Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Family / Jewish Home > The Kollel-Man Masculinity Crisis

The Kollel-Man Masculinity Crisis

Without noticing it, Litvish society has placed men as "housewives" and women as the family's "ambassadors." This role reversal dramatically affects the Kollel student's self-image, domestic tranquility, and, therefore, the stability of the whole community.

Av 5782; August 2022

Among the topics that most intrigue outside onlookers is the social status of Charedi women. I often encounter probing questions about “women’s status in your society,” mostly accompanied by characteristic condescension. Every time, I swallow a small smile and think to myself—there are some thoughts best kept inside—that if there is a status we need to be concerned about, I am far more concerned for that of the Charedi man. As I will try to explain below, I do not mean this tongue-in-cheek.


Who Wears the Pants?

Every election in Israel—the upcoming one will surely not be an exception to the rule—sees the question of Charedi female representation rise anew among the same circles. The absence of Charedi female representation, the social norm of gender separation, male-dominated rabbinic leadership, and the male monopoly on institutionalized Torah study makes Charedi society seem a highly patriarchal space. Just the other week UTJ MK Uri Maklev was interviewed by (the secular) Yediot Acharonot, and of the many statements he made during the interview, the headline for the resultant piece was the quote: “Women Do Not Need to Be in Politics. It’s Bad for Them.”

Charedi society sanctifies the inner, concealed place of women and thus refrains from involving them in the political arena, the most public of human playing fields. Estee Rieder, a Charedi feminist activist, was less enthused by Maklev’s statement and didn’t miss the opportunity to attack all of Charedi society and present it as a group that represses women.

[A]nyone familiar with Charedi society from the inside knows of strong subterranean gender streams that developed out of radical changes in the most fundamental issues of human living, namely: the transformation of women into the primary breadwinner of the household

This is fine and dandy, providing good material for Israel’s secular press. Undoubtedly, Charedi Judaism remains far from current feminist agendas. There is nothing terrible about that (in my opinion), and the fact that women do not become public representatives is but one expression of this social attitude. However, anyone familiar with Charedi society from the inside knows of strong subterranean gender streams that developed out of radical changes in the most fundamental issues of human living, namely: the transformation of women into the primary breadwinner of the household. This anomalous situation (certainly for a conservative society like ours) has entirely changed the balance of power between Charedi men and women within the family unit and even among the entire community. In this article, I wish to examine this change, focusing specifically on its consequences for the Charedi man.

Entirely unintentionally, the gender power balance within Charedi society has shifted, and not necessarily to its benefit. Charedi society still holds fast to traditional gender approaches, in which men and women do not share the same status. However, the fact that women are the primary providers while husbands remain ensconced in the Yeshiva Study Hall—this, at least, is the situation in the Litvish community—has created a society in which the reality of gender status is far from the rhetorical ideal. The situation can be tormenting for women, who expect husbands to be “men” in the traditional sense, but even for men who feel their dignity has been taken from them.


Passive Feminization

In western society, the agenda of gender equality has been driven from above by thinkers and academics who developed the ideas and by social activists who implement them, culminating in the revolutionary ideological movement known as feminism. Down the line, feminist ideas trickled down to the regular woman-on-the-street—the “reasonable woman”—reshaping relationships between men and women everywhere and their mutual expectations of each other.

In contrast with this order, in Charedi society, the Rabbinic leadership and official ideology—the hashkafa taught in schools and promulgated by Charedi newspapers, magazines, and media outlets—continue to oppose feminist ideas stridently. A Charedi girl grows up thinking that “feminism” is verboten; calling someone a “feminist” is a slur. The traditional roles of women as mothers, wives, and housekeepers continue to be praised, while egalitarian ideas are condemned.

Ironically, however, the practical state of affairs in the Charedi community, especially among Kollel students, is one that sworn feminists could only dream about. Even today, after the great strides towards equality taken by the different waves of the feminist movement, many feminist activists continue to complain about how the old order of gender relations remains operative in many aspects of society. Men continue to be the “strong” side of the relationship and the primary providers, with traditional gender arrangements still designating the private sphere to women and the public domain to men. In most homes, women are charged with the principal responsibility for raising kids and caring for housework, while men enjoy meaningful careers. Men are the chief “ambassadors” of the family unit, while women, broadly speaking, are more tied down to home and children.

