"You must publish this before a decision is made and it becomes too late," said the voice on the other side of the line, talking from a pay phone on a noisy street. "It's time to stop the yeshiva student stipends. It's ruining our society."
This call was not made by a secular activist or a former haredi. The man who telephoned us was a student in an ultra-Orthodox "kollel" (an institute offering an advanced Judaic studies program for married men), who claims to be "120% haredi."
Last week, haredi Knesset members threatened not to vote in favor of the next state budget proposal should the government fail to solve the issue of income support for yeshiva students. That's when we received the surprising phone call.
Yehoshua (not his real name - "if someone identifies me, I'm finished") arrived at our meeting with his hat leaning sideways on his face and his coat folded in a bag. He is tall, slim and wears glasses. Lights side curls hide behind his ears and his cheeks are adorned with a stylish beard. He's fluent and often uses Yiddish slang as he speaks. He spends eight hours a day at the kollel before returning home to his wife and children at the haredi community they live in.
"Don’t give the haredi politicians what they want; don't bring back the assured income," he pleads, and this is the essence of the rare interview you are about to read. But first, Yehoshua would like to stress that his intention is not to present the haredi society as lazy or deceptive. On the contrary, he says, I have a lot of constructive criticism. Politicians, he adds, are those preventing him from contributing to the society. "We are as uncomfortable with the mutual hatred among the people," he explains. "People, we are brothers."
"When the seculars established the State they made every young person go to the army. The haredim refused for two reasons: They didn't want to get killed because of the army and they refused to be subject to a secular society. So the agreement was that everyone would withdraw from society in order to maintain our religiousness and study Torah from morning to evening while the wife provides for the family," he begins his fascinating monologue.
"What happened was that the seculars have been funding the haredim ever since. We must remember that at the time the haredi public was very small and the secular public could still carry them on its back. In Europe there were always 'landlords' who would work and fund the minority who studied and were really prodigies. Today it's different – everyone must study and spend the whole day at the kollel.
"Where did this come from? The State pays, so why not? If there is no financial hardship the community doesn't approve of going out to work… According to an interpretation of the Gemara (oral Jewish Law), those who let us sit in the kollel are to blame. After all, if I go out to work now I'll lose my status in the community. Among the Lithuanians it means taking a risk that your child will not be admitted into a good 'heder' (religious elementary school). Among the Hasidim going to work is customary, but only after many years and in Jewish jobs –a Torah scribe, accompanying children's transportation. But this kind of work is usually not reported to the Tax Authority.
"What happens is that many yeshiva students who don’t really have the ability to sit and study, basically study about one hour a day. This situation is perpetuated, because there are many strong elements in the community who want this circle – in which everyone gets married by the age of 21 or 22 and immediately enters the kollel – will continue.
"It's unthinkable that a yeshiva student would go to work after the wedding. It would simply be a disgrace for the 'shver' (father of the bride). In the haredi world the shver and the father invest tens of thousands of dollars in the couple – I don't know from where. There's a joke that if the shver gives you an apartment, it's like double imprisonment – both a wedding and an imprisonment in the place of Torah study.
"It's also a great disgrace in the eyes of the community members. Almost every haredi person lives in a community – be it the Hasidism or the synagogue, where he spends dozens of hours each month. You can't be different from everyone else. But the claim that most of us study the same is nonsense. Take me for example – I didn't study one hour today. So what do you do? You come in late, you leave early, you go outside a lot to drink coffee.
"You don't study much Gemara. It's mostly a social framework. It's important to say that there are very big scholars, but there are also many who don't really study. Not everyone is capable of sitting down and studying Gemara for hours. You can't go out to work; it's a social norm which simply cannot be broken.
"There are no exams in the kollel. When (United Torah Judaism MK) Gafni says it must be recognized as study hours, he's basically laughing at the State. There are no credit points; you just sit and learn without any supervision. Without exams the progress one makes cannot be checked…
"The seculars are always told that we sit and study. Do you really think everyone studies? It doesn’t make sense. And I'm not the only one. Open the 'Behadrei Hadarim' forum on the internet, for example, and see how many yeshiva students are idle. I live in one of the biggest haredi communities with my wife and small children. Our lifestyle is completely haredi, we have no internet at home – God forbid – and I have never watched TV in my life.
"By the way, the haredi weeklies contribute to the complexity of the problem. They write, 'The secular media incite against the Torah scholars and that is why the High Court had removed the assured income.' But these reporters know that what they are writing is nonsense. Why, if they would study 14 hours a day themselves like they write, they wouldn't be reporters. They put a picture of a place of Torah study and write 'real mighty men' in its caption. In our kollel we laughed about it today, said it's good they didn't take a picture of the coffee maker. I call on the secular public and those who care about the State not to let the politicians give stipends without any limits."
How common are your opinions?
"There are many yeshiva students who already understand, like me, that we must go out. They also say, 'The State should gradually reduce the stipends after a number of study years.' People basically want to work, and it's unpleasant when people hate you. If yeshiva students go out to work it will only help build the haredi society. After all, we won't agree to enlist, and the rabbis won't allow it either. If the seculars were smart they wouldn't insist on the army and exempt us in advance so that we won't have to be in the yeshiva as a shelter from the army."
"By the way, how do you say a secular in Yiddish? A 'freier' (sucker). I'm serious. I don't mean to hurt anyone; I know the seculars don't usually like it when people say that. But I think that one day we'll have a civil war here, when the seculars realize that they are freiers. So I think that whoever goes to the army must do it for proper payment, and that the draft shouldn't be compulsory.
