Seeing my hesitation the matchmaker tried to convince me, saying, “This could be a great opportunity for you the girl’s father will purchase an apartment for you and support you while you continue your studies for at least five years after your marriage.” I quickly explained that I fully expected to earn my own way in life and there would be no need for anyone to buy me an apartment.
But this was my introduction to the "haredi shidduch" (religious dating) scene in Israel. Weddings are often extremely expensive for families. Not because the weddings themselves are extravagant but rather because of what the parents are obligated by societal norms to buy to set the young couple up in life. In some circles, especially in Jerusalem, the father of the bride is expected to buy the couple an apartment.
In fact, in some haredi circles it is impossible to marry off a daughter to a respectable young man without offering an apartment and a substantial dowry to the potential groom. Even in other circles such as in Chabad the parents have to pay exorbitant amounts of money for expensive wigs, furniture, rent for an apartment and many other items, on top of what it costs for the wedding itself. Even an inexpensive haredi wedding can cost in excess of forty thousand dollars.
How can impoverished haredi families with upwards of nine children afford such expensive weddings? The answer is that many go deep into debt and others resort to begging. In many synagogues you will find haredi men collecting money to be able to marry off their children. This has always struck me as deeply problematic and unsustainable.
Finally it seems that the rabbis in the haredi world are beginning to take this problem seriously and address it. One of the events that precipitated their action is heartbreaking. A man was contemplating selling his kidney in order to be able to afford the expenses of his daughter’s wedding. He turned to the prominent rabbinic authority in Jerusalem Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to find out whether such an action was permissible according to Jewish law.
Whether the selling of an organ should be allowed or not is not pertinent here. The fact that an individual felt it necessary to go to such an extreme just to be able to marry off his daughter is the issue. But this is just symptomatic of a deeper problem. In the contemporary haredi community young boys are often raised and educated to become full time Torah scholars (or at the very least to become a scribe, "shochet", a "mohel", an outreach professional or "shaliach" in the case of Chabad) and girls to become religious teachers.
The problem with this is that even if all of them were suited to these types of careers—which is highly doubtful at best—it is difficult to make a proper living when all the people in a given society have similar professions. This is a major contributing factor to the over 60% poverty rate in the haredi community in Israel and elsewhere (in the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel, New York for example more than two-thirds of residents live below the federal poverty line).
Stigma needs to be dispelledRabbinic leadership in cutting back on the costs of weddings is a major step forward. In fact some communities have already done this. The spiritual leader of the Gur Hasidic community Grand Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter has long sought to limit the amount his followers spend on weddings. But many families can’t afford to pay anything for their children’s wedding and even a limited amount is a major burden.
Somehow a middle ground needs to be found where haredi men and women can study to enter a wide variety of professions and vocations in order to respectably take care of their families whilst at the same time not feel that they are risking their religiosity. This is in fact what the great sages of old wanted when they said that the study of Torah must be accompanied by working at a trade or business to make a living (Ethics of the Fathers 2:2).
Rabbinic leadership is needed on the highest level to change a system that is forcing many in their communities to take desperate steps just to cover their families’ basic needs.
No one should expect young people from the haredi community to attend secular colleges and universities. But this does not exempt the haredi community from learning a profession or vocation so that they can become productive members of society. Many more haredi professional and vocational schools need to be developed and the societal pressure to become a full time Torah scholar or a teacher needs to be removed.
The stigma associated with working in a profession or trade needs to be similarly dispelled within the haredi community. This type of action will have an immensely positive effect on the staggering levels of poverty within that community. Let’s hope that there is the foresight to take such action because the current system is completely unsustainable in the long term.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts