Time to Open Hearts and Eyes

The facts are indisputable.

Never before in recent history have so many Jews living in Eretz Yisrael been in such dire need.

At last week’s Agudath Israel of America convention, a moving documentary was shown. Entitled “The Human Faces of Poverty in the Holy Land,” it pointed out that the poverty rate in Israel stands at 20.9 percent, making Israel the poorest developed country in the world.

Income inequality in Israel is rampant. The rich may be wealthy, but the poor — many of them chareidim with large families — are destitute.

The documentary described how families scramble each month to cover their most basic expenses. One woman recounted her difficulty in paying her electric bill in this way: “Once, I was afraid of the dark. Now, I’m afraid of the light…”

This poverty is not only affecting Israeli residents’ quality of life — it is affecting their very health and survival. And this dire situation exists despite the very generous tzedakah that comes to Eretz Yisrael from abroad.

The hallowed mesorah of sending desperately needed funds to help support the yishuv in the Holy Land has been an integral part of the day-to-day lives of the Jews of the Diaspora for generations.  Even the poorest of Jews scraped together money to send to their less-fortunate brethren in Eretz Yisrael. But contemporary urgent calls for even more help have been met with mixed reactions.

Many noble souls have answered the present-day call of the hour. Some wonderful initiatives have been launched, and more are in the planning stages.

Others, however, including some within our community, have reacted far less positively. They respond to this call with indifference, and carry on with their daily lives as if everything is normal. When pressed, these individuals defend their attitude by suggesting that kollel yungeleit close their gemoras and go to work. As if that is the solution to the national problem of poverty, which embraces unemployment, underemployment, and below-poverty level wages.

The kollel issue has become the catchall phrase being used by those who don’t grasp — or who don’t wish to understand — the scope of the problem.

This isn’t about kollelim — this is about across-the-board dire poverty.

The current economic structure is pushing an ever-larger number of families below the poverty line. Interestingly enough, a significant majority of poverty-stricken homes are led by at least one full-time breadwinner. Furthermore, for many large families, the costs of living dramatically exceed the earning power of two working parents, who still can’t make ends meet despite their best efforts.

In countless other cases, individuals are desperately seeking jobs, but employment opportunities that command a livable wage are few and far between. Compounding the problem is the failure of governmental authorities and others in a position to help to come up with suitable solutions.

Even critics of the kollel system acknowledge that the learning of Torah is the spiritual sustenance of the world, and the justification for its continued existence, under the guidance of Gedolei Yisrael.

The current system of kollel life was put in place by the Gedolei Yisrael of yesteryear as an integral part of the efforts to rebuild an olam haTorah that had been decimated by the Nazis, and has been continued by, ybl”c, the Torah leaders of our generation. Any changes to this system can only be made by our Gedolim.

A little soul-searching will lead to the conclusion that these attacks on the kollel system are in reality little more than weak excuses inspired by an eagerness to absolve oneself of  obligations to one’s fellow man. After all, the subject of all the inflammatory statements and accusatory declarations are people — young, innocent children, precious souls — who need food, clothing and shelter.

How can we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters who are faced with these tragic circumstances? What difference do our philosophies make when innocent babies are malnourished?

One idea that has already begun to produce very positive results is the Adopt-a-Kollel initiative, a program that seeks to pair every kollel in Eretz Yisrael with a shul in the Diaspora that will adopt that kollel as its own.

The Adopt-a-Kollel office —non-profit and independently funded — works with each individual Rav to match him up with a kollel that fits his kehillah. Shul members commit to a monthly donation to that kollel. The collective monthly amount offers relief to the yungeleit who are buckling under the deep governmental cuts to families, compounded by the cuts to yeshivos and kollelim.

In addition, there are numerous remarkable and reputable organizations that provide food, clothing and even baby formula to the children of poverty-stricken families in Israel. Many of us in the Diaspora are acquainted with or related to a struggling family in Eretz Yisrael. Some of us are already sending funds to them, and now is the time to increase the amount. This is also the time to start finding new ways to augment the amounts being disbursed.

The resources that exist on this side of the ocean can do much to alleviate the plight of our brethren in Israel.

In a conversation with Hamodia, noted askan Dr. Irving Lebovics of Los Angeles put it succinctly:

“There is an immediate problem that must immediately be addressed. When families are forced to go without food, and medicine, and children are malnourished and sick, it is not the time to engage in philosophical debates.

“First we have to help our brethren in need, and help them in a significant way. There is no excuse for shirking that responsibility because one wants to make a statement about whether or not we should have kollelim.

“We have a hundreds-of-years old tradition of supporting those in the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael who chose lives of poverty in order to perpetuate the pure learning of Torah. Their time of need is not the moment to debate the validity of that decision.

“Having said that, we should engage in explaining the importance and value of those ‘sitting and learning’ and why we should feel obligated to support the kollel system both in America and in Israel. Critics, who won’t step forward to help alleviate the desperate situation  in Artsainu Hakedoshah, however, do not deserve a seat at that discussion table.”

We can’t agree more.

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