"Those who don't know us can easily be deceived. Do the seculars really think that an 18-year-old haredi boy can be forced to enlist? It's has nothing to do with the course of his life – the course of heder-yeshiva-wedding-kollel. You must understand that he is not the one who decided about this path and he doesn’t have much control over his life."
'Sucker secular state to blame'
Before he got married, Yehoshua was almost unaware of the details of the secular criticism directed at the haredi public. "I always knew that there was incitement. The haredi newspapers are talk about it all the time. But they don't elaborate on the incitement. So how did I gain my knowledge on the secular criticism? I'm a curious person. I hitchhiked and the drivers would argue with me, and that made me realize how much hatred there is among our people," he says. "After the wedding I was exposed to secular newspapers here and there, mainly while visiting relatives who read them.
"So far, the secular politicians have shown us that they can be fooled and they'll continue giving us benefits. We rely on the pressure on Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). After all, the haredi MKs don't care what it says in Yedioth Ahronoth. Our papers will always write, 'Incitement! Renewed hatred against scholars.' But imagine a Yedioth Ahronoth headline saying that an illogical stipend is being renewed – that's when the voters' pressure will begin.
"What really hurts me is that the people responsible for this situation are the haredi go-getters and not the voters themselves. Many yeshiva students want to go out to work, but they are stuck because they will lose their assured income, the kollel pension and the property tax discount. So why should anyone work?
"It's insane that there is no gradual reduction in the stipends. In Lakewood Yeshiva (in New Jersey), for example. It's like that. It's customary that the shver provides for the young couple for three years after the wedding, and then if the yeshiva student is serious he studies a bit more, and if not – he goes out to work. Only in this country the benefits are for life. It's a huge failure on the part of secular politicians. I don't blame Gafni. He sees a secular politician who doesn't understand and extorts stipends. But this is not a normal situation – the stipends should not be for your entire life.
If it does the haredi society so much damage, why do the haredi politicians push for it?
"Because that way they gain control. That way the yeshiva students are not exposed to the reckless haredi street. Not so long ago I was part of a conversation in which a rabbi said that studying in a kollel was like saving a life. I think saving a life means leaving the kollel and remaining a learned person. There's something wrong here.
"Another issue is that the haredi politicians, and I mean the Ashkenazim, see the State as a landowner and see it as a mitzvah to take as much as they can from it. I'm very troubled by the secular ignorance, because that's the reason the politicians give more and more stipends. Every now and then some seculars come out and shout, 'Parasites.' But you're the ones who created it!"
How much money does a yeshiva student get each month?
"A newly married yeshiva student gets a pension of NIS 855 (about $236) per month. It's usually completed to NIS 2,000 ($551) from donations. And if the wife doesn't work and you don't have a car and have three children, you get another NIS 1,040 ($267) in income support. There is also an 80% discount on property tax. All that is basically given for life, and you lose it if you leave the kollel.
"At older ages it’s common for people to work without reporting to the Tax Authority. You must do it to live. There are kollelim which don't add money to what the State gives you. It's very common in particularly large families… By the way, there is no poverty in the haredi society. There is poverty when it comes to luxuries, but no one is hungry, everyone has food and drinks. There is food at the yeshivot too.
"Many in the yeshivot laugh at the secular politicians, talking about the landowner who can be fooled and buys all the bluffs. Look here, in a city where allegedly 80% don't work, there are long queues at the supermarket with full trolleys. I saw an ad for cashiers at a haredi supermarket. If there really was poverty, everyone would jump on this job. But no one comes to work. It's been up there for three months and the cashiers are all secular. Who's to blame? The sucker secular state."
Yehoshua shows a lot of political knowledge. "The fear is that due to coalition considerations Bibi will bring back the assured income, so as not to have Kadima join the government and be forced to agree to a rotation (in the prime minister's role)," he says. "My goal is to get the media to pressure Bibi on this matter, because he only listens to the media after all. This is what I have sent letters to many MKs in the past few weeks, asking them to stop the yeshiva student stipends. I wrote to them that it is destroying our society.
"(Opposition leader) Tzipi Livni wrote back saying that it's very interesting. The justice minister said it wasn't his responsibility but implied that he agrees with me. The education minister didn't answer me, but it hurts me even more than the finance minister didn't answer. I faxed him and emailed him, but I guess he doesn't have an answer. I wrote to them, 'You're the seculars, you're in charge, don't leave the situation as it is.' I wrote to (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak too."
At the end of the interview, Yehoshua asks us to make sure that he won't be recognized. "It's crucial," he explains. "I don't want my children not to be admitted into school because of this article. It's enough that the seculars don't like me; I don't need the haredim not to like me either."
Shlomo Brilant, director of the yeshivot managers' association, presents figures released by the Education Ministry in May, which point to a significant drop in the number of haredi men studying in kollelim in older ages. "I'm almost unfamiliar with this situation of hidden unemployment," he says in response to Yehoshua's claims. "But you must understand that when you take tens of thousands of people (yeshivot have some 70,000 students registered), not all of them are the same."
Brilant rejects the claims that the social status of those who go out to work suffers. "You can't put a magnifying glass in a certain place and make generalizations about the entire public. In the past few years people who have gone out to work have not left the community, apart from, unfortunately, people who abandoned the haredi norms when they went out to work.
"The haredi public has gone through changes in terms of going out to work, and today they engage in more professional work as well. In general, people at the age of 35 who have to bring food home go out to work. After all, the pensions today are so small that one can't really live off them."
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