Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Iyun”: Deliberations > The Charedi Aliyah Opportunity

The Charedi Aliyah Opportunity

Israeli Charedim are often asked the question: “Why can’t you be more like Charedim abroad?” Charedi society in Israel is different because Israel is home, but this does not mean we have nothing to learn from diaspora communities. Properly harnessed, Charedi Olim can be an important force for the future.

Elul 5781, August 2021

“For chutznikim—it’s okay.”

As a chutznik myself—I came to Israel at the age of 17 to study in the Yeshiva system and made formal Aliyah in my mid-twenties—I am aware that speaking with a foreign accent enables you to get away with more. There are still red lines, of course, but much that is “unacceptable” for Israeli Charedim and liable to incur some level of social sanction—dining in restaurants, women drivers, jogging in shorts, academic studies, and so on, depending on the specific sub-community—is met with tacit approval for those from outside the country. Chutznikim are different.

Indeed, Charedim outside of Israel, where many don’t even call themselves by the term “Charedim” so prevalent in Israel—I will nonetheless use the term for the sake of convenience—live a substantially different model from that of Israeli Charedi society. This is not true of all communities, and within some (especially certain Chassidic groups) the similarity is great, but it is broadly the case. Most prominently, it is a model—again, I generalize, as I will throughout—that allows a combination of Torah and derech eretz, engagement in the spiritual and eternal alongside a deep involvement in the here and now. Walking through an Orthodox area in New York or New Jersey on a Sunday morning, it is perfectly ordinary to find Shuls filled with men dedicating part of their free day to Torah study. Those who successfully combine Torah study and growth with a successful material life are seen to be living the Jewish ideal.

Charedim outside of Israel, where many don’t even call themselves by the term “Charedim” so prevalent in Israel, live a substantially different model from that of Israeli Charedi society. This is not true of all communities, and within some (especially certain Chassidic groups) the similarity is great, but it is broadly the case

This is not the case for Israel, where Charedi society presents a dichotomy: you are either here or there, in the study hall or outside of it. When Rabbi David Leibel established Kollel frameworks in which students invested their mornings in Torah studies and their afternoons in computer programming, the initiative was slammed in rabbinic broadsides not for the studies per se, but for the combination. Much like the ban against Yeshiva high schools, the amalgamation of Torah and vocational studies was proclaimed kilayim, shaatnez. It is hardly surprising that those who make their way out of Kollel and into the Israeli workforce often experience a lowering in religious commitment and Torah engagement, manifest on a community and family level as well as in private.

Israeli Charedi society espouses strong isolationism by design. This strategy, which has enjoyed great success since the establishment of the State of Israel, has allowed the community to preserve its religious convictions and way of life notwithstanding the dangers and pressures of surrounding western culture. Yet, in the light of present-day challenges, which I will outline below, there is thus cause to examine the worthiness and capacity for importing the model of diaspora Charedi society (or parts thereof) to Israel: Should the Israelis of today be the chutznikim of yesterday?

Over the years, I came to know more than a few families that regretfully canceled their Aliyah plans because of absorption difficulties—not material difficulties but rather those of the spirit. I was witness to painful situations in which rabbis advised families not to make Aliyah due to educational concerns

Alongside this question, the present article will reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities presented by Olim. As the rabbi of an English-speaking community in Jerusalem, I have some experience in the integration of English-speaking families into different communities in Israel—integration that sometimes involves considerable hardship. Over the years, I came to know more than a few families that regretfully canceled their Aliyah plans because of absorption difficulties—not material difficulties but rather those of the spirit. I was witness to painful situations in which rabbis advised families not to make Aliyah due to educational concerns: “The education you’re used to doesn’t exist here.” In recent times, especially given a spike increase in Aliyah candidates from English-speaking countries, I have given the matter of Olim much thought, some of which I will try to formulate in the latter part of this article, as part of the general context of how Charedi society of the diaspora can contribute to that of Israel.

In my opinion, the central issue separating the Israeli model of Charedi society from the diaspora equivalent is the attitude to engagement with the earthly, to which I will simply refer as “derech eretz” or “worldliness.” The attitude towards derech eretz, including such basic staples as work, citizenship, technology, and so on, is also the greatest challenge of contemporary Charedi society in Israel. I believe the increased presence of Olim in Charedi society in Israel could contribute to developing a community that conserves basic and fundamental Charedi values on the one hand, while also allowing for a broad and significant engagement with the world. However, I will also argue that we must refrain from a simple process of “cut and paste” from diaspora Charedi society. We should aspire to something quite different.

I should note at the outset that this article focuses on immigrants from English-speaking countries that belong to the Lithuanian sector within Charedi society, often known as litvish or yeshivish (since there remain several types within this sector, the refrain will not cleanse the stain of generalization). There are many other types of diaspora communities, whether French or Spanish-speaking communities (usually Sephardic), or Chassidic communities in the United States, England, and elsewhere. The litvish communities are the ones I know in some depth, and it seems to me that they present a significant opportunity both for Israeli Charedi society and for the State of Israel. Of course, I invite others to expand on this matter as it relates to additional diaspora communities.

