Bibi Is Worse Than Pharaoh'

Every Haredi knows that kollels are being closed. The government's austerity program is seen as a terrible onslaught. But `the decrees won't influence the way of life,' says the mayor of Bnei Brak

There's a story going around the Haredi community, repeated last week at the protest rally in Bnei Brak after the organizers thanked the police and asked people to collect the posters and placards for the next demonstration. The story goes that Rabbi Yosef Kahanman, the founder and head of Ponevez Yeshiva, who traveled the world raising funds for the yeshiva, once reached Rome late at night. On his way to the hotel, he asked the cab driver to go by the Arch of Titus. There, late at night, the rabbi asked the driver to stop and the rabbi got out. He clapped his hands and said, "Titus, Titus, look at where you are now- and where we are."

The anecdote reflects the current mood in the Haredi community in light of the severe cutbacks in the funds that flowed to them. It reflects a return to a defensive posture and a feeling that "they are out to destroy us."

Titus, Pharaoh, even Hitler, all of Israel's greatest enemies were resurrected last week in private conversations, in synagogues and in yeshivas. Rabbis preaching to their congregations sought to strengthen their people's will. Though they didn't make the present threat explicit, everyone knew the reference.

Haredi rhetoric is fed from a long collective memory. The preferred explanation for the economic cutbacks is anti-Semitism expressed as hatred of the Haredim. Any other explanation is dismissed, so the response fanned by the rabbis is not necessarily panic, but a certain serenity in the guise of faith in God. "We survived Pharaoh, we'll survive this," said one poster in Bnei Brak. Another said it more bluntly: "Bibi is worse than Pharaoh."

The Shas version added, "We'll multiply and advance." The prayer leader who wept bitterly as he recited Psalm 126's line, "who will help me," and the public chanting of the Shema and the shofars being blown - not exactly a gut-wrenching cry for help but more the usual arsenal enlisted for public awakening and girding.

"The message is that the economic decrees, especially those dealing with the kollels and yeshivas, are a test of the public by the Holy One, and that Torah study should go on with complete devotion," says a Haredi spokesman. "Therefore, if the cuts are meant to send the yeshiva students to find jobs, it won't happen. Will families shrink because of the cuts in child allowances? I don't think so."

The wife of a mashgiah, the person responsible for discipline at a yeshiva, says, "What happened in the Holocaust? The Inquisition? The people of Israel went through difficult periods, and nonetheless survived." She has eight children. Her sons and sons-in-law are all yeshiva students. She and her daughters earn a respectable livelihood for them all - and not as teachers - and she wants all her sons and sons-in-law to continue Torah studies, "and there should not be any drop in motivation, Heaven forbid, for raising Torah students."

Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, the mayor of Bnei Brak, also does not think that changes, like people choosing to work, will result from the cutbacks. Immediately many more families may suffer financial distress, he says, "but the decrees won't influence the way of life."

Two weeks ago, the Haredi press began describing how drastically the cuts would affect the Haredi community and the Torah students. Yossi Elituv, writing in Mishpacha, the Haredi newspaper, in a somewhat hysterical but highly detailed report, explained the situation under the headline: "The assassination plan."

Elituv predicted that 1,400 Torah schools with less than 100 pupils would close and 24,000 students would be thrown out of the kollels. Degel Hatorah's publication, Yated Ne'eman, has meanwhile been publishing letters by rabbis calling on the Torah students to be strong.

For the last two months, the kollel students have not received their monthly stipends. In some kollels, the monies have been delayed for four months. The Torah students are seemingly the community most under fire: The harm to them is being done through cuts in child allowances, cuts in birth grants, and the stipends.

If, for the sake of argument, Haredi spokesmen minimized the value of the government subsidies for Torah students, and said the kollels were primarily supported by donations, now the tone has changed. Suddenly, they admit that a large proportion of their budget - some NIS 600-700, about 40 percent of the stipend - comes from the Religious Affairs Ministry, and they depend on it.

Every Haredi knows that kollels are being closed. According to one treasury ruling, a kollel with less than 100 students won't get any funding, and most kollels have far fewer than 100 students. But it turns out that kollels are not being closed, but they are shrinking.

According to Elituv, 2,500 of the Torah students are now "unemployed." Most, he says, have received a kind of laconic pink slip. Yaakov Gutterman, head of the Upper Modi'in local council (Kiryat Sefer), where 70 percent of the male population consists of Torah students, says 200 have not yet found new arrangements. But even in larger cities and towns and veteran kollels with strong reputations, the doors are closed to the newlyweds who want to join.

Aside from those "unemployed," Elituv says many are now registered with kollels, but are not budgeted. "If a kollel succeeds in surviving, they'll be in, if not, then they won't be," he says. He's convinced the economic cutbacks are a disaster. The class of students who now live spartanly, but not in poverty, will end up hungry, "because they don't have savings or a layer of fat to remove. There will be more beggars, families will collapse, and the price will be paid by the children who will live in hunger and in Third World conditions."

