Monday, September 5, 2011

Questions about Jewish life in Israel

I received a couple of questions about life in Israel by email which I would like to share with you here.

Mrs. P writes: "I was very surprised to learn from your blog that in Israel, (the "epicenter" of the Jewish faith, if you will) the norm seems to be mothers putting their kids in day care.

Are Hasidic people and Orthodox Jews a minority in Israel? I always just assumed Israel was very traditional, like the small traditional Jewish neighborhoods here in Manhattan and Brooklyn."

In historical perspective, it must be remembered that the founders of the modern State of Israel were, upon the whole, highly secularized European Jews with strong communist influence. Many of them were only reminded of their being Jewish by the terrible persecution of Jews and the tragedy of Holocaust. Their motive in coming here was not religious, but rather, a blend between the nationalistic and the defensive: "I do not believe in the G-d of Israel, I do not adhere to Jewish tradition, but Jews must have their own homeland so they can properly defend themselves against antisemitism."

This attitude explains the essence of Israel as a secular, not a religious state; also, from here you can trace the influence of the kibbutz, the social-communist unit, on the overall Israeli culture. Another obviously communist hint is the compulsory service of women in the army, a practice unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Of course, many religious Jews came to settle Israel as well, but upon the whole, the policy was and is secular, and furthermore, many religious Jews who came from less developed countries, such as the area of the Magreb and Yemen, were pressured to leave their "primitive" ways. 

Today, the society of Israel consists of a wide spectrum, from the completely secular (which used to be a majority, but are proportionally shrinking because they simply did not produce enough children to uphold that status) to somewhat traditional, to religious of various lifestyles, Hassidim of different groups, and more. It's really a very heterogenous society, which is part of what makes living here so interesting.

Regarding daycare: I think that upon the whole, it is of course more acceptable to stay home with one's children in religious communities, but even here, most women work outside the home. Some of them have very large families, which of course makes it all even  more stressful. And in the stricter Orthodox circles, where the husband studies in the Yeshiva full-time for a measly scholarship, often the wife works outside the home to support him, a practice which I find extremely unfair.

Following the last point, Miss S. asks: "What do you think about Kollel families? You mention many times that you think it is extremely important for a woman to be a homemaker, but of course, that is only possible if the husband works full time to be the breadwinner of the family. In Jerusalem, there are many families where the woman is the breadwinner and sends her babies to daycare at 3 months old because the husband is learning in Kollel all day and not earning anything beyond a measly stipend. If women are meant to be homemakers and men the breadwinners, then why is the Kollel family model more typical amongst religious families in Israel?"

I have shared my view on this beforeIn a nutshell, my thoughts are as following: in the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, the husband takes upon himself the explicit obligation to support his wife. No religious studies may allow him to say this responsibility is now lifted off his shoulders. It is extremely unfair and taxing for a mother of a young growing family to also be the main breadwinner. Also, it seems, in the circles where it is common, there is an unhealthy attitude telling girls they are not spiritual enough unless they give up their right to financial support from their husbands. Some perhaps can pull it off without obvious damage to their health and sanity, but far too many are exhausted and worn out.

The practical solution, in my eyes, would be to reduce the number of full-time scholars. Not every man is meant to immerse himself entirely in study, and a society based on a large percentage of Torah scholars cannot function without unjustly burdening those who work. In my opinion, only the most talented should dedicate all their time to studying Torah. This would make it possible to give them higher scholarships and the possibility to honorably support their families without putting an impossible burden on the wife.


Kathleen said...

I was just wondering if you knew anything about non Jews in your country and how the relations between them and Jews is. Aside from the Palistinian conflict.

Miriam * A Happy Kollel Wife * said...

As a very happy kollel wife with 4 children under the age of 5 and one on the way, I must say that I am very disturbed by your post. It seems to be based very much on false assumptions rather than experience, since you are obviously not a kollel wife.

1. Nowhere in the kollel lifestyle is a man freed of his responsibility to support his wife and family. Rather, this is an agreement between a husband and wife who share a common goal and dream. The wife willingly takes on the position of main breadwinner, and continues only as long as she feels she is managing.

Couples speak about how long they would like to continue in kollel while they are dating, and because this is considered basic material to be covered on the first few dates, you don't end up with a woman who wants her husband to learn for 2-3 years married to a man who envisions 10 years.

Very few people thing that it is unfair for a woman to move with her Doctor husband to the middle of the African desert and forgo all modern conveniences so that he can provide free medical care to ill and starving children. They see that what he is doing is important, and more than that, they realize that she is just an important partner in this mission of mercy.