 

Between Israel and the Diaspora: Attitudes to the Land

“Chayenu” is an English-language magazine published in Lakewood, a prominent Charedi center characterized by many Kollel students and the location of one of the two largest Yeshiva institutions in the world (the other being Mir in Jerusalem). A recent issue (Nissan, 2021) featured an interview with Rabbi David Cohen, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, on the Yeshiva vacation period commonly known as bein hazemanim. One of the questions focused on gainful employment for Yeshiva students: “Is it proper for a bachur to take some type of job during bein hazemanim, like selling esrogim or cleaning cars?” The question apparently struck Rabbi Cohen unawares, evoking the response “I am surprised by this question.” He proceeded to explain that the subject would never be raised in Israel, where work of any type is considered inappropriate for a Yeshiva student: “A bachur should appreciate how special he is. He is being oseik in ‘kol hon d’alma, the greatest treasure in the world,’ and should not lower himself to the level of a ‘gass mentch’ [street man] just to make a few dollars.”[1]

The dialogue between the American interviewer and the Israeli Rosh Yeshiva highlights the gap between Charedi society in and outside of Israel. For a Charedi parent or teacher outside of Israel, the idea of a Yeshiva student finding employment during bein hazemanim is perfectly acceptable, not just as a way of passing the time but even for its educational value. Work experience teaches us that “money does not grow on trees,” and provides a taste of the dignity reserved for those who enjoy the fruit of their own toil. By sharp contrast, Charedi society in Israel views the same activity as degrading, an occupation entirely unworthy of a Yeshiva student. Upon my engagement to be married, a Yeshiva colleague explained (citing Rav Schach zt”l) why grooms in Israel wear a rabbinical frock to their weddings: “If you keep a rabbinical frock in your closet, chances are you’ll never go to work.” It’s no accident that the custom is only popular within the borders of the Holy Land.

Upon my engagement to be married, a Yeshiva colleague explained (citing Rav Schach zt”l) why grooms in Israel wear a rabbinical frock to their weddings: “If you keep a rabbinical frock in your closet, chances are you’ll never go to work.”

The prominent difference between Charedi inside and outside Israel is the attitude towards worldliness. The decisive majority of Charedim in the United States works for a living, and is thus somewhat involved and integrated, by virtue of work as well as other activities, in the earthly aspects of their locale. This involvement has a range of consequences. Dress, including that of rabbinic figures, is orderly and refined; people live with a reasonable level of environmental awareness, and quality of life is relatively high. The attitude to the different aspects of earthly reality is generally positive, and there is a readiness to invest in them. General studies (often known in Charedi parlance as secular studies) are taught in the great majority of schools, both reflecting the underlying attitude and facilitating participation in gainful employment. We can add to this the basic expectation that matters will run according to universal standards of common sense, whether on practical or moral levels.

Things are different in Israel. Outward appearance is often neglected, whether in terms of personal grooming or in the tidiness of neighborhoods, from urban planning to littering the streets. Charedi families are far from wealthy, and relative poverty, coupled with a sweeping reliance on stipends and charitable donations, breeds a different kind of outlook on material life. Moreover, the attitude toward basic aspects of worldly reality, including fields such as economics, science, medical research, and sometimes commonly accepted human morality, is often negative and disapproving. General studies, needless to say, are not taught in the Yeshiva system (and barely in elementary school). They are barely tolerated for chutznikim.

An example of this negative attitude towards worldliness concerns the attitude toward sports. On a visit to the US, one of my hosts cited the response of Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman zt”l to the question of whether it is permitted to play basketball on Shabbos. After describing the character of the game—throwing a ball into a basket—Rabbi Steinman responded, bewildered: Why not place the ball in the basket before Shabbos? The discourse, though possibly humorous, demonstrates the cultural gap between Israel and the diaspora. In contrast with the Israeli opposition to sports, there is no similar ban on sport for Yeshivah students in the US. There may be costs to this permissive attitude, such as the tendency to watch professional sports or even support a team, yet for most communities and Yeshiva institutions a sweeping prohibition is unthinkable (the fault line is whether the staff members participate in basketball games). As to living by common sense, suffice it to note a matchmaking suggestion an acquaintance received carrying the headline “700,000 NIS and works in hi-tech (hitechistit, in the vernacular).” Such a proposal, alongside the customary Israeli practice of parents purchasing apartments for young couples, contravenes basic rules of common sense. As David Lichtenstein, host of the popular Headlines program clarified, this would be inconceivable for Charedim outside of Israel. “It’s insane,” he summed up.[2]

In the subsequent issue of Chayenu, Rabbi Moshe David Lefkowitz, son of Rabbi Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz zt”l, was interviewed concerning the annual mourning period over the destruction of the Temple. The interviewer noted the physical comfort of American Jewry and wondered: “In America, we seem to be so comfortable. We have so much Olam Hazeh that it is difficult to feel that we are in galus.” Rather than the troubles of exile, Rabbi Lefkowitz focused on our connecting to the worldly: “A person needs to separate himself from Olam Hazeh in order to prepare himself for limud haTorah. […] Olam Hazeh and Olam Haba are contradictory; one must separate himself from Olam Hazeh to attain Olam Haba.”[3] Once again, the detachment between the question and the answer reflects a cultural gulf. The earthly experience of the US is reminiscent of the approach espoused by Rabbi Leib Minsberg zt”l, who “did not see this world as a contradiction to a Divine reality, but rather a place in which the Divine presence resides,” and therefore believed that “it is proper to invest in the world and cultivate it.” The Israeli-Charedi experience is (often) quite distant from this approach.[4]

The ideal, reaching its peak under King Shlomo, is “Yehuda and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the sea; they were eating and drinking and rejoicing” (I Kings 4:20). While this does not of course mean to endorse unbridled indulgence, it remains clear that Hashem’s closeness with His people is manifest in a state of earthly abundance

The difference between these two models of Charedi life raises an obvious question. The Torah does not preach a life of asceticism, isolationism, and spiritual detachment. On the contrary, the promises of the Torah and the visions of the Prophets speak unceasingly of earthly and material plenty as an ideal we aspire to. Suffice to quote from this week’s Parshah, Eikev, in which the Torah promises that if we observe the Divine instruction then “He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers; He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you” (Devarim 7:13). The ideal, reaching its peak under King Shlomo, is “Yehuda and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the sea; they were eating and drinking and rejoicing” (I Kings 4:20). While this does not of course mean to endorse unbridled indulgence, it remains clear that Hashem’s closeness with His people is manifest in a state of earthly abundance when Israel receives the gift of plenty from the Hand of God. Indeed, King David informs us that it is to this end that we left Egypt: “I am the Hashem, your God, who brought you forth from the Land of Egypt, widen your mouth and I shall fill it” (Tehillim 81:11).

