Last week, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman rejected out of hand a generous offer to pay for the professional training of thousands of yeshiva students in the Haredi ultra-Orthodox community, including financial support during the training period.
The initiative came from Zev Wolfson, an American Haredi millionaire and lobbyist, a philanthropist who supports yeshivas and the Haredi educational system. In response to the generous offer, which could have rescued a substantial percentage of students from poverty, Rabbi Steinman came out with a clear and unequivocal statement opposing any revolution that would reduce the number of yeshiva students.
Yated Ne'eman, the newspaper of the Haredi Degel Hatorah party, and thus the house organ of Rabbi Steinman, gave prominent coverage to the meeting. It seems the newspaper, which consistently espouses a clear line opposing any trend to openness in Haredi society - including professional training for yeshiva students, the Tal Commission on yeshiva students and the draft, or the Kinneret Covenant, which tries to set up a new status quo between Orthodox and secular communities - was delighted by the firm opposition of Rabbi Steinman. He had been seen as someone who in recent years had openly supported professional training for yeshiva students.
In a somewhat mocking tone, the newspaper reported that a group of public figures came to the rabbi's house - the newspaper said, "from their point of view, they meant well."
According to the report, Rabbi Steinman was given a check for $100 million. This "incredible sum" as the paper put it, was meant to propel thousands of students into the job market. However, Rabbi Steinman not only rejected the idea out of hand, but also came out strongly in favor of uncompromising and unconditional Torah study.
Off the record, Yated Ne'eman hinted, given Rabbi Steinman's expressed views, it was possible that all those who had portrayed him as a supporter of professional training had been deliberately misleading.
One may have serious doubts about such an incredible sum. But Yated Ne'eman is the official mouthpiece of Degel Hatorah, everything written in it is approved by a spiritual supervisor, and the report was signed by the editor of the Sabbath supplement, Yisrael Friedman, who is a close friend of Rabbi Steinmetz. This means there is no doubt this is the rabbi's official version of events.
And this is part of what the rabbi said: "Regarding the verse in Ecclesiastes `I didn't find one in a thousand,' the Midrash says, `one thousand enter [the study of] the Bible, and one emerges to teach.' There is a good number of Torah scholars. May their numbers increase. These men devote their lives to the study of Torah because it is our life; the study itself is the goal, Torah for its own sake, for the sake of Torah. All the Jewish people, and the Torah world in particular, need a much larger number of those who study and transmit Torah - heads of yeshivas, dayanim [religious court judges], rabbis who give lessons, teachers of young children, and more.
Not even one
"Since this is the case, we must have a large number of people studying in the beit midrash [study hall] and not, God forbid, try to reduce their number, because if 1,000 enter and one emerges to teach, we can't give up even one. We mustn't touch them."
Rabbi Steinman referred to the economic situation and to the economic edicts. "And if you ask how will they survive, because of the edicts, and what will poverty cause, God forbid? It's better for them to live as poor people, and not as rich people. Torah will emerge from the sons of the poor."
Afterward he mentioned the period of the Haskala, the 19th-century movement Jewish enlightenment. In places where people lived in poverty, the tradition of Torah was preserved, and in other places, where they were better off, "the spirit of the Haskala spread, until they left the traditional Jewish spirit," he said.
"Do you think that the students who are studying Torah are unfortunate, and are you coming to help them? If you come to those who are studying in the beit midrash, they'll tell you that they are in Paradise despite the economic difficulties, they are on the top of the world. They are happy in this world and they have it good in the world to come."
Later he told his family, according to the report in the newspaper, that "even the Alliance - a network of Jewish schools in the diaspora - tried to teach Torah students a profession. And what was the result? The destruction of Jewish society."
This sharp response, and the outspoken words, are in apparent contradiction to the what had been considered Steinman's approach till now. Rabbi Steinman is one of the two heirs of Rabbi Schach who is a leader today - along with the arbiter of halakha religious law, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv - of the Lithuanian Haredi community. He is the one who paved the way, via his emissary and student, Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, the mayor of Bnei Brak, for yeshiva students who after many years in the kollel [for married students] wanted to take care of their families and learn a profession.
The revolution of professional training for yeshiva students began about six years ago, and at present about 1,500 of them are in long and short-term professional training courses. Some are even studying for an academic degree in Haredi institutions such as the Center for Professional Training, which is run by Haredis and which considers Rabbi Steinman its spiritual authority.
This raised harsh opposition among extremist groups in the Haredi community, foremost being the head of the Ma'alot Hatorah yeshiva in Jerusalem who want to leave Haredi life as is, without any change, as it has been for many years.
It is possible that Rabbi Steinman simply gave in to the pressure of the extremists. According to a Haredi who is involved in professional training, there is no balance today between the moderate forces, who are in favor of openness in Haredi society, and the extremist forces.
"The extremists have the upper hand, and their goal is to isolate Rabbi Steinman and to portray him in the community as the sole supporter of the trend toward professional training."
The same Haredi source asked whether Rabbi Karelitz would have gone in this direction without the agreement of his father, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, who is very influential in the community? This source says that Rabbi Steinman's clear opposition to professional training is of great significance in the delicate balance of forces between the moderates and the extremists in Haredi society, and it strengthens the extremists.
Dudi Zilberschlag, a Haredi media person, says Rabbi Steinman's image as a reformer, especially in the general media, placed him in an uncomfortable position, and he had to "make a declaration of this kind."
