A Nickel More or a Nickel Less?

Punishment. It seems that so many of us favor it as the preferred motivator. Students, children, employees. You name it. If we want them to do something, or not do something, we automatically assume a punitive stance of “or else.” In the recent “Fighting Their Way Out of a Plastic Bag,” Hamodia highlighted the current controversy in Albany about the proposed bag-ban. Personally, I find it somewhat difficult to find merit in the dramatic lambasting of this legislation as “making it even harder for struggling New Yorkers to feed their families.” Of course, I could be wrong (as I often am), but it seems to me that at 5 cents a bag, with a bit of shift and shuffle, it could be more than made up for on different fronts.

An argument that did resonate, though, was quoted from Simcha Felder: “Everyone agrees — we all want to protect the environment. Period. What the mayor isn’t addressing is why the city has to always be punitive. What my colleagues and I object to is the approach. Why can’t it be positive? Why don’t you give a nickel back to New Yorkers for a change?”

It seems his point is this: Yes, we must find a way to dramatically reduce plastic waste. Yes, the ban-cost will probably succeed as it has in so many other places in the world already. Yes, the nickel charge is not likely to impose financial hardships in the grand scheme of things. And, yes, it will increase negativity and resentment. Followed, of course, by the salient suggestion of giving shoppers a nickel refund for every plastic bag unused, instead of charging them for each bag used.

Reward as a motivator instead of punishment. This point struck a chord for me as it is something that I, as a Rosh Kollel, struggle with.

Although, from the outside, kollel as an institution may appear monolithic as an entity, the reality is quite the opposite. There are full-day kollelim. Morning kollelim. Afternoon kollelim. Evening kollelim. Community kollelim. Outreach kollelim. Yeshivishe kollelim (that focus on in-depth learning of the masechtos that are traditionally learned in yeshivos). Halachah kollelim. Daf Yomi kollelim. And the list goes on and on.

Paralleling the extensive spiritual range is the variation regarding the im ein kemach component. Some kollelim provide a flat-rate stipend with no strings attached. Some are high-paying (relatively speaking, that is). Some, not quite so. There are kollelim that bring exams into the bottom-line equation. And so on and so forth. And then, of course, there is the widespread implementation of “shemiras sedarim.” To simplify this oft-intricate system, shemiras sedarim basically means that if a kollel member misses a certain amount of time, his pay may be docked.

Having been in the business of running kollelim for about a decade, I can personally testify to the stickiness and often downright unpleasantness of this system. It is something that, as a Rosh Kollel, I have struggled with for many years and continue to do so.

For starters, avreichim are paid peanuts. Maybe there are a handful of kollelim — usually in further-afield locations that feel desperate to infuse Torah into their community — that really appreciate their avreichim and pay appropriately; but, as a group, avreichim receive stipends that are, simply put, pitiful. On top of that, the overwhelming majority of avreichim will receive no formal recognition for their many years of study and high level of academic achievement. Ever. Not only will the majority never be awarded any equivalent of a B.A. or Master’s degree (and certainly not a Ph.D.!), but they will not even be treated with the regard which they inherently so deserve. On the contrary, if any attention is directed their way — whether from the inside or out — it is almost exclusively of the demanding variety. “You’ve got to spend more time learning on Fridays and Shabbos!” “Bein hazmanim is not meant to be a vacation from learning!” “You’ve got to be putting in 60 minutes to every hour; 60 seconds to every minute!” And so on, and so forth. Rare, indeed, is the occasion that an avreich hears a sincerely expressed word about how wonderful he is (and his wife, as well, for supporting him in his endeavors!) for keeping the world extant.

On top of all that, we penalize them by docking their pay for latenesses or absences! As a person responsible for a kollel, I completely understand the drive to “get the most bang for your buck,” but I cannot help but wonder if maybe we could be going about this in a slightly different way.

To paraphrase Mr. Felder: Why do we always have to be punitive? Why can’t it be positive? Why don’t we give a few dollars more to avreichim, for a change?