There is thus no small irony in the fact that precisely in the land upon which Hashem promised us the good life, Charedi society has chosen a path of isolationism and relative asceticism—certainly by comparison with previously accepted norms. Shut She’eris Yisrael reflected the common state of affairs when he stated that “for someone can make a living from their toil, it is a complete prohibition to impose himself on the public,” and that for such a person “find no favor with neither God nor people.”[5] His substantive claims have been discussed elsewhere; for purposes of this article, it is clear that we live an anomalous situation of deviating en masse from this simple historical condition. Rabbi Minsberg proceeds to note that “God has granted us riches that are available to all, yet Torah scholars have chosen to forgo them for the sake of Torah study.”[6] But what does this concession mean? How have we reached a situation whereby Charedim outside of Israel live mostly at peace—and sometimes as close friends, as I will detail below—with, while here in Israel the opposite is the case? I will propose several explanations for this matter, some sociological and one, which I consider more primary, essential.

 

Israel: An Exceptional Derech Eretz

One of the reasons for the worldly separatism endorsed by significant parts of Charedi society is the long-standing character of the Jerusalem Ashkenazi community formed long before the state was established—and long before the community became known as “Charedi.” This community, which is often dubbed “The Old Yishuv,” lived off of the “chalukah” [lit. distribution] institution of donations from Europe, while retiring from most matters worldly, and hence its name: the perushim, those who separate themselves. The new Charedi settlement established itself in the center of Israel, rather than in Jerusalem, consciously distancing itself from the ways of the Old Yishuv; one of the older neighborhoods of Bnei Brak was even called Artisans Center (Merkaz Baalei Melachah). Over time, however, the new Charedi settlement was influenced, to some degree, by the existing community, especially in the matter of refraining from work and relying on donations and handouts. Naturally, this influence was limited to the confines of Israel alone.

Yet while partially true, this explanation is limited in explaining the asceticism of Charedi society. As noted, the new Charedi Yishuv was established as separate and distinct from the Old Yishuv and remains so to this day. While for the Old Yishuv it is forbidden to vote in Israel’s elections, let alone participate in the Knesset, for the New Yishuv this is a mitzvah; and while the old settlement espouses militant isolationism, that of the new is more nuanced, both in its relationship with Israel and in its shift to Hebrew rather than Yiddish. Thus, the rejection of derech eretz cannot be attributed to the impact of the Old Yishuv—though after taking additional reasons into account, its influence should not be discounted.

The American Yeshiva system, established towards the second half of the twentieth century, was founded within an existing social fabric, in which the connection to worldliness was a given. Briefly stated, American Jewry’s derech eretz preceded its Torah

Another explanation for the matter is the yawning gap in starting conditions. The good earthliness of the United States preceded the arrival of Jews at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth. It invited Jews from Eastern Europe to join its opportunity, and they accepted the invitation en masse, becoming part of the “American Dream.” Naturally, they also had no option but to work: The United States offered no government aid or tax breaks for Kollel students, and even today reliance on the welfare state would not enable payment of tuition for most private Jewish schools. The American Yeshiva system, established towards the second half of the twentieth century, was founded within an existing social fabric, in which the connection to worldliness was a given. Briefly stated, American Jewry’s derech eretz preceded its Torah.

In Israel, by contrast, the New Yishuv was established in an unripe, unready material situation. Lacking a derech eretz that preceded Torah, circumstances allowed Charedi society to focus on the word of spirit—specifically, on the urgent project of rebuilding the decimated Yeshiva world, the communities, the Chassidic courts, and other institutions of religion—and leaving the labor of material construction to the secularists who established the state. The impressive material environment that Israel boasts today was developed without the involvement of Charedi society, and this division between the material and the spirit became deeply entrenched, fortified by the tension between secular Israel and Charedi Jews. In addition, the rules of the game of socialist Israel were vastly different from those of the United States and developed in a manner allowing Charedi society to maintain itself, if barely, even in a state of maximal isolationism.

We can expand on additional sociological reasons that contributed to the greater isolationism of Israeli Charedi society. These would include Ben Gurion’s unfortunate (though understandable) decision to link the freedom to work with the obligation of the draft, the fact that Charedim were a tiny fraction of the population in Israel’s formative years, the specific identity of Charedi leaders whose influence was decisive, and more. Yet, I believe there is also a deeper, more fundamental reason for the difference between Israel and the diaspora when it comes to the approach to derech eretz.

The worldly elements of life in the United States are not Jewish; they are explicitly non-Jewish. To once more risk generalization, they can be defined as materialistic, acquisitive, competitive, and permissive. Yet, American Jews have no quarrel with them because they are “theirs” rather than “ours.”

The worldly elements of life in the United States are not Jewish; they are explicitly non-Jewish. To once more risk generalization, they can be defined as materialistic, acquisitive, competitive, and permissive. Yet, American Jews have no quarrel with them because they are “theirs” rather than “ours.” Participation in material life raises serious challenges, and we will note some of these below, but the very existence and character of America’s material culture do not raise tension or conflict. This is not the case for Israel. The Charedi position is that as a Jewish state, material life in Israel must be Jewish, rather than an Israeli imitation of the foreign, secular materialism of other nations. This central point is often missed in the discussions, important in themselves, concerning Charedim entering the workforce, academia, the army, and so on. It is worthy of emphasis.

By contrast with religious-Zionist society, which accepts Israel’s secular character as a given and tries to improve it at the margins, generally without much success (cf. the Bennet-Lapid government), the Charedim refuse on principle to accept secular worldliness. Charedi society’s principal struggle with the Israeli establishment revolves around the basic insight that the State of Israel is not the United States.[7] Israel is defined as a Jewish state, the political representative of the Jewish People, and its material nature aspires to be ours, a Jewish worldliness. Charedi society’s dispute over the character of Israel concerns Israel’s material life; as a matter of fundamental principle, Charedim are thus prevented from joining it.

