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.


  1. So glad that your cousin and his kidas are making it and it's wonderful to her success stories, but all the chareidim that I know in Israel - the husbands are average learners who have to stay in yeshiva to avoid serving in the army. They get some sort of miniscule stipend from the kollel and the wives are secretaries or pre-school assistants.

  2. ...which is kind of my point. If they are average learners, they should be learning how to do other things (even as they're in yeshiva). And I don't understand why so many wives are only finding certain types of jobs.

  3. I guess it's also really difficult to understand the Chareidi way of life unless you actually live it. I was just discussing this with my mom, because she has a lot of Chareidi and Yeshivish cousins. She said that she's heard of so many girls who, when they are 16 and 17 and 18 years old, dream of becoming a kollel wife and they want their future husbands to sit and learn for ten, twelve, fifteen years. The thing is, once they're married and on to their third or fourth kid, they suddenly realize what they got themselves into and some become sort of miserable.

    On the other hand, some women absolutely love it and, as my mom explained, the husbands who spend their time learning usually are home in the morning to help the kids get ready for school or daycare or wherever they have to go before he leaves for the beit midrash (or beis medrish, heh) and he's home by dinnertime and helps with that and with getting the kids ready for bed, etc. And then, at night, when everything's calm and quiet, he goes back to learning. So it isn't always that the woman has both the job and the kids to be on top of alone.

    So I guess, what my point is, there're always two ways of looking at things and there are always people who thrive in a certain lifestyle and people who can't get by, and I suppose ideally, those who can thrive in a Chareidi lifestyle should live one but those who can't should be able to find other ways to both be ultra-religious AND be comfortable, or even successful, in their lifestyle. I don't know. It's hard to find a balance, I guess. Especially if someone just doesn't want to enter the secular world out there and get caught up in it.

  4. As a gentile I am utterly incompetent to discuss these issues. But I did want to post and say that you, Ezzie, show great spiritual maturity and the virtue of charity. You truly try to understand both sides and give the benefit of the doubt to the good faith of others. You may be young, but you are very wise.


  5. Ezzie-I recently put up a link to an article about a 50 year old man who left the kollel world for the working world as an aqua therapist. It is a positive article and makes a number of important points. Take a look. The article brings out a lot of good points. Hat tip to Greg of Presence.,1,6772342.story?ctrack=2&cset=true

    There is so much to say, but I'll just link you to this article. (You can check out my post too).

    And congrads to your cousin-in-law. Finding fraud is definitely an accomplishment, although I still consider my lucky break to be a right time, right place sort of deal. :)

  6. Ezzie, it sounds like your cousins are very intelligent. The very bright generally succeed no matter what the situation. My husband is fairly poorly educated (imo), but he's very smart. He is basically self-taught and works as a system engineer in a high-tech company. (Though he's been told that he won't be promoted without a degree. I'm hoping that he'll be able to get around it by getting some professional certifications - or that he won't get a title promotion, but his salary will increase as if he has...)

    Someone with his education and a little less strong a kopf would be qualified to be a telemarketer, a taxi driver, a data entry clerk...

    Even the weakest kids who graduated my high school were able to complete a BA and learn a more lucrative trade. Why? Because of a strong secular education.

    Boys coming out of the charedi school system in Israel often can't solve a basic algebraic equation, much less understand the concept of an algorithm. The girls in the Beis Yaakov system, at least, are getting a higher level of education.

    However, I know a family whose first daughter went to an Ulpana in Israel, and the other girls went to Beis Yaakov... The first is a dentist. The others don't have a real career path. I'm fairly certain the difference is hashkafa and education, not actual intelligence.

  7. Erachet - That's true as well. (First 2 paras.)

    And your point is on the money - there's a way to do it, but that way requires at least some balancing (as evidenced by my cousins). Having everyone go into the same hole causes a downward spiral.

    ToddV - Thanks.

    SL - :)

    As for the rest, I liked that post. The question is how rare that is and how people in his community perceive him... and how it would be perceived if people did that from the get-go and not at 50 years old.

    Trilcat - That's part of the point. The smart will generally succeed regardless (though not always) and the others are being messed over by poor education. But what's interesting here is that this seemingly isn't even the hashkafa of people like my cousins, who are 'big' mainstream Charedim.

  8. Your cousins have succeeded against the odds. Unfortunately, with major Israeli Chareidi rabbonim coming out against higher education even for women, those who follow these rabbonim will be limited to low-level, low-paying jobs (hence why there are so many secretaries and gannanot). While there are those who are trying to find solutions that are acceptable within the framework of chareidi society, and they should be commended for their actions, overall I'm not sure that the educational situation for chareidim is getting any better (especially for the boys, who are banned from learning ANY secular studies over elementary school age, except for a few small schools which are in "cherem" by the rest of mainstream chareidi society).

  9. Your cousins are the exception.They are not following the true Chareidi psak.No higher education for women without a kosher stamp of approval.