A woman who marries a man learning in kollel does so because she feels that he is doing something incredibly important, and she wants to be a part of it. The gemara is clear that the learning of an unmarried man cannot compare to the learning of a married man. It is not about him doing what he wants to do and her slaving away to make it happen, but the two of them combining efforts for something that they both feel passionate about. She is given just as much credit for his learning as he is-- if not more.

2. Kollel is not at the expense of the children. First of all, most, but not all kollel wives work. Of those that work, many work at night, or in the morning when their children are at school. Many stop working when they have a baby, or do work from home that can be done during nap-times or while the children are playing. Of the 70+ wives in my husband's kollel, I only know of 2 who work until 4pm.

Of course, if you argue that the children of any working mother automatically suffer, then I guess you would say the same here, but keep in mind that most kollel wives are home a lot more than your typical "working mother."

3. The impression you give of the husbands is one of a haughty, uncaring person. Au contraire! Kollel men are encouraged to do everything they can to make things easier for their wives, both through the Torah that they learn and from their Rabbis.

Kollel men help with childcare and household chores by and large. If you step out in the streets in a Charedi community at 8:00 AM or 1:30 PM, you will see nearly as many men pushing strollers as women. There is a famous story about the Steipler Rabbi, who when a young yeshiva student came to him for advice before his marriage, the rabbi handed him a broom.

Any rabbi who is approached by a kollel couple where the woman feels overwhelmed and unable to continue will offer practical advice to them, from the husband taking a part-time job to taking household help if affordable to leaving kollel if that is what is necessary. No one is ignoring the husband's obligation to support his wife and family, and if it doesn't work anymore than he will happily step up and do what needs to be done.

Miriam * A Happy Kollel Wife * said...

(continued from previous comment)

4. I went to typical Beis Yaakov schools, and I was never, ever given the impression that I was "not spiritual enough unless they give up their right to financial support from their husbands." The value of learning Torah and the benefits of a kollel life were explained (and yes, there are many benefits!), but there was also a very clear message that kollel is not for everyone and the important thing is to marry an Eved HaShem (servant of G-d) and Ben Torah (a person who personifies the Torah's teachings) as opposed to a kollel man.

In fact, when my father spoke to my husband's rabbi before we went out to find out about my husband, the rabbi started asking questions about me, saying that he wanted to make sure that this was what I really wanted and what I was dedicated to.

The majority of the women I know in my age group (+-3 years) are not kollel wives. Those that are are women who truly and sincerely wanted this life, and the others do not feel guilty about their choice to not be in kollel.

(Perhaps you are referring to the fact that many couples are encouraged to spend the first year in kollel. This is a period of time where there are no children and the parents are usually supporting the couple, giving them the opportunity to start off their marriage on a spiritual note. After the year, these women find themselves in the same position as any other woman who's husband is working, not learning, and they do not have any "burden")

5. Most kollel families are not living in abject poverty. Some are, but the vast majority are not. Many only stay in kollel as long as the parents are supporting them, and the parents who do support do so because they feel that the learning is valuable and they want to be a part of it.

During the last six years we have been in various financial situations. We have had extra money, and we have had no money, and now we are in a very comfortable financial situation (by our standards, meaning we have what we need, savings in the bank, and don't panic when the fridge needs a $200 repair). While things have been tough at times, we always knew that if needed my husband could get a job, but things never got to that point.

Are there women who are unhappy with the kollel lifestyle? Probably. There are unhappy people in every lifestyle. But they are the exception, not the rule, and should not be looked at as the persona of kollel life.

If you call up any Rosh Kollel (head of a kollel) and ask him, he will tell you that a man is obligated to support his wife financially, unless she waives this obligation (and this is not a permanent waiver). He will tell you that the husband of a woman who is overwhelmed and unhappy should go out and get a job.

If a woman is in that situation and her husband is ignoring her needs and staying in learning, then this is a couple with marriage problems. You can't look at that as the norm, because fortunately it's not.

I am also honestly pretty surprised that you would speak so harshly about a group of people who live a different life than you. You are on the outside looking in, making assumptions and judgements, and negative ones at that, the very thing that you find difficult coming from people who look down at you for being a stay at home mother.

If you want to answer your reader's question about kollel families, a lifestyle that you are not part of, than you would be best off interviewing a kollel wife on your blog, rather than presenting assumptions as fact.

Anonymous said...