This position, which deeply informs the Charedi mindset, is rooted in a Torah tradition that highlights the special material nature of Israel. The Land of Israel, says the Torah, is “not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden” (Devarim 11:10). It is, rather, a land that “the eyes of Hashem, your God, are continually upon it from the beginning of the year to year’s end” (11:11). This unique character has repercussions. The Sfas Emes, a prominent representative of the approach that views the physicality of the Holy Land as distinct from all others, states that “Every nation has a place, but the People of Israel have a place of their own, above nature and time and place.” If so, what about the Land of Israel? To this question, he responds that our entry into and existence upon the land are miraculous, as a soul entering a body. Just as the soul lives within the body, yet never becomes entirely mired in it, so we, the Jewish People, cannot be mired in the physicality of the Land.[8]

Adopting a similar line of thought, the Shelah explains that the expulsion from Eden condemned humanity to live a natural life, “to work the land.” Conversely, the return to the Land of Israel involved a degree of departure from nature and a return to the level of Eden: “The first journey of the Jewish People was to the Land of Israel, which is in place of the garden of Eden where Man was placed.”[9] Several verses confirm the comparison between the Land of Israel and the garden of Eden. Concerning future times it is written that “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited” (Yechezkel 36:35). Similarly, Yeshayahu states that Hashem will be comforted in making the deserts of Israel “like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of Hashem” (Yeshayahu 51:3). The comparison indicates that the material domain of Israel, like that of the garden of Eden, must be somehow different; it cannot be the same as other locales.

Throughout the generations, the Jewish People expected to return to the Land by miraculous means, on the wings of eagles. This did not happen, and the process of return to Zion occurred naturally, led by Jews faithful to the Jewish nation but not the Jewish Torah and tradition. Charedi society has a hard enough time facing up to this reality

This Torah tradition stands at the heart of the Charedi approach to the State of Israel specifically and to worldliness generally. Throughout the generations, the Jewish People expected to return to the Land by miraculous means, on the wings of eagles. This did not happen, and the process of return to Zion occurred naturally, led by Jews faithful to the Jewish nation but not the Jewish Torah and tradition. Charedi society has a hard enough time facing up to this reality. I recall walking side by side with an Israeli Kollel-colleague in the Ramot area of Jerusalem and beholding, at some stage of our journey, the foundations of the highly successful Ramot Mall. I made a comment to the effect that this was an impressive sight, to which my colleague responded that he saw nothing impressive about a group of secular Jews making money off our backs. I tried to explain that this was nothing to do with our dispute with secular Jews, but rather about settling the Land (Yishuv Eretz Yisrael), about the historical process that God is leading, and about economic prosperity. Despite my best attempts, he remained wholly unconvinced. Such incarnations of worldliness as shopping malls belong to “them,” our secular antagonists. They have nothing to do with us. We did not return to our Land for such derech eretz.

By contrast with the United States, Charedi society in Israel has therefore not allowed itself involvement in the secular worldliness of the Jewish State. Doing so requires a model that combines worldly occupation with the insight that the material worldliness is ours, the Jewish People’s, and must represent Judaism and Torah values. Such a model is yet to be established.

 

Aliyah With Benefits

The great challenges facing Charedi society in Israel today are well known, and a significant portion of them relate to the inevitable process of increasing involvement with Israeli worldliness. The tremendous growth of Charedi society, alongside human and communal needs requiring the participation in and oversight of state apparatus, has accelerated the process in recent years. It is not about to slow down anytime soon, and it involves not a few “growing pains” that include the challenge of competing values, tensions concerning different conceptions of citizenship, religious crises triggered by an exposure that catches many Charedi individuals unprepared, and many besides.

I have often been asked the simplistic question of “why can’t you be more like Charedim abroad?” The answer generally given, in a somewhat evasive tone, is that “it’s different here.” But does it have to be different? Might it be a good idea to look westwards and draw inspiration from Charedim overseas?

Discussion of these issues is spread across dozens of articles published on Tzarich Iyun, while the question of interest for the present article is one: Can the Charedi diaspora model assist us in dealing with these challenges? The question frequently arises in discussions between Charedim and non-Charedim, and sometimes even in internal discussions. I have often been asked the simplistic question of “why can’t you be more like Charedim abroad?” The answer generally given, in a somewhat evasive tone, is that “it’s different here.” But does it have to be different? Might it be a good idea to look westwards and draw inspiration from Charedim overseas?

The answer to these questions is complex. On the one hand, there is much to learn from the Charedi diaspora model. Many Israelis gaze with some disbelief at the phenomenon, mentioned at the outset, of batei midrash filled to the brim on Sunday mornings with working men devoting free time to Torah study. Not all do so, of course, but the phenomenon is not uncommon, while we would be hard-pressed to find an Israeli equivalent. A young friend who works a Tel Aviv day job while maintaining a Yeshiva identity and lifestyle recounted how Israeli rabbinic figures consistently express their esteem for this unusual combination, while American equivalents are somehow less enamored about working in Tel Aviv. This might seem paradoxical, but for Israelis, the reality of successfully combining the two is highly uncommon. In addition, diaspora Charedi society, broadly speaking, espouses the value of good citizenship. Torah luminaries such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky emphasized that the United States is a “kingdom of chessed” worthy of loyalty rather than exploitation.

To a significant degree, it can thus be said that Charedi diaspora society seeks to realize the ideal established by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch by which “the mission of Judaism is a perfected and refined humanity, a Jewish humanity.”[10] Alongside isolating, to the extent possible, from the ills of western culture, Charedim abroad direct their lives in accordance with the instruction of Rabbi Yishmael—which is also the halachic norm[11]—to combine Torah with derech eretz (“hanheg bahen minhag derech eretz”; Berachos 35b). We, in Israel, have what to learn from them. But we also have what not to learn.

