Community is an integral part of a Charedi person’s life, playing an important and influential social role. It gives a person meaning, respect, and identity. Whenever needed, it offers a shoulder to lean on. Beyond the safety net it provides, the mutual guarantee of members contributes significantly to the sense of cohesion and belonging to the community.
Indeed, countless charitable and chesed organizations function within Charedi communities to assist families, the sick, and others in need. Alongside this institutionalized activity, much mutual help occurs in less formal structures, such as women volunteering to help post-partum neighbors and girls helping families with multiple children prepare meals and perform household chores. Social-community projects also provide mental and spiritual support, including initiatives targeting struggling yeshiva students and those aimed to reintegrate those who have fallen by the wayside.
The community is the ultimate provider of social welfare. It serves as a safety net in case of distress, G-d forbid; it pays close attention and remains forever vigilant and alert, mobilizing for families facing loss, educational, or financial crises
The community is the ultimate provider of social welfare. It serves as a safety net in case of distress, G-d forbid; it pays close attention and remains forever vigilant and alert, mobilizing for families facing loss, educational, or financial crises. Community life is one of the outstanding strengths of the Charedi public and infuses meaning into everyday life in Charedi society.
Despite the above, it is vital to remember a simple truth: a community cannot replace state services. There are cases when, with all the goodwill in the world, a community cannot remedy the situation. It cannot provide a supervised and professional system with deep financial resources, legal backing, and the ability to employ a range of interventions exclusive to the state. These can often include long-term systemic solutions that communities struggle to provide.
For example, the community’s treatment of at-risk youth can tremendously benefit youth and their parents. Yet, it does not obviate the need for a state welfare system. This need is particularly evident in extreme cases when a child has been expelled from all available community institutions and stands on the threshold of life outside society and the law. In these cases, the voluntary intervention of caring community representatives is insufficient. Like it or not, the state must enter the picture, which it does through social workers working for Youth Departments whose job is to ensure that the minor is under care and supervision and referred to an appropriate framework. In criminal cases, juvenile probation officers will provide the boy or girl with a treatment plan. The state must spread its protection over such harsh cases; this is its role.
In such drastic circumstances – drastic but not entirely infrequent – not only is the community unable to assist individuals in need, but it may also become a hindrance. Throughout my work with various parties in the welfare system, I repeatedly encountered cases where the community piled up difficulties on the patient and stood between him and the welfare he needed.
Throughout my work with various parties in the welfare system, I repeatedly encountered cases where the community piled up difficulties on the patient and stood between him and the welfare he needed
The case of Sarah (a pseudonym) expresses the community’s strengths and weaknesses. Sarah is the mother of a family of seven. After the birth of her last child, she fell into severe financial hardship. The community noticed Sarah’s plight, and she began to receive support from a charity organization that distributes food baskets to needy families. One of the workers in the organization noticed that Sarah not only suffers from financial hardship but also experiences difficulties in her daily function. She contacted the organization’s coordinator, and the latter contacted Sarah. In the ensuing conversation, Sarah shared her harsh feelings, lack of motivation and desire for life, and even depression symptoms that had erupted after the latest birth. Toward the end of the conversation, the coordinator sensed that Sarah was hesitating and had something else to say. She prompted her a little, and Sarah confessed she tried to take her own life last Thursday.
The coordinator thought that this case warranted seeking professional treatment. However, Sarah informed her that her sister had signed a document confirming that she would not harm herself in a life-threatening way – a signature whose purpose is to prevent intervention by state authorities. In my conversation with the coordinator, I suggested that the woman be examined by a psychiatrist to assess her level of danger, thereby reopening the path of professional assistance from Israel’s welfare system. My words raised concern among the organization’s management lest the word spread that this well-reputed Charedi charity cooperates with the authorities (G-d forbid). Yet, the realization that this might be the only way to grant Sarah the protection she needed overcame this fear, and the coordinator contacted the family and offered the possibility of professional assessment. The family, needless to say, flatly refused.
The case illustrates the strengths of the community safety net but also highlights its limitations. On the one hand, the mutual assistance extant within the ultra-Orthodox community is remarkable. Sarah received significant assistance from the community charity organization, both in the simple sense of food baskets placed behind the door and even in providing mental support leading her to share her plight with its representatives. The community did not remain indifferent to her crisis and pushed the right alarm bells when recognizing the danger. But their hand remained short of salvation. The situation required professional intervention, and in this matter, community suspicion surrounding “the authorities” was about to overwhelm them.
