Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Chareidi World's Surprising Education

I mentioned previously that my cousin, a Charedi rosh yeshiva in Israel, came to visit last week. I also mentioned that I was incredibly surprised by some of what he told me, while dismayed and unsurprised at the rest. The reason is simple: Education.

Harry Maryles penned a post this past Friday that I both agree with and now have to disagree with at the same time. His core point:
One of the goals of any decent mass educational should [b]e educating them to live and work in the society in which they live. It should educate them enough so they can eventually be prepared to compete with the rest of society on a level playing field in the work force. But The Charedi system does not do that. They practically ignore it. And in fact they perpetuate the problem, [m]uch of it of their own making.
This is only true to an extent, and primarily among the boys and not the girls. Moreover, a lot of it is not necessarily the educational system per se, but how people perceive they are supposed to live.

As an example, I am going to use my cousin's family. He is a 49-year old who - in addition to running his own yeshiva for boys who struggled in more mainstream charedi institutions - teaches and speaks around Israel and the United States. His wife works, though I'm drawing a blank as to what. They have 10 children, four of whom are married, one engaged, and those are the ones I'm going to focus on.
  • Son 1 (24) : I have to start with his wife to make sense of this. When I first met her, she was 20 and had already passed 13 of the 15 tests required to be a CPA in Israel. Since then, she not only was well-regarded in her firm, she caught fraud in the process of auditing a client. Perhaps you have to be an auditor to understand how incredible this is, but I can assure you that this is amazing. She then continued jumping up the ranks in her own firm before switching to another (with yet another promotion). And she's 23. Her first boss once asked her if her husband was as smart as her, to which she responded "smarter". The boss asked my cousin if he'd come and give a shiur to the accountants in the firm every day, which he does. The shiur went from 2 to 4 to a nice number of accountants each time fairly rapidly. Even after she left the firm, the boss told my cousin to continue giving shiur in the firm.
  • Son 2 (23) : He works with some of the students in his father's yeshiva in the morning, and in the afternoon works with kids ranging from 7 - 20 years old who have different problems. His wife works in special education.
  • Daughter 1 (21) : She is currently in the process of trying to get her (very good) job back, which she had to leave when she had twins 3 months prematurely. Thank God, the twins are doing very well.
  • Daughter 2 (20) : She learned videography and video editing, and then wisely decided to teach her husband videography. They videotape weddings and other simchas together, each taking their respective sides, and she then does all the editing herself.
  • Daughter 3 (19) : Currently engaged, had originally wanted to do English (which she's always enjoyed), but was offered an opportunity she couldn't refuse and will be going into pharmaceuticals instead and should become a pharmacist.
To some extent, this shows the successes of the Charedi educational system. But - as many would be quick to note - all is not well. I can't recall the exact contexts, but on a few occasions, my cousin and I mentioned different issues, and I stated that those are tremendous flaws in the educational system - and he remained silent, nodding almost imperceptibly, seemingly agreeing with the assessment, trying to figure out how to fix those problems in his own head.

One interesting tidbit: My cousin noted that when taking the CPA, his daughter-in-law and her friend were easily the first two finished, to the amazement of the older, secular accountants in the room. While he says they were at a disadvantage for a bit in the workplace, they were at an advantage in terms of the tests themselves, having been taught a completely different way of thinking through the issues.

The problems in the Charedi world are not that they cannot compete with the rest of society... though that is true for many. It is also not that they ignore the problem - they do not. The problems are a few, but almost all trace back to one: The perception among your 'average' Charedi household that working is at best a b'di'eved. It seems clear that the top learners, the ones who can not only learn but speak, work with others, and teach, can earn respectable if not very good salaries. These are the same ones whose wives can be a part of the secular world - and do well in that world. Their families do well and are self-sufficient. An extremely important factor is that should the wife lose her job for a period of time, while any family would be hurt by this, they can withstand the brunt of it while she finds another and not go deep into debt.

But the average yeshiva student cannot do the same. They cannot command decent salaries for their teaching, for their speeches. They end up earning very little from their kollel checks, and should their wives lose their jobs they are forced deep into debt. There is no safety net, and they do not have the capacity to compete with the rest of society should they ever have to. They do not have the basic knowledge, and while a genius may be able to pick up a trade fairly quickly and compete, most people cannot without the basic knowledge, education, and information necessary.

The Charedi world, at least some of it, actually is aware of and trying to figure out solutions to the problems that exist. In doing so, they are coming up with solutions that are not merely short-term, but long-term: For example, the pharmaceutical option that my cousin is taking is something that they added when they recognized not only the need for pharmacists, but the opportunity for the girls who would choose [or more accurately, be chosen for] that option.

At the same time, they have a long way to go, and the largest worry is that their flaws and problems will overtake them before the solutions can be found. Perhaps the most important factors are that the Charedi world not point to a few success stories as representative of the whole population, or point to the slight improvements and think that the job is done. I know that my cousin is not like that, and surely there are more like him... but are there enough? Time will tell.