The moment a Jew integrates naturally into worldly life in his exilic abode is the moment exile becomes home and redemption becomes abstract and irrelevant

As noted above, Charedim living outside Israel succeed in connecting to worldliness because it isn’t theirs. The economy, the culture, government offices, the public square—all are expressions of a non-Jewish worldliness in which Jews are guests. Observant Jews, certainly of the Charedi variant, do not refrain from participating in the material environment of their diaspora host states, yet they feel a sense of alienation and foreignness towards it. The moment a Jew integrates naturally into worldly life in his exilic abode is the moment exile becomes home and redemption becomes abstract and irrelevant.

During one of my visits to the United States, I was asked if it was right and proper for Jews to invest in American civic society—the primary infrastructure for a country’s material wellbeing. The fact that the United States is a land of immigrants rather than a “nation-state” (in the European sense) made my response somewhat evasive, but the principle seems clear: We are charged with the mitzvah of “settling the Land of Israel” (Yishuv Eretz Yisrael) and not with settling foreign lands. The adoption of American citizenship and worldliness as our own, and investing efforts in their development as though they belonged to us, is akin to the halachic prohibition against litigation in non-Jewish courts, “which desecrates Hashem’s name and aggrandizes that of idolatry” (Rashi on Shemos 21:1). We have our own citizenship, which today is expressed as the national right to self-determination; it can be realized exclusively upon the Land of Israel.

Alienation towards local materialism is therefore built-in to the diaspora model. It is the only way to ensure Jewish survival. While non-Orthodox communities engage fully in local civil society and worldly life and risk the loss of their Jewish identity—a risk that has been dramatically realized in recent decades and which poses a deep challenge even to parts of American Modern Orthodoxy[12]—Charedi communities maintain their Jewish identity by strengthening a sense of exile, which enables them to remain separate from surrounding culture and distant from its elite spaces. For diaspora Jews, a similar exilic mindset is often applied even to Israel. Chassidic communities in Israel seeking to “return to Yiddish”—a means of fortifying and entrenching their separation from an Israeli culture that has made inroads into Charedi society—enlist the aid of students from abroad who speak no Hebrew and are likewise free of Israeli patriotism.[13] These Chassidic chutznikim, Yeshiva students who come for a few years of Torah study, boost anti-Zionist zealotry that is slowly eroding among the younger generation living in Israel. Among the Lithuanian sector, reconciliation with American worldliness does not prevent many in Lakewood from consistently supporting the extremist Jerusalem Faction (Ha-Peleg Ha-Yerushalmi), which fiercely opposes the State of Israel and rallies against the engagement of Charedi society with Israeli authorities. While in Israel this would be seen as a strange combination—the most unworldly and isolated are often the most radically anti-Zionist—for Americans the two are not in deep tension.

It is only natural that most of those who make Aliyah to Israel do not fit this mold. But some do. A friend recently told me of a method employed by certain communities in the diaspora to take full advantage of available rights: individuals officially make Aliyah, harvest the benefits granted to Olim, and then return abroad after the required number of years and continue to benefit from the relevant welfare system. Although the ploy, known as “Fiscaliyah”—a word that combines “fiscal” with “Aliyah”—is certainly not typical of attitudes to Israel, it indicates the alienation felt among parts of the diaspora Charedi communities towards the Jewish State. Even among those who make Aliyah for the sake of Heaven, a significant portion do so out of personal aspiration—to enjoy the spiritual benefits of the Holy Land and be close to Torah luminaries. Sometimes, such immigrants will prefer to register as “permanent residents” rather than become citizens. The official reason might be fear of the draft, but the psychological motivation is clear: The exilic mindset does not allow them to take part in the great political story of the Return to Zion.

[I]t seems that importing the “diaspora model” to Israel is both untenable and undesirable. […] It is undesirable because, as I will elaborate below, it is paramount that Olim treat Israel as their own and not, to paraphrase the original, as Lithuania in Jerusalem

Diaspora Charedim are thus both more connected to their local worldliness than their Israeli counterparts and more alienated from the same worldliness on the other. As explained above, the sense of exile allows them to benefit from the local materialism because “it isn’t ours.” Given this understanding, it seems that importing the “diaspora model” to Israel is both untenable and undesirable. It is untenable because it is contingent on a Goyish material reality that Jews can benefit from while remaining distinct; and it is undesirable because, as I will elaborate below, it is paramount that Olim treat Israel as their own and not, to paraphrase the original, as Lithuania in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, as Charedim often point out when demonstrating against modern fads (especially in areas of modesty), is not Paris.

This analysis is related to another reason we cannot copy-paste the model from abroad here: the overly materialistic character of diaspora worldliness. Many Olim I speak to comment that among the advantages of moving to Israel is leaving a type of worldliness whose materialistic tendencies are inconducive to spiritual growth. The American obsession with material goods and the drive for status underlying it has been absorbed, to some degree, by Charedi American society, as many articles published in American Charedi magazines discuss and debate. A set of symptoms, from Charedi patrons of deluxe kosher restaurants in New York to the opioid crisis that has tragically penetrated frum society, confirm that the American connection to worldliness has its drawbacks. Israel would not want to simply copy-paste it.

We all know the corrupting force of power without responsibility, and perhaps American Jewish materialism pays the corresponding cost of worldliness without responsibility

The dual nature of diaspora worldlines—a connection in practice alongside a detachment in mindset—makes it somehow anomalous. It is materialism we can indulge in though it is not fully ours. We all know the corrupting force of power without responsibility, and perhaps American Jewish materialism pays the corresponding cost of worldliness without responsibility. The American Charedi individual enjoys his local worldliness as a sojourner rather than a member of the household; this status has its perks, but it is surely not without downsides.