If the recourse to Israel’s authorities would not be out of bounds and cooperation with welfare services (in such cases) self-evident, I believe that woman would not have objected to receiving the assistance she needed. She could have received a holistic response within and outside of the community. Today, the suspicion surrounding the welfare system – a suspicion not necessarily unjustified (a recent case of a Charedi baby separated from his parents has sparked vigorous conversation around the subject) but often exaggerated – outweighs the desire to be helped and prevents many in Charedi society from receiving necessary assistance. The community safety net can ultimately trap the person and prevent him from receiving the treatment he or she needs.
This article will seek to point out the reasons for the community’s suspicion of the welfare system and suggest ways to overcome it.
Charedi Suspicion of Welfare Services
Community suspicion of the welfare system has a long history and multiple reasons. I will focus on two of the main ones.
One of them is not unique to the Charedi public. It relates to a fundamentally healthy emotion: the shame of being dependent. No person wants to be marked as a welfare case, and we all experience a natural reluctance to seek assistance from welfare services. However, this reluctance is strengthened sevenfold by the power of community dynamics. When a person is connected to a community, he fears for his position within it, preferring to approach the gates of death rather than suffer the humiliation of neighbors seeing social services entering and leaving his house.
One of many stories illustrating this: One day, I received a call from a friend who said that a friend of one of her daughters shared a complex family issue. The girl’s parents had been undergoing a long separation process for several years. The father and mother would take turns leaving the house for extended periods of time without giving the children any warning or explanation. One night, the girl overheard her father shouting and realized her mother was in deep trouble. Sometime later, the mother went out for a few days without announcing it and returned only after several days. The kids, of course, were in a state of dissaray.
When a person is connected to a community, he fears for his position within it, preferring to approach the gates of death rather than suffer the humiliation of neighbors seeing social services entering and leaving his house
An inquiry into this case revealed that the girl’s high school staff had noticed that she was absent from studies and lacked her usual vitality and function. When asked how she was, the girl told her teacher of her harsh experiences, which led the concerned teacher to contact her mother. The mother, however, answered blankly that they were being assisted by a rabbi acting as a mediator, who also assisted her husband in controlling his outbursts of rage and ensuring he didn’t endanger family members. She added that her husband has not been cooperating with the rabbi recently, but she has managed independently and didn’t require help.
I turned to the mother and offered her the channels of state aid, which the mother immediately rejected, explaining that they were getting along and “nobody will take away my children.” She added that her eldest daughter is “in Shidduchim” and that it was very important that “nobody should know about the whole thing.” “I want to marry off my children with respect.”
The fear of the state welfare system intervening in family life and the anxiety of social workers who will “take away our children” are not unique to Charedi community life. They are a natural fear that transcends sectors and nationalities. The government welfare system has to maintain a constant balance between maintaining human dignity and freedom and the inevitable necessity to intervene in extreme cases where human lives can be on the line. However, the fear of “what will they say” and the social costs associated with welfare intervention in matters of Shidduchim, admission to schools, and so on, are unique to community life.
The deep connection to the community, which, as mentioned above, serves as an important safety net in countless cases, can become a stumbling block that precludes the ability to receive welfare assistance.
Distrust the State
A second reason for Charedi fear of institutionalized welfare is the complex relationship between the Charedi public and the state. The reasons for Charedi ambivalence (at best) concerning the state are deep, and their roots go to the heart of the tension between traditional Judaism and secularism, a tension certainly involved in the birth of the Jewish State. The ideological dispute between Charedi Judaism and secular Zionism has deep political, public, and social consequences that continue to play out to this day. Despite impressive progress in the relationship between the two, the state remains a secular body subject to the authority of a secular court and not that of halacha and the rabbis.
Indeed, there are disadvantages to employing state services. First, constant political tension resides between state authorities and the Charedi community. Rabbinic authority, predicated on Torah and halacha, does not combine harmoniously with state authority based on secular values and the power of the law.
The conflict between the two is often visible in custody disputes. A single mother recently shared her struggle for custody over her children. In the custody agreements between her and the father, it was decided that the children would grow up with her and visit him twice in midweek and one Shabbat a month. However, her ex-husband opted for a non-religious lifestyle, exposing the children to Shabbat violations and content she considered permissive and offensive. The family rabbinic authority decided that the agreement needed to be renegotiated; the children’s education was deemed above all else. Hearing of this, the father turned to Israel’s family court before the case could reach the parallel rabbinic court, knowing that the (secular) family court would be more likely to preserve the situation.
