'Work is not an option'
"The crisis has hit the Torah world"; "The plea of the kollel students groaning under the burden"; "Fear of a catastrophe"; "Rescue the collapsing Torah world." The use of pathos-laden sentences is nothing unusual in ultra-Orthdox society, but this time everyone is recommending that the dramatic declarations splashed across the front pages of the sector's newspapers be taken literally. The first signs of the shortage are already in evidence and it is clear to all concerned that the drizzle will soon become an inundation.
The fuel that has always propelled the ultra-Orthodox economy in Israel, the personal wealth of rich Jews and benefactors in North America, is dwindling in the wake of the economic crisis. The second faucet that waters the flowerbed, the government faucet, is also beginning to sputter. The failure of the negotiations between Shas and Kadima entailed the relinquishment of an upgrade in government aid that would largely have benefited the ultra-Orthodox. Kadima offered Shas a generous package valued at NIS 950 million, a sum that would have been split between an addition to the National Insurance Institute child allowances (NIS 700 million) and an addition to the budget for the yeshivas (NIS 250 million). Shas insisted on having the full amount designated for the child allowances and the pleas of the heads of the yeshivas and the kollels (yeshivas for married men), to the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, asking him to accept the deal, were to no avail. Now it is becoming clear to the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members that even the regular budget is in danger, at least until a new government is established.
The ultra-Orthodox are looking for money, but one thing is for certain: In the foreseeable future, the spiritual leadership isn't going to make any ideological-economic compromise. "The society of learners" will not cease to exist, and even if there is a rise in the trend among the ultra-Orthodox of men learning a trade or profession and then going out to work, this society will continue to expect money from the outside in order to realize what it sees as a mission.
"New ways?" said the director of the large Ateret Shlomo network of kollels, Yehuda Arend. "With us, this isn't called a strategy, it's called suicide. This would like, because you are needy, you take your child and throw him off the roof. The Jewish people and the world exist because of the Torah, and it is impossible to abandon the Jewish people. Work is not an option."
Arend tells of learners, fathers of 12 and even 18 children, who have never missed a single day at their kollel, "even though their refrigerators are bare."
However, after the pillars of ultra-Orthodox society took creative steps this past year to deal with the decline in the dollar-shekel exchange rate, including freezing it at the "Bnei Brak rate" of four shekels to the dollar, then the real thing came along. For several months now, the heads of the yeshivas and the kollels who set out on their regular schnorr (fundraising) trips to the United States, have been returning home crestfallen with stories about slammed doors, and tears that they shed in face of philanthropists who say they have nothing to give, after having supported their institutions for many years.
Rabbis who were accustomed to coming back to Israel with bundles of million-dollar checks are now returning home with checks made out in the tens of thousands, and even those are in some cases liable to bounce. In recent months the kollel heads have taken out loans for tens of millions of dollars in order to be able to pay their students at the beginning of each month, which is already arousing fears of an "ultra-Orthodox Lehman Brothers" - a bubble of loans that will burst one fine day in one of the charitable funds and the banks.
This past Saturday night, after a consultation with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox public, the heads of the institutions held an emergency assembly in Jerusalem and announced the establishment of "The Committee of Kollels in the Holy Land." It unites only the 12 largest networks of kollels, at which study some 6,000 of the tens of thousands of kollel learners registered with the Education Ministry.
When it comes to the ultra-Orthodox, the crisis is affecting mainly the class of married Torah learners, the kollel students, and this is happening in a year when a record number of them have registered. Two months ago, 63,000 learners began their academic year, an increase of 4,500 over last year. These are ultra-Orthodox men, nearly all of whom do not work, and their contribution to the support of their families amounts to a monthly stipend, a small part of which (NIS 720) comes out of the state's coffers and the bulk of which (a varying sum, usually NIS 1,500 to NIS 2,000) comes from overseas donors, who until now were regular.
The kollel heads have now decided not to take out any more loans until the skies clear over the city of Manhattan, even if this means withholding stipends from their students next month, and to hold a day of prayer next week in all of the kollels in Israel "for the salvation of the world of Torah and the rescue of the philanthropists of the people, in this country and abroad, whose souls desire to help." Another and equally important decision will come into effect a week and a half from now: All of the kollel heads in Israel will fly together to New York to call upon the wealthy to donate.
According to the Kollel Committee's secretary, Yaakov Segal, "The message to the benefactors will be: You have an opportunity to save the world of Torah, so give once beyond your ability. This is an opportunity." If the trip fails, Segal assumes, the next step will be a joint flight to America of "all the sages of Israel," such as the aged Rabbi Aharon Lev Steinman and Rabbi Haim Kanievsky. "They will get on a plane to America and lie down on the floor there so that money will come. They will not let the Torah world collapse."