The worldliness we need in Israel is the kind that allows us to enjoy the benefits of the world without it sucking us into a tailspin of acquisitiveness and materialism. It needs to stress elements of responsibility on the one hand alongside feelings of compassion and mutual solidarity on the other. It should respect and strengthen the core institutions on which a healthy society is based and which the Torah sanctifies—family, community, religious institutions, and so on—while encouraging personal choice and individual self-fulfillment for all. It must allow and even encourage the accumulation of capital by means of an efficient and open market but also see to proper mechanisms reminding us that God “gives you the strength to achieve wealth” (Devarim 8:18) and urging us to loosen our grip on private property for the sake of those for whom the stars have not aligned. It should advance technological breakthroughs on the one hand, while avoiding the accompanying belief that man possesses the keys to existence and that “nothing they plan to do will be restrained from them” (Bereishis 11:6) on the other. It needs to foster open dialogue in the manner of the beis midrash that maintained the Jewish People over long centuries of exile, while also establishing boundaries ensuring the value of free speech does not trample all others. It must display its Jewish roots with pride yet take care to respect every human being.

How exactly does such a worldliness look? It is hard to know. A tradition of worldly management in a political framework, to the extent we ever had one, is something we have lost over endless years of exile. It awaits development—our development. After many years of separation and segregation, the process of increasing integration of Charedim in Israel’s material environment is a signal that the time has come for a change in mindset. Alongside the inner motion of isolationism that we must preserve, we need to acquire a new muscle of active involvement; together with our separation from Israel’s worldliness, we must occupy ourselves with its enhancement.

Alongside the inner motion of isolationism we must preserve, we need to acquire a new muscle of active involvement; together with our separation from Israel’s worldliness, we must occupy ourselves with its enhancement

Coming to the matter of Olim, the central contribution of those who make Aliyah is thus not a simple adaption of the worldliness customary in the diaspora. As noted, a not insignificant number come to Israel to extricate themselves from the materialist quicksand of exile and its attendant dangers. The significant contribution of Olim is their readiness to invest in Israel’s worldliness—an understanding that the purpose of life in Israel is not to flee worldliness but rather to improve it.

 

The Turn of Olim

Most Charedi Olim from English-speaking countries come equipped with a spirit of idealism. They often leave behind family and community, as well as an entire cultural world replete with physical comfort, to realize the great dream of returning to the Promised Land. In terms of material living, it is no doubt easier to work and make a living in the US than in Israel, the more so when this is coupled with the challenge of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. Jewish life in states like New York and California is rich and well-organized. Despite this, individuals and families make their way to Israel because they are interested in replacing the familiar diaspora with the home that is Israel.

The rhetoric commonly heard in the Charedi public space is not of a “home” but a “room”: We need to close ourselves off in a single room—the room of spirit, Torah study, worship of God, the “four cubits of halacha”—and leave the rest of the house, the worldly and civic aspects of the Jewish State, to others

Contrary perhaps to the popular image, Charedi Israelis feel very much at home in Israel. As I witnessed just a couple of days ago, and by contrast with similar situations in the US, they feel no discomfort in convening a minyan for Mincha at some branch of Ikea. After all, it’s a Jewish country. If Mincha bothers anybody, it’s his problem. They are also deeply enmeshed in politics, gather in their (hundreds of) thousands to protest in streets, are involved in local Israeli culture (to some degree), and feel a sense of solidarity and shared fate with the rest of the Jewish People dwelling in Zion. Yet, the tension between them and the secular state triggers a denial of the sense of “home.” The rhetoric commonly heard in the Charedi public space is not of a “home” but a “room”: We need to close ourselves off in a single room—the room of spirit, Torah study, worship of God, the “four cubits of halacha”—and leave the rest of the house, the worldly and civic aspects of the Jewish State, to others. Sometimes, the attitude to Israel can seem like the attitude to Poland: The state should be exploited as much as possible, focusing attention exclusively on the internal community.[14] At the same time, the sense of home is not translated into terms of civic responsibility, as we learned the hard way during corona. A home, but with an asterisk.

Charedim immigrating from abroad have a different mindset. They consciously feel at home and know how to give this state of mind practical articulations—they made Aliyah based on it and live fully and coherently on this basis. They remain part of Charedi society, which espouses separation from surrounding culture and the harmful ideas of western liberalism. By contrast with many religious-Zionist communities, they are unwilling to adopt the culture of Israeli secularism or consider it redemptive or holy. Yet, this fact does not blind them from seeing the historic process of the Return to Zion or their enthusiasm to take part in it, and it does not drive them to adopt a “them and us” attitude towards their non-Charedi or non-observant neighbors. “Us and us” comes far more naturally.

Indeed, Charedi Olim did not experience the religious wars of their Israeli brothers, allowing them to feel a far more powerful sense of unity with the entire Jewish People. In addition, their natural connection with derech eretz—a point, as noted above, that distinguishes them from their Israeli counterparts—means they do not limit themselves to the spiritual rooms of the Israeli house. The entire home is theirs, too. During the Covid period, immigrant Haredi communities behaved in a starkly different manner to Israeli ones, maintaining almost absolute adherence to rules and regulations. It is not for nothing that Charedi rabbis who were consistently diligent concerning Covid regulations and publicly preached the same message were primarily immigrants, the most prominent of them being Rabbi Asher Weiss.

During the Covid period, immigrant Haredi communities behaved in a starkly different manner to Israeli ones, maintaining almost absolute adherence to rules and regulations. It is not for nothing that Charedi rabbis who were consistently diligent concerning Covid regulations and publicly preached the same message were primarily immigrants

Chutznikim can therefore be a source of inspiration for Israeli Charedi society in general and for “working Charedim” in particular. They lack the sense of tension and contradiction between involvement in worldliness and religious commitment coupled with striving for growth in Torah and Fear of Heaven. As a rabbi of an Anglo community, I can certainly attest to a constant desire for Torah study, for a spirited prayer imbued with energy and emotion, and for additional activities surrounding the Shul. Israeli worldliness, unlike that of the diaspora, is something they see as being “theirs”—notwithstanding qualifications concerning its secular nature—and they are certainly ready and willing to make the required effort to imbue it with a much-needed Torah spirit. They are tolerant by nature, radiating partnership and mutuality, and carry a deep ethos of personal and civic responsibility.