If they were to reduce the number scholars then they could provide housing and all the basic needs for the scholars and their families. Instead of just giving them money, which people could potentially just mismanage and the wife end up working anyway, nearly everything is just provided as payment for their studies. Seems like that could work.

Rose said...

Wow, thanks for an amazing insight into general Israeli life Anna, you've swept away some of my assumptions.

TanyaL said...

This post is fascinating, thank you so much. I've had many of the same assumptions and then layers of confusion because I know so very little about Israeli life.

Thank you.

Miu said...

This was a very interesting insight; the first question also already came to my mind.
I didn't know the background, so thank you for explaining.

Mrs. Anna T said...


Thank you for taking the time to comment so extensively. It is satisfying to hear from someone who is actually living the lifestyle in question, and is happy with it. I congratulate you on being content with the choices your family has made.

As you rightly gathered, my own lifestyle is vastly different from that of a Kollel family. My husband works and I stay home with the children. The reason I became interested in the issue of Kollel families in the first place was when I came across articles, columns and online discussions by women who are, or previously have been Kollel wives, and who felt exhausted and burned out.

You say that no matter what lifestyle you take, there will be people who are discontent. But the plea of these women was so sound, so reality based, that it can hardly be ignored. It makes perfect sense for a mother of young children to say she feels she cannot also function in the role of primary breadwinner.

Now, of course theoretically the arrangement is made when both husband and wife are equally committed to upholding this sort of choice for their family. But since these things are discussed before marriage, it would make sense to me some women don't actually know what they are signing up for, before children come into the picture. Then I wonder how many are pressured to keep on going with what they would now rather relinquish.

Anonymous said...

Hi, "Mrs P" here! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! I look forward to being a longtime reader of your blog.

Rachel said...

I am an American Jew who lived in Israel for a year. We lived in Ramat Gan about two blocks for B'nei Barak, so I had ample opportunity to observe and interact with both secular and religious people during our stay. We also traveled throughout the country. I hope this comment causes no offense. I love reading your blog! If I am wrong in my characterization, please say so. What I have written is based on my experiences of both secular and religious communities in Israel, as we formed friendships within both during our year there. I think that part of source of the questions you have received lies in significant cultural differences between the two countries.

I think a big thing that is difficult for Americans in this issue is that Americans have a very strong "pioneer" element to our culture. For a physical example, many Americans live outside of town--strictly speaking affiliated with a town (their address), but living in a house or apartment many kilometers from any economic center and possibly from any other residence. I tried explaining that to an Israeli friend once, and he was utterly confused. Understandably so! Driving up and down Israel, one sees towns separated by uninhabited areas.

Compared to Israel and other European or European-style societies, the vast majority of Americans are pretty socially and financially conservative. And conservative has a different meaning too.

We value less government and tolerate less government interference than Israelis do, for example. And most seriously religious people in the US strive for self-sufficiency. Not to mention that our government is forbidden from involving itself in religious matters. So the heavy reliance of Israeli religious Jews on government funds (and high unemployment rate among religious Jewish men) would be unimaginable and repulsive for most religious Americans of any creed. And with that difference comes the difference in government systems: parliamentary parties are usually issue based (representing a specific interest), whereas American political parties represent different political ideologies. From an American perspective, therefore, there is no truly liberal or conservative Israeli political party.

The other thing is that there is a much bigger gray area between religious and secular in America. It is (in my experience) assumed that secular people in Israel are fairly permiscuous, whereas most secular Americans live much as the religious ones do, but don't attend any kind of service. For the most part, there is very little difference in dress, diet, profession, or behavior between religious and secular in the US. Israeli society is much more dichotomous.

Within religious society there is also a difference in world view. From what I observed, read, and was told by religious Israelis, many practices seen in B'nei Barak and among the religious in Jerusalem exist to prevent temptation. Most American religious people (again, of any creed) focus on developing the will power to resist temptation rather than preventing temptation from occurring. That does not mean we go to places that encourage bad behavior, but rather, we assume that temptation can and will happen in life, and that the most important thing is to be able to resist it. Personally, I think a measure of both is best, but again, it is a big difference in how religious people approach life in the two countries.

In short, Americans are much more individualistic than Israelis generally are, which has its ups and downs. Personally, it was a HUGE culture shock, coming from small-town, rural, conservative America to a suburb of Tel Aviv. And American Orthodox Jews are very different from their Israeli counterparts.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Rachel, thank you for this well thought-out, well-written comment. I agree with pretty much all you have said, and actually wanted to include some of it in my post, but time was too pressing.