yeshiva student status is a significant barrier to incorporating Haredi men into the jobs market," writes Haggai Levin, a member of the National Economic Council, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office. "A young, single Haredi man trying to find a job is likely to find his social status suffering, and accordingly, his ability to find a good match and get a high scholarship at a kollel will be impaired."
Indeed, ultra-Orthodox men face significant social and economic barriers that derogate from their motivation to work. Secular society is consumerist, but Haredi society values asceticism.
A Haredi family that brings in just enough to eke out a bare living would prefer to maintain that minimalist lifestyle and have the sons study Torah and the mother take care of the kids, as opposed to having the lot of them get jobs and live by higher standards. So in short, Haredi families have no motivation to join the workforce.
Not seeking the luxuries of secular life
The unhappy reality is that the Haredi aspiration to live a life of bare subsistence, coupled with Israel's subsidies of ultra-Orthodox society, mean that many Haredi families can eke out an existence without working. Put otherwise, it doesn't pay for them to work. They don't achieve anything they particularly want thereby.
According to Levin's analysis, a six-person Haredi family in which neither parent works can get NIS 5,000 a month.
How? It starts with NIS 910 in child allowances, NIS 940 in income supplements that the state pays only to Haredim, and NIS 700 in scholarships from the Education Ministry - so far we have NIS 2,500 a month just from state subsidies.
Also, the family can economize, again courtesy of the state. Daycare is fully paid for, and they are fully exempt from tax, including arnona - city tax. In recent years the Welfare Ministry has been running a program to fully finance education and living expenses for 10,000 Haredi teenagers. Naturally one precondition for the program is that neither of the teenager's parents work.
The Haredim also receive support from sources outside Israel. First and foremost, the kollelim receive donations and give them to the community in the form of scholarships, as much as NIS 2,000 a month per recipient. The families of kollel students also receive coupons for the holidays. And then there is employment, off the books and naturally hidden from the taxman, of kollel students' family members. The jobs are usually moonlighting sorts of things, such as tutoring by the father, or a small business run by the mother.
In total, with help from the state and abroad, and a small sideline, the family can reach about NIS 5,000 a month, and their expenses are low.
Now, if somebody in the family works and makes minimum wage, NIS 3,700 a month, then their allowances are reduced, and they start paying some level of municipal tax and daycare, too. If the man works he loses his kollel scholarship, which as said can reach NIS 2,000 a month, and he also has less time for his side job.
So if a Haredi family does not work, its members can net NIS 4,000 to NIS 5,000 a month, after expenses. If only the mother works, the family can net NIS 5,500 to NIS 6,700 a month. If both the parents work, their income can be NIS 6,500 to NIS 6,700 a month.
The difference in income between only the mother working, versus both parents working, is small. It certainly isn't big enough to justify the loss of the father's status as a Torah student.
Levin's figures rely on information from the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, which runs programs to encourage Haredim to work. "A Haredi man will demand at least NIS 4,500 to NIS 5,000 a month or he won't work, yet he's coming to the market without minimal education and skills," laments Reuven Gorbez of the Joint.
Does Israel in its generosity actually disincentivize Haredim to work? Yes. The figures show that the allowances coupled with discounts enable Haredi families to eke out a living without work.
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