They also experience no small measure of difficulty. As already noted, and added to the standard issues that all immigrants face, the model to which they are accustomed—a model that combines Torah with deresh eretz—is hard to find at the communal and institutional levels. This lacuna condemns many immigrant families to accept one of two options that fail to represent them: an Israeli Charedi option that argues for a level of separatism that immigrants cannot maintain, and the religious-Zionist option and the price it pays for full partnership with secular Israel.

Diaspora Charedim will naturally gravitate toward the former option, which entails a dual educational hazard: children will either entirely adopt the Israeli Charedi ethos and end up looking at their parents as “chutznikim who don’t get it,” or the tension between home and school will breed confusion and instability, sometimes leading to a significant decline in religious and spiritual levels. Unfortunately, I have seen not a few families come to Israel filled with motivation to live the dream of a Torah life upon the Land, whose path becomes strewn with challenges and difficulties because of such issues. While many families do figure out how to maneuver within the complex Israeli reality and find a balance that is right for them, the path is nevertheless far from a simple one.

Facing a predicted spike in the numbers of Olim, God willing, there seems to be ample room for correction. First, we need to bring together and connect immigrants, who are spread out among a broad range of concentrations—Ramat Beit Shemesh is today the largest concentration of Charedi Olim, but many are dispersed among a range of cities and neighborhoods in Israel—providing them with a sense of belonging to a large and important community in Israel. Today, I know of no newspaper, magazine, or even Alon Shabbat that appeals to this specific community.

[I]nstead of immigrants doing their part to improve and cultivate Israeli Charedi society, they become a vestigial part of it that tries, with only partial success, to imitate the Israeli model

In addition, there is a need for a body that will organize the rabbis of English-speaking communities for the collective benefit of their congregants. In the present situation, many rabbis of immigrant communities adopt the accepted patterns of Israeli Charedi society, whether out of conviction or because of various pressures. Thus, instead of immigrants doing their part to improve and cultivate Israeli Charedi society, they become a vestigial part of it that tries, with only partial success, to imitate the Israeli model. A rabbinical association can, in my view, correct this trend and bestow this important community with the confidence and faith that it is on a good path, and can even be a positive influence on broader Charedi society by serving as a role model for a healthy and nuanced connection to worldliness.

The institutional challenge should also not be belittled: developing institutions that represent the ethos of a healthy connection to derech eretz, and which combine a deep striving for Torah and service of Hashem combined with productive worldly engagement. There is much that is already being done in this realm and certain rabbis and civic leaders are working in this direction; I only mean to point to the need. As a part of the institutional challenge, it seems we also need to think about youth movements, as common in diaspora communities, for children of Olim. Youth movements are not active among Israeli Charedim, and Olim have followed this pattern, under the dubious assumption that kids will organize themselves as havrusa partners and invest their time in Torah study. There is no reason why this cannot change.

Charedi rabbinic and lay leadership are yet to turn their focus to these worldly matters, yet in perpetuating this situation we forsake those who wish to combine a Torah life with worldly engagement, leaving them without a strong religious and institutional infrastructure. Where there is no water, Chazal teach us, we can rest assured the space will be filled by snakes and scorpions

Finally, and perhaps in advance of anything else, we need to develop the concept of “Jewish worldliness” at the philosophical and practical levels. Fields of culture, employment, military service, government systems, technology, modesty, economics, scientific development, workplace ethics, and many others, await a Torah and ideas-based platform allowing us to advance the project of the State of Israel in a less secular and more Jewish variant. Charedi rabbinic and lay leadership are yet to turn their focus to these worldly matters, yet in perpetuating this situation we forsake those who wish to combine a Torah life with worldly engagement, leaving them without a strong religious and institutional infrastructure. Where there is no water, Chazal teach us, we can rest assured the space will be filled with snakes and scorpions.

***

In this last matter, of developing a Torah and theological infrastructure for the broader issues of life in Israel, the great Yeshiva academies of Israel can be a tremendous resource. The world certainly needs their Torah. My modest point in this article is that their Torah also needs the world—a world right here, in Israel, where the Torah ideal can be fully realized. I am confident that the community of Olim can play a major role in its realization.


[1] Dovid Goldbaum, “Striving for Greatness” Chayeinu (Nissan, 5781) p. 32.

[2] http://podcast.headlinesbook.com/e/21619-marrying-for-money-in-halacha-and-hashkafah-preparing-for-a-successful-marriage/ (the relevant interview begins at 31:10).

[3] Dovid Goldbaum, “Striving for Greatness” Chayeinu (Tammuz/Av, 5781) p. 29.

[4] Rabbi Shmuel Wallach, “Mi Ha-Ish: Al Rabbi, Rav Leib Minsberg” Tzarich Iyun (14 Kislev, 5779) [Hebrew].

[5] Rabbi Yaakov Ze’ev Cahana, Shul She’eris Yosef (1895), Introduction (p. xvii); the author was a brother of the grandson of the Vilna Gaon and corresponded extensively with great luminaries such as the Netziv.

[6] See above, note 4.

[7] I have elaborated on this aspect of “Charedi nationalism” elsewhere; see Yehoshua Pfeffer, “Non-Zionist Indeed? On Charedim and Jewish Nationalism” Tzarich Iyun, Tevet 5780 (https://iyun.org.il/en/sedersheni/non-zionists-indeed-on-charedim-and-jewish-nationalism/).

[8] Sefas Emes, Derashah for Pesach, 5663.

[9] Shenei Luchus HaBris, Bamidbar, Drashas Shelosha Machanos, Torah Ohr 14. Elsewhere, the Shelah comments that “the mater of the Land of Israel is comparable to and a shadow of the Garden of Eden, and all that happened to Adam in the happened in the destruction of the Land of Israel, as Chazal write in the introduction to Eicha Rabasi.”

[10] Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Igrot Tzafon, Chap. 15.

[11] See Berachos 35a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 155:1.

[12] See Mark (Moshe) Bane, “Fragmentation, loneliness, and jewish identity” Jewish Action (Summer, 2019).

