Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Hunger in 2013?

If you were one of the Americans calling their children or relatives in Eretz Yisroel last week to find out about the atmosphere under the looming threat of a wider Syrian war, you were probably surprised to learn that by and large, those milling through the streets of Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, and other chareidi enclaves were not preoccupied with talk of preparing bomb shelters and purchasing gas masks. Rather, if there is a feeling of dread on the chareidi street, it's from a much more clear and present danger: that of having almost every financial lifeline cut, and being thrust into abject poverty that could lead to starvation.

Starvation? You might be wondering. Today, in the 21st century, could people really starve?


Consider the following letter, received two weeks ago by a rov in Eretz Yisroel who runs the tzedakah organization in his city:


I want to ask you for help, even though I know that there are people who are more needy than me. I simply feel that we cannot continue this way. For a long time we have been taking loans to pay for food, our basic bills, tuition, etc., because my husband hasn’t been paid in kollel for six months…


I’m not asking for money so we could have chicken during the week — ever. I prepare a single chicken for all the Shabbos meals — for our family of ten. My husband says that maybe it’s too much, and we should prepare only half a chicken per Shabbos, but I told him that I think it’s too much. We try to save up — sometimes a week goes by when we don’t buy any fruits and vegetables. We delay buying our children new shoes even when they’re ripped, and we don’t take our child for the occupational therapy he needs.


Until recently, scraping together their miniscule Israeli salaries and relying heavily on kitzvat yelodim,government child payments, families were able to make ends meet. But with the current wave of cuts set in motion by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the plain reality is that many families are on the verge of starvation.




If these cuts were painful to all families in Israel — and, in fact, even the head of Bituach Le’umi was opposed to the cuts — those hit hardest were frum families, who, due to simple demographics, rely more heavily on the monthly child stipends.


To be clear: these payments are not government “handouts” as the Finance Minister would have you believe; the entire economy in Eretz Yisroel is built on a quasi-socialist model of high taxation. Citizens of countries with similar levels of taxation are generally given much greater benefits packages.


And the premise behind child stipends in all countries around the world is that in most societies, fertility rates have diminished drastically, and in many countries birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate. Governments provide financial benefits as inducements for larger families. It is also far less expensive to provide children with the basic nutrition they need than to deal with the health ramifications of malnutrition.


Some point to the fact that kitzvat yelodim were cut for all families as a sign that these cuts weren’t leveled specifically at frum families, but that reasoning doesn’t explain why Israel would cut benefits at a time when it needs help in the demographic department. Although Israel’s birthrate is higher than those of most developed countries around the world, it suffers from a more sinister demographic issue: the Jewish birthrate is dangerously lower than that of the Israeli Arab population, which could eventually lead to an Arab majority in Israel. In 2011, the last year for which Israeli’s Central Bureau of Statistics has published numbers, the number of people in the average Israeli household was 3.12, compared to 4.75 in the Arab sector. And over 33% of Arab families had four or more children, compared to only 9% of Jewish families.


One would think that under the threat of having Arabs control great portions of the government when the children they bear today reach voting age, the government would do all it could to encourage Jews to raise children by making the benefits package more attractive, rather than cutting their meager funding.


Perhaps the government is sending a subliminal message that although it takes the demographic threat seriously enough to consider ceding parts of its territory to Israeli Arabs, who would then not be counted toward Israeli statistics, the one thing they’re not willing to have is more chareidim, who would counter the Arab demographics, but who they are equally uninterested in having in control of their government?




While the average family in Israel can probably get by without the couple of hundred shekel that have been cut from their average-sized families, for chareidim with larger families, the cuts are far more devastating. A family with 6 children — a fair average for a frum family — used to receive over 1200 shekel per month, and will now receive approximately 840.


For most frum families, those 360 shekalim are not spent on luxuries, but on basic necessities like bread, milk, and an occasional chicken. Hard as it is to imagine, today, in 2013, there are families in Bnei Brak, Kiryat Sefer and Yerushalayim as well as across the country, who have to send their children to bed hungry, to school without any lunch, wearing torn shoes because there’s no money to purchase new ones.




If the cuts were leveled at chareidi families in general, those targeted most by the government are the kollel families.