A close associate of Rabbi Steinman says, "Rabbi Steinman still supports professional training and believes that it should be allowed for purposes of earning a livelihood, with each case being treated individually. He can't support a revolution."
When it comes to "people doing it on an individual basis it's all right," says another Haredi spokesman, "but because of his status and because of the criticism against him, Rabbi Steinman can't allow himself to agree to institutionalizing the phenomenon of students who have left the kollels and the yeshivas."
The person who probably didn't understand how harsh the rabbi's reaction would be is Wolfson himself. Wolfson enjoys a special status as a person who has been pulling the strings in the administration in Washington and in Israel for over 30 years.
He used his extensive connections - with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attorney Yaakov Ne'eman, among others - when they were prime minister and finance minister respectively, to take care of the Haredi sector and to transfer money to Haredi educational institutions and foundations in Israel and abroad.
One Haredi source says even now his pressure on Netanyahu resulted in a reduction in the cuts to the yeshivas. In the 1970s he was involved in establishing a network of yeshivas with dormitories for about 2,000 young men of Mizrahi (North African and Middle Eastern) origin.
He reached a "matching" agreement with the government of Israel and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs - for every dollar he donated to these yeshiva boarding schools, the government would give a dollar.
Thus was born the dormitories budget of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Through it Haredi students, most of whom are sent to boarding schools when they reach the "yeshiva ketana" (parallel to junior high) received a third allocation, which was added to the other two allocations, one from the Religious Affairs Ministry and one from the Education Ministry.
Later his funding was discontinued. Only this year did Minister of Social Affairs Zevulun Orlev decide to abolish this item in the budget. For 20 years the treasury channeled NIS 300 million to one of Wolfson's non-profit organizations for Jewish education in the diaspora.
It supported about 40 schools in communities with a small number of Jews, including communities in the former Soviet Union - bypassing the laws of proper administration.
Work and Torah
Even after Haaretz exposed the fact that a new tender for operating Jewish schools in the diaspora had in effect been made to order for Wolfson's NPO, groups in Israel and abroad applied pressure to have the money transferred to this NPO. In 1999 the special budget was transferred from the treasury to the Education Ministry.
A Haredi spokesman says Wolfson never contributed just to yeshivas - to classical Torah scholars, whose Torah study is their trade. His orientation was always in the direction of combining Torah and work. Presently, for example, he is supporting thousands of yeshiva students through two NPOs, Or LaNoar and Yad Harav, in which the they combine study with educational activity. In Yad Harav youths study for the rabbinate while teaching Jewish studies. The same spokesman says that Wolfson's activity is not missionary, like that of Lev Le'achim.
His admirers call the 74-year-old a fascinating personality, while others define him as eccentric or mysterious. Although he is not in good health, he comes to Israel often. He is considered modern Haredi, is married for the third time and lives on Long Island. His children studied at universities and now three of them run his businesses. He himself concentrates on philanthropic activities for Haredis. His youngest son is studying at the Mir Yeshiva in Israel.
He made his fortune in real estate, but has investments in high-tech firms as well. His offices are located in a 50-story building in Battery Park, a prestigious neighborhood in the south of Manhattan, on the waterfront, one of the only buildings not damaged in the attack on the Twin Towers. Wolfson has several associates in Israel - dubbed "Wolfsonians" - who run the institutions or activities to which he contributes. Among them is Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman of Migdal Ha'emek, and Rabbi Avraham Greenboim of the Nehora Yeshiva, in Mevo Horon.
Some people tried to tell him that this was not the right time to come to Rabbi Steinman with such a sweeping proposal. He's a redhead, says a Haredi spokesman, with a tempestuous nature. "He thinks big and he's not a person who can be persuaded." Dudi Zilberschlag said, "he's always thinking about solutions for the Jewish people."
So how did Wolfson err in his assessment of the distribution of powers in the Haredi community? Apparently in a period of cutbacks and banishment from all government institutions and from control over sources of money, various Haredi entrepreneurs, like Wolfson himself, are trying to offer solutions for the difficult economic situation in which the Haredi community finds itself.
One Haredi spokesman quotes from the Rambam [Maimonides], who said that if you really want to help someone, give him work. And in fact, the Haredi community is rife with rumors and information on the subject of this training; some of these rumors were recently published in the Haredi press.
For example, aside from Wolfson's offer, which was published in Yated Ne'eman, two week ago the newspaper Mishpacha [Family] reported another interesting proposal - to formalize the "Isaachar and Zevulun" agreement, which would give every student an opportunity to decide whether he wants to leave the beit midrash.
Anyone who doesn't want to study would go to work and support his friend who is studying. The significance of the proposal is the return of the balabatim - heads of families, an expression referring to those people who worked and supported Torah scholars, a concept that was common in Jewish diaspora communities.
However, the proposal formulated by the Admor (head of a Hasidic sect) of Rimanov, who has a small group of followers in New York, did not receive a response, although the newspaper claims he met Rabbi Steinman and with two leading Admors in Israel.
Wolfson's status in the Haredi community is what focused attention on the encounter in Rabbi Steinman's home. Now Haredis who are active in the field of professional training are saying Wolfson's proposal "only harmed our activity, because it strengthened the extremist forces. Changes are being made, but quietly, behind the scenes. Now the balance has been disturbed."
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