Gutterman has the same thesis. As opposed to Upper Betar, where there is a high proportion of working adults, Kiryat Sefer's population is mostly Torah students. "The community is being hit twice," he says. "Even if the students want to find work, there's no employment infrastructure in the community." Naturally, says Gutterman, in a new community, there are hundreds and thousands of households with commitments to mortgages. "Everything will collapse - the banks, the shops. Everyone's talking about it. People are living in extreme economic anxiety, but are praying to get through the decrees."

Some already feel the effects feared by Elituv and Gutterman. The wife of a Torah student from Jerusalem sighs and says that she goes from charity to charity to support her family of seven children. "We have no luxuries," she says. We don't go traveling overseas. There's no place to cut." David Schreiber, who goes to Ponevez Yeshiva, says he's stopped bringing dairy products for his children. Instead of chicken twice a week, they only have chicken on Shabbat. As the manager of the largest charity in Bnei Brak, Kupat Ha'ir, he says the organization has begun giving to kollel students, including students who study with him. "What's going to happen?" he asks, raising his voice. "Our community will simply become more devoted. That's what will happen. And the attacks on the Haredi community will lead to more identification with us from the secular community." He says he's received phone calls from seculars ready to make donations. "One said, `I don't understand anything about religion, but I can't see a hungry child,'" says Schreiber.

Miracles occur

A kollel head from the north of the country said, "The people of Israel have been through more difficult circumstances and salvation was always found." His kollel, which has fewer than 20 students, has not received its payments for three months. But he said the students aren't worried, and none have meanwhile changed their life-style. He's certain that his "maintainer," the administration that pays the stipends and raises the donations, will make sure to get the money for his students. There were times like this in the past, he says, "and miraculously, a mystery donor always shows up to make up what was missing."

And what if that mystery donor doesn't show up this time? "We have old and young. The young, whose wives still haven't found jobs are the real problem," he says. "Ultimately, I don't think that everyone has what it takes to be a Torah scholar. If someone isn't right for it, and isn't economically stable, and they're down to their last slice of bread, it's preferable that he do everything that he must to provide for his family. Even working in contemptible work. The sages said, `Better to strip carcasses in the market than need others.'"

N., a Haredi insurance salesman, is not certain the situation will reach hundreds or thousands of Haredim entering the job market. "The small kollels will close. Like a small business that doesn't succeed has to close. But everyone will find a place in the end. There are enormous kollels, like Beit Abba in Kiryat Sefer, which have economic power. They never lived off the state alone and now they can keep their students going for a long time."

Some of the posters that stood out at the Bnei Brak rally were in English. "Why are you fighting with kids?" asked one, "Bibi, I'm hungry," said another. They were aimed at foreign donors, as one mother explained to her son. At the end of the event two children were sent to the stage to speak on behalf of the children - "a child's request to the Holy One Blessed be He." One of the children spoke in English. Reports say the kollel heads and the usual fund-raisers are on their way overseas to raise money.

"The kollels aren't interesting - the students will manage," said N., the insurance agent. There will always be food in the Haredi community, he said: "When people hear of a needy family, they make the Sabbath and holiday arrangements. There's always bread and milk. The problem is that because of that confidence in the charity of others, many have been using their allotments to pay mortgages. Now they'll collapse."

The Haredi author Haim Walder says maybe there should be rules, as in the Gerrer community, so a voluntary belt-tightening spreads across the entire community. Last week, he published an article in Bnei Brak's Kol Ha'ir, calling on the public to respond to poverty willingly and conduct a consumer boycott, to prove the Haredi community's economic power to the general public. "Since this is a difficult period, and it will take time for the evil regime to pass, my proposal is a general strike. Pay attention, anything that costs money and is not necessary should not be used - cars, cell phones, large celebrations, electrical appliances. ..."

This would deliver a lethal blow to the Israeli economy, he argued, saying "maybe they'll find out just how strong the Haredi community is. It will save us a lot of money and make us much stronger - instead of weeping we'll add to the decrees and see who breaks first."

Karelitz, on the advice of his rabbi, Aharon Leib Steinman, led the vocational training revolution for yeshiva students. He was in favor of the Haredi Nahal, and now, he hints, it will be more difficult to continue that trend.

There's an echo of that prognosis in a letter in Yated Ne'eman two weeks ago, from Rabbi Michal Yehuda Lifkowitz, of Bnei Brak: He linked the economic decrees to materialism, luxuries, and the race for academic degrees. "There is a proliferation of extra training at the girls' schools and a lot of teachers are going on to study more, even though they don't need it for their profession, just to get higher academic degrees - this is a breach in modesty - dear Torah students, kollel students, protect yourselves and the education in your households, be strong and be strengthened and do what the teachers say, that's the Torah's way, live off a grain of salt, etc., and work in Torah. If you do so, you will be happy and all will be well for you."