And that is exactly what the government — and specifically Lapid — has in mind. At the same time that they have cut child stipends, they have also reduced or eradicated many other sources of funding kollel families relied on for their basic expenses. Kollel stipends dropped over 60%, from 720 shekel a month in July to 279 in August, and havtachat hachnasah, a stipend for women who are unable to work, was also cut.


The idea? As one of Lapid’s party faithful described it, they are hoping to “Empty the pool of the Torah world.”


Aside from these cuts, families might soon have to deal with an additional burden, as the stipends to yeshivos that won’t allow the government to dictate educational policies for them will have their funding choked off, and the yeshivos may have to turn to parents to fill in the gaps.


At a time when everything looks bleak, the ones who have to face a daily battle for the heart of Klal Yisroel are the roshei kollel — but they too see doom.


Is all lost? According to Rav Yaakov Hillel, who addressed a gathering that heralded the founding of a new initiative, it simply can’t be.


Rav Hillel cited the Novi’s teaching that when Manoach saw the great miracles performed by the malach who came to inform him and his wife that they would have a child (Shimshon) who would save Klal Yisroel, he grew very frightened. “Hashem is going to take our lives,” he exclaimed.


“If Hashem wanted to kill us,” his wife replied, “would He have shown us such wonders?”


250 sets of ears listened intently to this episode, wondering how it related to the subject matter for which they were gathered.


“Do you think that Hashem made such nissim, allowing the Torah world to reach such great proportions, in order to allow it to collapse?” Rav Hillel continued. “Before the war, if you add up the student body of all of the yeshivos in Europe together, you could get to about 3,000 bochurim, and there was a sprinkling of kollelim. Hashem created a situation in which a handful of rabbonim who were able to escape before or during the war were able to build the olam haTorah in Eretz Yisroel to proportions that were never before imaginable. We have thousands of avreichim who are mechabrei sefarim, we have yeshivos and kollelim all over the place. I heard from an elderly Yerushalmi Yid that he was present when Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel zt”l, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, made a lechaim on the day the yeshiva reached 100 talmidim. Now I pass by Rechov Shmuel Hanovi on the way to my kollel each day, and see literally thousands of yungeleit getting off of buses to start learning on time.


“Do you think Hashem made this nes so that it should all fall apart?” Rav Hillel asked rhetorically.




The meeting, which took place in the CityBook building in Kiryat Sefer, was the first of its kind. Under the banner, “Hisargenus Roshei HaKollelim B’eretz Yisroel,” the large hall filled to capacity, with each person representing many more. As Rav Shlomo Rosenstein, the MC of the program, pointed out, “As a Rosh Kollel, each of you represents anywhere from ten to hundreds or even thousands of yungeleit. So we are actually addressing rivevos bnei Yisroel in this room tonight — tens of thousands are sitting here.”


It would not be a stretch to say that the group gathered for the event may be the most embattled people in the frum world today. Though raising funds for kollelim was never easy, in recent months it has become a near nightmare. First, because the draconian cuts aimed particularly at yeshivos, and especially kollelim, have created greater budget deficits. A Rosh Kollel who, until recently, could rely on half of the stipend he pays his yungeleit to come from the government, has now seen that number shrink to an eighth of the total — or less.


The situation has led many roshei kollel to want to raise their hands in surrender, and close their mosdos. Some feel that fighting the battle against such brute force is just beyond their capabilities. Furthermore, they sense panic in the hearts of their yungeleit, and they feel as though they can no longer allay their fears, having already missed several months of payment.


The meeting was sponsored by an American philanthropist who has been living with this terrible trend, and felt that it was time to empower and strengthen the roshei kollel. To that end, he has stood behind a group of Torah leaders who have founded an umbrella organization pulling together all the roshei kollel — and Thursday night’s meeting was the first effort in that regard.


The first speaker was Rav Meir Kessler, rov of Kiryat Sefer, one of the Torah figures leading the organization. He set the tone for the evening by relating that shortly after the war, there was a meeting in Yerushalayim of the Vaad HaYeshivos, and all the roshei yeshiva in the room were despondent. There was literally no money for the yeshivos, and they couldn’t see where additional funding could come from.


“The Ponovezher Rov, the paradigm for anyone who raises funds for Torah, got up and said, ‘We have no right to be depressed! We have to realize that Hashem has the money in the world for the olam haTorah to survive — and it will survive. The question is only who will have the zechusim of being those who step in to support Torah.’


