I’m struggling to understand how we in the orthodox community have created a monster. How is it that in the last 20-40 years, some of our smartest Rabbis have created a generation of functional illiterates? Or, was it always this way but I never understood it before?
Recently I visited a large Expo in the NY/NJ area that catered exclusively to the orthodox and hassidic communities. Its prime objective was to bring small businesses together and to provide opportunities and training for job seekers. On the surface, this is wonderful and something that we would want to encourage and to see more of around the country. In reality however, it was alarming and a big disappointment. Yes, thousands of people showed up and paid $25 each for the “opportunity”. What I found could have been a scene from Fiddler on the Roof or Yenta. There was a sea of long black coats, beards and black hats in all shapes and sizes. Men outnumbered women 10-1. Announcements on the PA system were in a broken English/Yiddish and left nothing to the imagination relative to when the next minyan would be davening mincha or where the women’s tables could be found for them to sit and enjoy their lunch.
Not sufficiently concerned yet? Allow me to tell you more. As I walked around the Expo and visited vendors, talking and chatting with participants – I encountered the following:
- A man who wanted to pay his $25 admission fee with a combination of credit & cash.
- Several people inquiring about the location of the “women’s pavilion” which consisted of what appeared to be two folding tables cordoned off by six foot high poles and curtains to assure that men and women would be separated according to the laws of modesty.
- A man who came towards the end of the event and stopped me in the parking lot. He stated that he came here “representing” his son who was looking for a job but couldn’t attend as he was learning in Kollel at the time.
- As I was visiting with a vendor at a small booth selling some household items – an Expo attendee asked the vendor if he could use his Medicaid card to purchase some of the items.
- Other than the cleaning staff and the security team – I honestly could not find a non-Jewish or non- religious face in the crowd.
- Other than the business owners who paid for the space at the Expo, it was difficult if not impossible for me to identify anyone in the crowd who was not a job seeker.
I could go on – really, and tell you more of the same but I think that you get my point. What’s wrong with this picture?
I didn’t need to go to NY to discover that we have a problem in our Orthodox community. We have hundreds of thousands of young men (and women) that have been denied in many cases even a basic secular education and access to the outside world of business and enterprise. Our great Rabbis have consciously decided to keep generations of our young people “barefoot and pregnant” so to speak and isolated from the opportunity to become educated and financially self-sufficient. Our Rabbis have chosen to instill fear of the outside world in the hearts of so many and to promote a culture of dependence on government welfare programs and the largesse of the orthordox / hassidic community structure. The result is communities of otherwise strong, healthy and intelligent young people who are hopelessly unable to compete in today’s job market and to provide basic necessities for their families. Expos like this one that I described are held around the country to masses of people like this, exclusive of the outside world where the jobs and opportunities actually are.
So what is the answer? How do we deal with this massive problem of illiteracy and high unemployment in our religious community and at the same time continue to maintain and promote the Torah true values that have sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years? Well, certainly not by isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. When Jacob our forefather took his family to Egypt – he and his sons and their children conducted business with the Egyptians openly and regularly. Our greatest Rabbis and community leaders throughout history have built business empires and held jobs at every level in the non-Jewish world. All of these Jews throughout the ages were able to find ways to work and to do business honestly and at the same time to maintain lives that were committed to Torah values including religious observance and study.
What changed in the last few decades that makes it so difficult for our Rabbis to understand this? And, how can it be that so many amongst us follow along with this narrow minded and unrealistic system of poverty and illiteracy for the masses?
In my opinion, we should not continue to sit idly by while so many of our young people sacrifice their futures on misguided and blindly followed directives regarding job training, education and business development. Our greatest Jewish business leaders who are the backbone of financial strength and charity in the country provide their children with secular education. Their business is conducted honestly in the non-Jewish world and they understand that not only is there nothing wrong with this – it’s to be encouraged for the benefit of our children’s future.
May it be that we wake up before the welfare programs run out of money and a large percentage of our people find themselves not only without an education or a job but without food and housing as well.