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Learning The Hard Way (Part I)

In my previous column I wrote about an ehrlich young man (who does not live in New York) who was a college educated earner with an excellent income (his wife won’t have to work if she so chooses) who learned in his spare time but was having a hard time getting an in-town shidduch because most of the girls wanted full-time learners. These girls came from families whose parents had gone to college and had fathers who were either professionals or in business, but they were determined to be earners – so that their husbands could be the learners.


I received a barrage of phone calls and e-mails from parents who wanted to share their bewilderment, frustration and even anger about this state of affairs in the frum community. Why was it a “negative” for a young man, after learning in a yeshiva for a number of years, to work after getting married? When it came to being suggested a shidduch, why was earning a living a handicap? Why were hard-working middle aged parents – who themselves were living from paycheck to paycheck after paying yeshiva tuition for several children, the mortgage/rent, car payments, health insurance, food, clothing bar/bat mitzvah and wedding expenses, expected to pay another rent and other living expenses for an able-bodied son or son-in-law?


One person who contacted me suggested that many of these young men felt they had no choice but to become full-time learners because they were afraid of being turned down for shidduchim – like Avi. They knew they weren’t cut out for kollel but felt trapped by peer pressure or societal expectations that had swung to the “right” to literally do the “right thing” or suffer the “consequences” – a prolonged bachelorhood.


Another reader mentioned a startling statistic – one that I had heard years earlier from another source which stated that there were rebbeim and roshei yeshiva who felt that only 5-10 percent of the young men learning in kollel were the genuine articles. Despite their best efforts, many of the yungeleit just did not have the talent and ability to absorb what they were learning. To paraphrase it, not everybody is cut out to be a nuclear physicist – or even close. Other boys – not as sincere about learning but not motivated to try something else – have figured out that they can get a free ride to easy street with a wealthy father-in-law. They are “benchwarmers” but not learners in the real sense of the word.


What does all this mean to the community at large? Problems on several levels. You have fathers who have to postpone their leisure time – time they could use for their own learning – in order to work longer or harder to generate the income needed to “help” the learning couples in the family; mothers who also have to work, stretched emotionally and physically as they tend to the needs of their still-at-home youngsters, their married children, aging parents who, for example, can no longer drive themselves to their myriad medical appointments, or make their own meals, who have no time to address their own needs; young wives of learners who are either working and/ or in school getting graduate degrees so they can support the family, while dropping off their babies to sitters, some better than others, where their babies may be competing for attention and care with several equally needy infants; and you have girls from middle class families who are “undesirables” in terms of a shidduch simply because the boys realize that the best way to avoid all these stressful situations – that can be a threat to everyone’s shalom bayis – is to marry into money. If the average home in a frum neighborhood is over half a million dollars (conservative estimate) and rent for a three-bedroom apartment is over $2,000, how will he afford all this – unless he himself comes from money? The prudent thing to do is to ignore the “poor” girls. And so they grow older and unmarried, wonderful girls from heimische families who may have to “lower their standards” and date an “earner”.


I was taught that a father has to teach his son three things: Torah, a trade, and how to swim. What happened to the second one? (Thank God for summer camp – or else many boys wouldn’t know the last one either.) The Tannaim and the Amoraim, the gedolei hador of their generations all worked for a living. Some were “professionals,” others worked in “blue collar” trades.


If “dirtying” their hands and supporting their families was good enough for these Torah Sages, why isn’t it acceptable for the youth of this generation?

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