“We are in a similar situation today,” added Rav Kessler, “We don’t know where the money is going to come from, but we know that the olam haTorah cannot and will not collapse. The question is only who will have the zechusim to step in and save it from collapse.


Rav Dov Freund, rosh kollel Beis Abba, another key figure behind the event, explained why it is important to have an opportunity to meet and discuss the road ahead. “We all face questions when we’re traveling to raise funds — essentially the very same question Rav Aron Leib Shteinman heard on his first visit to America. People asked him, ‘Why do you need so many yungeleit sitting and learning?’”


The Rosh Yeshiva, who is generally very mild in his responses, retorted, “Why do you need so many gevirim in America?”


In prewar Europe, Rav Freund pointed out, there were maybe one or two gevirim in a shtetl — and that was if you used the term “gevir” loosely. A “gevir” in those days was someone who had all his basic needs covered and had a little left over. Today, Hashem put incredible shefa into the world. On one block in a typical frum community you can have 5 or 10 people who have more abundance than anyone in Europe had.


“Why did Hashem orchestrate such a change?” Rav Shteinman ventured. “Maybe because He wanted there to be money to support a bigger olam haTorah?”


“We have to send a message to the world that we will not allow a single yungerman who is capable of learning to leave kollel,” continued Rav Freund. “Gedolei Yisroel have determined that it’s vital for the olam haTorah in Eretz Yisroel to be robust, to counter the secularism and maintain Klal Yisroel. They have determined that every yungerman has to learn in kollel after his marriage, and that if he reaches a stage where he feels that he needs to leave kollel, he does so upon the advice of his rosh yeshiva or a gadol — not because some people in the government or baalei batim decided that it isn’t necessary to have so many yungeleit.


“The question is not whether the kollelim will close down. They won’t. The question is only who will have the zechusim of helping them.”




Rav Rosenstein pointed out that in today’s climate in Eretz Yisroel, the roshei kollel — even those who have a relatively small kollel of 10 or 20 yungeleit, or even a night kollel — have become leaders of battalion. The war the government is waging on the Torah community’s commitment to Yiddishkeit is being fought in every kollel, and the roshei kollel, who are responsible for the gashmiyus of the “troops,” have to see themselves as leaders. “You have to know that today, you are gedolei Torah.”


“What Rav Rosenstein said is no exaggeration,” added Rav Kessler. “To take the responsibility for a kollel today requires gadlusgadlus in Ahavas HaTorah and in bitachon b’Hashem.”


Nevertheless, as Rav Freund pointed out, the roshei kollel are facing an uphill — but that it’s not a new one that hasn’t been fought before. “Realize that being responsible for hachzakas haTorah was never easy,” he reminded the crowd. “It’s true that in recent decades, we saw a certain he’aras panim from Hashem, and it was easier to underwrite a yeshiva or kollel, and now that period is coming to an end. But if you go back to what it was like before the war, you find that the great roshei yeshiva — whether it was Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, or any others — had to travel for months at a time in order to cover the basic expenses for their yeshivos.


“It’s told that the bochurim in Rav Elchonon’s yeshiva loved him with such ahavas nefesh that when he would leave the yeshiva to go raise funds, they would cry bitterly as he left. One time, they decided to protest. They told him that they didn’t care if they had to eat the hardest crusts of bread, they didn’t want him to have to leave them.


“‘You don’t understand, kinderlach,’ Rav Elchonon replied, ‘I’m not going to pay for your food, I have mountains of past debt from funding the yeshivos.’”


“Nowadays,” said Rav Freund, “gedolei yisrael have instructed us not to take loans as the roshei yeshiva did before the war, apparently because the concept of ‘levu alei va’ani porei’a,’ Hashem paying back the loans, is dependent on a level of bitachon that we may not have. But the inherent concept is the same — you don’t close a Torah mosad because of lack of funds. If it means that you have to try harder, to go out on the road more, then so be it. It may mean that a rosh kollel who spent two months a year in chutz la’aretz will now have to spend three months there. But to let a mosad close because of the cuts is to subjugate ourselves before the son’ei Torah — and that’s something we cannot do.”




