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November 24, 2014 / 2 Kislev, 5775
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Gaming the System

The idea of directing every single male in all of Jewry into a life of Torah study as the ideal (to the exclusion of any other productive endeavor) is anathema to the very idea of a Jewish nation.
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Photo Credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90

One of the more troubling issues for me about the current right-wing push for all of their students to learn Torah full time for as long as possible (well into their marriage and long after having a number of children to support) is the way in which this is financed.

I have long ago expressed my disagreement with this policy as it is currently applied. The idea of directing every single male in all of Jewry into a life of Torah study as the ideal (to the exclusion of any other productive endeavor) is anathema to the very idea of a Jewish nation.

I am not going to go into the details as to why I feel that way in this post other than to say that I do not believe God wants His people to not fully utilize all the individually different talents He has granted them. Every individual Jew is different with talents in a broad range of different fields. They ought to choose those fields where their talents lie.

For those whose talents are uniquely geared to Torah study – that is the best use of their time. But for those whose talents are suited elsewhere, they should find out what they are, utilize them that way and thus make a far greater contribution to God, Judaism, and the Jewish people.

The Lakewood ideal is to sublimate those talents into full time Torah study.

One of the terrible consequences of this push for every male to spend his life learning Torah is the material cost. This is most acutely felt in Israel. But Americans who do this aren’t exactly living the good life either. Learning full time means they do not earn any money outside of a meager stipend a Yeshiva like Lakewood pays. Those funds cannot possibly support them enough to put a roof over their heads, put food on the table, send their children to private religious schools (even those with very low tuition) and other expenses required just to live a bare-bones modest lifestyle.

While it is true that many Kollel wives work to support their husbands they rarely make enough to support their very large families. Sometimes there are parents and in-laws that help. But that too is not enough, and is drying up a source of income with every succeeding generation. More than ever young people are being convinced to spend their lives in a Beis HaMedrash well into their prime earning years.

One of the ways Lakewood helps its Avreichim is by teaching them how to game the system. By this I mean applying for every possible federal dollar available to students who need financial aid to continue their advanced studies beyond high school. One of the most commonly used federal programs is the Pell Grant.

The Pell Grant was created 40 years ago by then Senator Claiborne Pell to provide financial aid to low income students enabling them to access higher education. While these Avrechim do apparently qualify under Pell Grant guidelines I nevertheless find this to be a misuse of the system.

I do not accuse them of stealing from the government. But there is no way that the Pell grant was ever intended to be used as supplemental income. Which is for the most part how it is used.

A lengthy article in the Forward has taken a closer look at this situation. Here are some of their troubling observations.

Said Heather Valentine, vice president of public policy at the Council for Opportunity in Education put it:

“It’s not just about creating the access to higher education… It’s about making sure that students are… graduating and getting placed in jobs.”

I think that Lakewood and the rest of the Yeshiva world that promotes full time learning understands this. This is how they have addressed the issue:

Proponents of yeshiva education point out that critical thinking and argumentative skills that develop while poring over Talmud — not to mention grueling day-long study sessions broken only for prayer and meals — serve students well for careers in many professions, particularly business and law.

In her book, “Heart of the Stranger: A Portrait of Lakewood’s Orthodox Community,” Botein-Furrevig said the current CEO of BMG (Lakewood), Kotler’s grandson Aaron Kotler, told her that BMG has “a successful job placement service” for graduates and that many students go on to careers in “business, the rabbinate, academia, medicine, finance, law or technology.”

Is this not Gneivas Daas (deception)? I have no doubt that there have been and still are students who have attended Yeshivos like Lakewood and have gone on to a wide variety of successful careers like those mentioned by Lakewood CEO, Rabbi Aaron Kotler.

But to imply that they have a successful job placement service in the fields of medicine, law and technology when that is not the case is simply wrong.

I believe the opposite is true. With the exception of helping their students find jobs in Chinuch or similar jobs, they do nothing to support students seeking careers in any of those fields.

They don’t even approve of schools like Touro and consider a lifestyle outside of learning to be less than desirable. I will never forget the remarks Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Malkiel Kotler made along those lines about Dr. Bernard Lander – founder of Touro upon his passing

I understand the need for Lakewood and similar Yeshivos to help their students find legitimate and legal sources of financial aid. But I do not understand misleading the public about how these schools live up to the expectations of helping their students find decent careers – when doing so is anathema to its philosophy.

If that isn’t Genivas Daas, I do know what is. Need based stealing does not justify doing it. Even if it is done for the lofty goal of learning Torah.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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