[13] See Ariel Schnabel, “What Brings Young Charedim From Around the World to Study in Israel” Tarbus (Mekor Rishon, 4.7.21) [Hebrew]; https://www.makorrishon.co.il/culture/367799/.

[14] See my article on the subject: “Charedi Politics: Between Poland and Jerusalem” Tzarich Iyun (July 2019); https://iyun.org.il/en/sedersheni/charedi-politics-between-poland-and-jerusalem/.

12 thoughts on “The Charedi Aliyah Opportunity

  • Excellent analysis, you brought to the fore many ideas that I have been thinking about since I made Aliya some 9 years ago. Thank you חזק ואמץ

    PS I am 82 years old & would probably self identify as Chardal , with emphasis on the first part . ( but I was definitely raised as dati leumi )

  • Thanks for opening up a discussion which will hopefully be expanded and deepened in this and other outlets. As a semi-recent (5 yr) olah from North America, i think you captured one of our biggest psychological assets – that we see no essential stira between physical shipur and spiritual shipur of Eretz Yisrael. I personally am looking to retrain and for a new career path as my kids are finally all in school for a long day, and it seemed likely that i would go for a masters in urban planning, because what nicer mitzva than to be involved with “binyan Yerushalayim”?

    A rebbetzin dissauded me because of the constant corruption i would be forced to face in viewing the builders/politicians graft game. No doubt she was onto something (and she knew my overly idealistic approach would be at odds with the reality), but you described well her viewpoint, which is the standard Israeli one – leave the practical matters to the Tzionim – while i felt ready and able to represent my values in the forum of government offices.

    What i will do is still a question, but i think this highlights the difference in mindset.

  • For both the sake of Israel and for their own sake I would urge American haredim not to come on Aliyah.

    From the perspective of an Israeli taxpayer I ask them to remain in Lakewood or wherever they currently live because our country is already overburdened with the cost of maintaining the rapidly growing haredi population which contributes little or nothing to the nation’s defense, welfare, agriculture, industry, infrastructure etc while costing us billions in tax subsidies, medical care, kolel stipends and lost tax revenue from the huge haredi underground economy.

    For their own sake, I urge American haredim to stay where they are (unless they are independently wealthy) because they do not understand ‘haredinomics’ which is essential in order to survive and thrive for a large family headed by a non-income producing father.

    American haredi olim cannot begin to penetrate the byzantine ‘kombinot’ of haredi finagling that enables so many to live quite well and even manage to purchase apartments for their children despite having no visible source of income. Between government subsidies, kolel handouts, underground jobs (when they are supposed to be learning) overseas schnorrs, multiple Meir Baal Haness entitlements – and these are but the tip of the haredinomic iceberg – ‘Eretzyisroeldike’ haredim are very astute and know how to game every system. American olim are too straight, and still retain some vestiges of derekh eretz, to swim in these shark inhabited waters. Best to remain where they are both for our sake and for their own.

    • Well I thought that was the whole point of the article. We need more olim who are experienced in working leshem shamayim. Lehefech – more, more! 🙂

  • A thoughtful and incisive analysis.

  • A very thorough examination of the issues. Extremely well done. But I missed any mention of the role of the Israeli chareidi woman who gives birth to many children and is required to care for them, shop, cook, clean, and WORK out there in the forbidden secular world to support her family, since the handouts are not enough. Where does she figure in all this? Indeed, where does she figure in the chareidi understanding of halachah as it relates to the obligations of the husband?

  • just saw this post was wondering is this site only a think-say place or one that offers opportunities, and “things to do”, pracitacal ideas etc?

    • @moishe I counted at least 2 practical suggestions from the article.

      1) establish a Rabbinical association to cater for olim of said category
      2) establish a common media to cater for said category eg magazine/newsletter/listserv

  • So then what is Chardal? Is that not a space for chareidi olim?

  • You write: “…importing the model of diaspora Charedi society (or parts thereof) to Israel: Should the Israelis of today be the chutznikim of yesterday?”

    Three observations: 1) Your use of the term “yesterday” is critical. When I went to a Haredi HS over half a century ago, secular studies were taken seriously and most of my classmates went to college while maintaining a decidedly Haredi lifestyle. About 6% of my class went to YU. None of that happens today.
    2) If you look carefully at the jobs taken by Haredim in the US, many are available only in the US but do not exist in that number in Israel. They depend on the vast number of non-Jewish Americans. Nursing homes, mortgage brokers, accountants, medical billing, retail, etc. provide a significant number of jobs. While present in Israel as well, they are not at the same proportional percentage. The one bright spot is computing-related jobs where Israel has a greater proportional percentage. However, those who can make it in those professions, are only the intellectually elite.

    3) Based on only personal observation, Americans, both traditional and Hareidi olim, slide to the right when they move to Israel. While they might have been one way in America, they adopt the behavior of Israeli Haredi as olim.

  • The lack in Israel of the type of schooling that foreign olim are used to is a major barrier to either coming on aliya in the first place, or deciding to stay after spending several years in Israel as a “learning couple.” This is particularly true of families with boys. I can cite several close relatives as examples.
    Efforts to open such schools for boys, especially on the high school level, are ALWAYS met with resistance from the Haredi establishment, and in places like Jerusalem where the Haredi establishment is deeply integrated in the political system, the result is serious obstacles posed to obtaining funding, licenses, buildings, and so on. Only those with extreme determination and deep pockets can succeed.
    But even worse than this is the attitude that still prevails in the Haredi world toward the families who send, or would send, their children to such “American-type” schools. Such families are still looked down upon by the “oilem” as religiously tainted and second rate. Ultimately, it boils down to who will make shidduchim with them.
    It would take decades for anything to really change. Only time, during which an entire level of rabbinic leadership will have to die out, and/or masses of American olim would have to come and just overwhelm the system with their demands (and provide marriage partners for each other), will solve the problem.
    Unfortunately, no masses of American olim seem to be in the offing.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email