Rav Freund recounted a famous vort from the Ponovezher Rov, who noted that when it comes to a rotzei’ach beshogeg, the Torah commands us to put up signs on the roads to the arei miklat so he should be able to get there quickly, whereas in regard to aliyah l’regel, the Torah doesn’t require us to have road signs to Yerushalayim.


The Ponovezher Rov explained that when a killer — even an unintentional killer — is going to an ir miklat, we don’t want him asking people for directions and ending up in conversation with them. We therefore point him in the right direction without him having to stop and speak to people. When it comes to aliyah l’regel, Hashem wants people to stop and talk to others, to explain that he is going to do a mitzvah, and be mashpia on the other person.


That’s why, added the Ponovezher Rov, when someone goes collecting for a secular initiative, such as a college, Hashem arranges it that donors are extremely generous, and he is able to raise all the funds he needs and get back to his university before he has an adverse affect on more people. When it comes to those raising funds for Torah, Hashem deliberately keeps them out on the road so they should serve as positive influences in the lives of the people the solicit.


“It’s no secret,” added Rav Freund, “That we roshei kollel spend the bulk of our time visiting a small circle of 60 or 70 baalei batim. But that can’t continue. There are so many more people who can afford to support Torah, and we have to make it our business to reach those people. We have to broaden the circle of donors from 60 or 70 to 60,000 or 70,000.”




But the evening was meant to be mechazeik roshei kollel who often find their efforts rebuffed on the part of the people they visit, and Rav Yaakov Edelstein, one of the gedolei harabbanim in Eretz Yisrael who served as a guest speaker, provided much needed chizuk. He recalled that in 1969, shortly after he became the rov of Ramat HaSharon, Rav Shach summoned him. “You have to open a kollel or a yeshiva in your city,” he instructed.


“How am I going to fund a kollel?” the young Rav Edelstein wondered.


“You have to figure it out,” Rav Shach replied. “But if you can’t open a yeshiva or kollel, then give up your job there and come back to learn in Bnei Brak.”


Rav Edelstein had no choice but to find ten yungeleit and convince them to come to learn in the developing town, which until today has almost no Torah infrastructure. At the time, the Israeli government was investing in developing towns, and Reb Shachna Rotem, who was the head of the Ministry of the Interior, saw to it that just as they invest in every other cultural area (lehavdil), they would invest in the Torah infrastructure of Ramat Hasharon.


Since the money had to be funneled through the township, Rav Edelstein had to approach the irreligious mayor to receive permission to have the money pass through his municipality. The mayor agreed on two conditions: the yungeleit had to promise that they wouldn’t throw stones at cars on Shabbos (!), and they wouldn’t encourage people to vote against his ruling (secular) Mapai party in the next municipal elections. Rav Edelstein agreed to both stipulations, and shortly thereafter, the yungeleit started receiving their checks through the municipality.


This lasted for a number of months, and then one month the checks didn’t show up. Rav Edelstein called his contact in the municipality, but the man explained that the government hadn’t transferred the money that month.


“How soon will they transfer the money?” he asked.


“Bureaucracy is bureaucracy. It can take a week, or it can take half a year,” the man replied.


It didn’t take long for the gabbai in the kollel to approach Rav Edelstein, representing the rest of the yungeleit. “We didn’t move to Ramat HaSharon relying on Shachna Rotem. We were relying on Rav Yaakov Edelstein to pay our checks.”


Rav Edelstein got the message. “That first month,” he related, “I was able to cash in a fund that I received as the rov of the city, which made me a municipal employee. But before the next month, I spoke to some of my friends, and they told me that I should write letters to every single person I know and explain the situation.”


“That’s how I became a shnorrer,” Rav Edelstein says wryly. “But it’s been many decades since, and Boruch Hashem I haven’t missed a single month. Every Rosh Chodesh, I pay the yungeleit. If you realize that you MUST do it, you can.”


Rav Edelstein added that he does not make trips overseas because he’s makpid to stay within the confines of Eretz Yisroel, but that ultimately his early experience taught him that it’s the job of every rosh kollel to take responsibility that his yungeleit receive their stipends, and then they see siyata d’Shmaya in raising the funds.


Rav Kessler related a remarkable story taking place that serves as further proof that Hashem gives special siyata d’Shmaya to the roshei kollel who are willing to commit themselves for the task.