I cannot express an opinion as to what is best for the children; the Halacha certainly considers the matter of a child’s welfare alongside his spiritual situation. Nonetheless, the case illustrates a familiar conflict between two distinct sources of authority with different values. The rabbinic court would likely consider the mother’s concerns over her children’s spiritual condition as part of the “best interests of the child,” while a secular point of view would give the matter far less credence. This value tension quickly translates into political tension between rabbinic and judicial authority.
Even when no such struggle is imminent, the value clash creates a deep sense of alienation for Charedim needing welfare services. When a committee set to discuss the fate of a Charedi child does not value the lifestyle, values, and beliefs of the child’s parents, it is no wonder they feel alienated.
Beyond the condescension inherent in these statements – in their thinking, committee members care more about the child’s welfare than their own parents – they simply failed to understand the parents. They could not overcome the intuitive thought that the parents were another primitive and unenlightened Charedi couple caring more about their superstitions than the “best interests of the child.”
For instance, in a recent planning committee at the Welfare Ministry for an at-risk Charedi boy about 14 years old with a background of sexual abuse, it was decided to seek professional psychological treatment alongside parental counseling. Asked by the relevant professionals what was truly important for them in their son’s care, the parents replied that it was essential that he should only meet with a male Charedi therapist authorized by rabbis.
The committee members were stunned by these demands, employing expressions such as “disconnected” and “adding salt to injury” and believing that the parents did not have the welfare of their child in mind. Beyond the condescension inherent in these statements – in their thinking, committee members care more about the child’s welfare than their own parents – they simply failed to understand the parents. They could not overcome the intuitive thought that the parents were another primitive and unenlightened Charedi couple caring more about their superstitions than the “best interests of the child.”
I agree that there are cases in which parents insist on dogmatic principles without realizing that these can harm their child. However, this case involved loving and devoted Charedi parents whose primary interest was definitely the best interests of their child. Aside from a desire to grant the child a culturally attuned therapy experience, they were simply concerned about an encounter with secular content and values. Dealing with the injury to their child was unbearably difficult, and they understood that the boy required external help; what they needed and didn’t receive was understanding and respect for their values.
Of course, these cases do not reflect the welfare system as a whole. Many professionals possess cultural sensitivity, humility, and respect for parents and their sensitivities. However, there are also cases in which Charedim experience disdain toward their way of life and its value scale. These cases fuel the fire of Charedi suspicion of the welfare system.
Added to instances of conflict or blatant disdain for Charedi values, a lack of understanding of Charedi norms often causes errors to be made in perfectly good faith.
For example, in a conversation with a social worker, the case of a 5-year-old Charedi girl referred for diagnosis of learning disabilities came up. The diagnostician was a secular psychologist who barely came into prior contact with the Charedi public. At the end of the diagnosis, she determined that the girl had mild autism. This diagnosis surprised the social worker; this was not why she sent the girl for diagnosis.
In conversation with the psychologist, it became clear that the reason for the autism characterization was the girl’s abnormal behavior. During the diagnosis, the girl was shown cards with pictures, and her reaction to them was tested. One of the cards showed a picture of a girl sitting on a chair eating and a dog sitting next to her. The diagnostician tried to talk to the girl about the picture, but she kept repeating the sentence: “The dog is sitting next to the girl.” In the perception of reality of many Charedi girls, the idea of a girl sitting calmly beside a dog is implausible, which was the cause of the excessive repetition. The psychologist, however, interpreted it as a sign of autism.
This is a small and unusual example; anybody used to working with Charedim would not fall for it. Yet, it reflects deeper language gaps that contribute to the sense of suspicion, certainly when accompanied by sentiments of rejection, estrangement, and disrespect. These add to the universal parental suspicion of welfare services that threaten to interfere with the most private and intimate spheres of our lives.
Unfortunately, such intervention is sometimes essential; the costs of its absence can be high and tragic.
Social welfare services perceive Charedim as a significant challenge. Yet, I believe that the challenge can be turned into an opportunity. Welfare does not have to be the enemy of the community. With a healthy dose of goodwill and good attitudes, Charedi society can and should become a body working closely with the welfare system.
The road to this destiny is not an easy one. The state, for its part, should make the necessary effort to diversify the staffing at the Welfare Ministry, and the Charedi public, for its part, should give space to welfare and care providers as part of the services offered to those seeking help within the community. Both parties will not easily give up their autonomy, but I believe that with enough goodwill, it is possible to build mutual trust that will benefit all parties.