“I know a rosh kollel who just accepted another 80 yungeleit this zeman — knowing quite well that the government was cutting the funding. I was shocked, because I knew that he was already six months behind in paying the over 1200 yungeleit in his nationwide network of kollelim.


“‘How will you pay them?’ I asked.


“‘I have no idea,’ the rosh kollel replied, ‘but the rosh yeshiva [Rav Shteinman —ed.] told me that I should take in any yungeleit who want to join.’


“I went to Rav Shteinman, who we are fortunate to have lead the olam haTorah at his age,” continued Rav Kessler, “and asked him how he could tell this already struggling rosh kollel to take on 80 more yungeleit in such times.”


“‘Un vus ehr hut shoin iz yuh duh ah cheshbon?’ Rav Shteinman replied. “‘Until now he couldn’t either keep up, and he has to rely on bitachon. So once Hashem has to give him funding for the yungeleit he had until now, He can give it for the new yungeleit as well.’”


This rosh kollel was quite concerned, however, and Rav Shteinman told him — approximately two weeks ago — “balt vest du zen di gantze yeshuah — soon you’ll see a full salvation.”


“Sure enough,” concluded Rav Kessler, “He just paid two months’ worth of salaries this week, and he’s still going to be able to pay more before Rosh Hashanah.”




Rav Edelstein explained that there’s another difficulty facing roshei kollel that regular institutions don’t face.


“Once, someone in my kollel who had a chavrusashaft with a yungerman from America mentioned that his chavrusa’s shver was very wealthy, and he could easily give us a large donation. The problem was that his shver is a businessman, and he wanted to know what he would get for his money. Now, we couldn’t promise him that a building would be named after him, because we have no building. We learn in a local shul. We couldn’t even promise to hang up a sign bearing his name in the lunchroom, because we don’t serve meals!


“I tried to explain that this person would reap the incredible reward of limud haTorah in both This World and The Next, but he wanted something tangible. In the end, I wrote him a letter stating that twice a year, we will be mispallel for him either at the Kosel or in Meron. He liked the idea, and he gave me the donation.”


Rav Edelstein stressed that he has proof that the current situation is a test for us, not something that we should blame on the government and try to fight out with them.


“One of my grandsons told me during the summer that his kollel was closing — not because of government cuts, because the government’s stipend was only a portion of their kollel checks anyway. Rather, the problem was that there was a businessman in America underwriting the additional part of the stipend, and he informed the rosh kollel that he couldn’t continue to pay.


“Just yesterday,” Rav Edelstein continued, “a yungerman from Yerushalayim told me almost the exact same story — his kollel was closing because the baalebos from Europe who was funding the bulk of the additional portion of their salaries was cutting the funding.


“We have a klal from Rav Chaim Brisker, which he derives from a gemara, that when you can determine that something is the result of three isolated causes or a single cause, you assume that it’s due to the single cause. So we can see these as isolated causes — the government, the philanthropist from America, and the baalebos from Europe are individual cases — or we can assume that all three came from a single gezeirah min haShomayim to see how serious we are about continuing to learn or to be machzik Torah. Obviously, we should see it as the latter.”




In the coming months, the organizational efforts of the Hisargenus Roshei Kollel will begin to formulate a program to reinvigorate the kollelim and lomdei Torah in Eretz Yisroel, but even in the short term, there’s a call to action.


“We know that many people in America feel frustrated about the situation here,” admits Rav Kessler. “They feel that this lack of funding was building on itself all the years, and someone should have done something before the situation got so desperate.


“At this point, however, is that really a calculation? When you have people starving, do you tell them, ‘I told you twenty years ago that this system wouldn’t last?’ Will that hold up in Heaven?”


During the Yomim Noraim, everyone seeks zechusim. And the zechusim are coming right to our doors, begging us to come to the aid of our brethren in Eretz Yisroel. Not because the roshei kollel and gabba’ei tzedakah want to be in America, but because they have no choice.


Because at the end of the day, regardless of the causes that brought us to this situation — whether it’s a government bent on secularizing Jews or a lack of earning capability in Eretz Yisroel — our brothers, and their little children, are starving. Will we chas veshalom turn our backs on them, or will we take this opportunity to show Hashem that we have compassion for all of His children, so that He should take compassion on us?



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