If the welfare system can cooperate with rabbis and community bodies, it will gain far more trust from the Charedi public than it enjoys among other sectors. Instead of being an obstacle, the community will become a mediating entity between the needy and professional and state bodies. No person feels at ease when a state representative enters his home. Yet, he will feel much less threatened if it is somebody from his own community. If the welfare system is accompanied and supported by the community, the social worker will not be a foreign and alienated state representative but rather a part of the community who is readily trusted.
In terms of concrete steps, an important beginning is the participation of rabbis and figures of communal authority in treatment planning committees and professional meetings. This will dissolve the tension between rabbinic and state authority and, over time, create a healthy trust infrastructure. The Charedi individual will not feel that the welfare system invades his home from the outside; he will appreciate its respect, and it will earn his trust. All will benefit from this development: professional decisions will be more focused and precise, and the community will enjoy services that can be essential.
The community cannot treat the state as a body whose role is limited to collecting the broken fragments of those who have been ejected from every community institution and framework. It needs to cooperate more closely with welfare authorities, shedding some of its suspicions and engaging in prevention as well as treatment
A second required step relates to Charedi society, which needs to collaborate with professionals and caregivers on a systemic level. The cooperation of the yeshiva and seminary deans with professionals and courses of treatment, which has improved but remains far from satisfactory, is much required. The community cannot treat the state as a body whose role is limited to collecting the broken fragments of those who have been ejected from every community institution and framework. It needs to cooperate more closely with welfare authorities, shedding some of its suspicions and engaging in prevention as well as treatment.
Within the best of our community institutions are boys and girls who need systemic professional assistance. They cry out silently for help; all too often, there is no one to answer them. I am not pointing an accusing finger at our teachers and educators. They do all they can to deal with the harsh circumstance often labeled “the hidden dropout phenomenon.” However, their ability to help is limited. If they could have been assisted by the welfare system ahead of time, many Jewish souls could have been saved.
I recently spoke with a teacher who teaches at one of the leading and well-known seminars (girls’ high schools) in Jerusalem. She told me painfully about a student who hangs out in places that no parent wants his daughter to be in and forges connections that directly endanger her. She explained that the student refuses to cooperate with the seminary’s educational consultant and concluded that “it was a mistake to accept her.” She added that this was no isolated case and that the seminary management is at a loss when it comes to treating others in similar situations.
The solution for such cases readily available to our educational institutions is immediate expulsion. However, this can amount to a virtual death sentence for the relevant boy or girl. Seminaries and yeshivas are correctly reluctant to take such action; they are certainly reluctant in cases where the students come from families with community status.
“Why don’t you cooperate with the welfare agencies that specialize in exactly these cases, who will accompany the educational staff and refer the girl to appropriate treatment?” I asked the same teacher. Her skeptical response was as simple as it was predictable: “I find it hard to believe that the seminary’s management will like the idea.”
As mentioned, I look at the administrators of Charedi institutions and their educational teams with deep respect and appreciation. They work tirelessly to raise the next Charedi generation and invest everything in their power to provide children and youth with a place of study that cultivates growth in all respects. Moreover, in contrast with the past, they do not hesitate to turn for help to outside sources. However, I believe that change needs to be systemic and deeper. A lack of willingness to cooperate with welfare authorities lingers, and it might even increase as more girls like the one noted above find their way out.
Charedi educational institutions should work hand in hand with welfare agencies so that when red lights flash brightly, the boy or girl will receive an immediate response – well before the authorities encounter them bruised and beaten on the streets. Such cooperation will only be achieved by real work in both fields: the welfare field and the rabbinic field.
Welfare systems are seeking to understand and respect Charedi communities and adjust treatment to suit their values and culture. At the same time, elements within Charedi society seek to build an elusive trust in the welfare system. Yet, the nascent process has a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome
Overcoming the significant differences in values and mindset is not simple. Yet, processes to that effect are underway. Welfare systems are seeking to understand and respect Charedi communities and adjust treatment to suit their values and culture. At the same time, elements within Charedi society seek to build an elusive trust in the welfare system. Yet, the nascent process has a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome.
I believe that through a dialogue of mutual trust, the complicated conflict between the state and Charedi society can be resolved; the challenge can be turned into opportunity. Insofar as mutual trust is cultivated, Charedim will benefit from better welfare services, and the welfare system will be able to do its sacred work far more effectively.
Photo by Paul Garaizar on Unsplash