However, the feminist utopia is very much realized in many Charedi homes. Without any ideological prodding, Charedi homes have experienced a gender role reversal that defines women as the sole or primary breadwinners in the family unit. They rush to work in the morning, participate in highly influential work meetings, and are often absent from the home in the afternoon when kids return from school. Every Charedi area in the country witnesses male Kollel students pushing strollers in the morning and early afternoon, a trail of kids in tow. The path to rolling up sleeves to thoroughly clean the house and rule the roost at home to feed hungry kids is a relatively short one. And if we’re already doing the cooking, why not exchange recipes at the local Kollel?

This picture presents us with a reality that contrasts sharply with the typical image of Charedi women. The situation on the ground is that excepting strictly religious spheres, politics is practically the last bastion where male exclusivity is preserved. Everywhere else, women dominate.

These are all everyday matters. At a conference attended by leading Rabbinic figures several years ago, Rabbi Meir Kessler (Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Sefer) described this phenomenon at length, making his disdain for the new reality palpably clear. The headline that one Charedi news outlet gave was “City Rabbi Cries Out in Pain: ‘Kollel Students Have Become Cooks.’” Rabbi Kessler gave a fascinating description of how women in Kollel families have become “women of the world,” making a career and handling the family’s foreign relations, while men have become “househusbands.”

This picture presents us with a reality that contrasts sharply with the typical image of Charedi women. The situation on the ground is that excepting strictly religious spheres, politics is practically the last bastion where male exclusivity is preserved. Everywhere else, women dominate.

Allow me to clarify. Certainly, I do not consider traditional female roles inferior to the newly defined roles of modern western culture. Yet, in a society that grants importance to gender roles, which in turn grants men and women their sense of self-worth and dignity, a man that finds himself executing traditional female jobs on a regular basis may cause a sense of frustration and even exasperation. Indeed, many Kollel students try to conceal the fact that they are effectively housekeepers. As noted at the outset, Charedi ideology is markedly distant from feminist thought, espousing (at least on formal and rhetorical levels) the traditional divisions between men and women. A Charedi family in which the man performs traditional feminine roles, due to circumstances rather than conscious choice, may lead to unease at best and a sense of crisis at worst.


The Dissonance Between Ideal and Reality

The Litvish education system preaches clear and defined roles for each gender: men are charged with the spiritual side of the home and society, and women with the material side. These roles are not symmetrical. The male, spiritual side is far superior to the female role. The distinction is especially prominent in the utterly asymmetrical marital arrangements. As opposed to the traditional system in which men must pay a given sum to wed the desired bride—the traditional dowry—in Litvish society, the woman’s side must lay out a handsome sum to wed the coveted groom, the Torah scholar.

However, this ideal is not always borne out in the practice operation of the Charedi home, where the woman becomes the family’s “ambassador” and occupies the position “(s)he who has the gold makes the rules.” The pampered Kollel student, who legitimately anticipated the higher status in the social pecking order, encounters in real life an independent and powerful woman, one already used to executing all sorts of tasks in which he has no business. The social order that sends women to work “for the sake of her husband’s Torah study” has created a situation in which women are tasked with managing all the family’s relations with the outside world while the man manages its internal affairs. Later in the above-mentioned speech, Rabbi Kessler continued to describe this situation:

After all, some matches are made based on the woman’s high salary that can provide for the home and enable the husband to sit and study, resulting in his being entirely enslaved to the home. He sends out the kids in the morning, he greets them in the afternoon when they come home, and he also needs to cook.

The man’s troubles and, subsequently, the woman’s, begins when the husband fails to maintain his end of the bargain.

The social order that sends women to work “for the sake of her husband’s Torah study” has created a situation in which women are tasked with managing all the family’s relations with the outside world while the man manages its internal affairs

The Charedi woman is taught to admire Torah scholars. She knows how to appreciate a man of learning and character and is the first to give her husband space, time, and respect so he can flourish in the Torah world. But things don’t always go quite as planned. When a woman sees her husband is not entirely thriving in his devotion to serious Torah study, as common for a less-than-negligible percentage of Yeshiva graduates, her practical sense (used to juggling infinite tasks) urges her to enlist him to the unending chores that await performance. There is insufficient justification for maximal and perpetual self-sacrifice when her husband seems a little less preoccupied. Moreover, a woman’s absence from work means an immediate financial cost, so both spouses often prefer she stays at work and the husband, who is almost invariably more local and more available, stays home and helps whenever needed.

In other words, it isn’t easy for the Charedi Kollel student to maintain his elevated status and remain untarnished by the radical changes in Charedi gender roles. Doing so is contingent on fulfilling the role of Kollel student with perpetual energy and verve, with the passion that Torah study can command but that most find it challenging to maintain, full-time, over long years and decades. Such individuals, who in a different life would cut it as professors of Talmud, can maintain the initial status quo and division of labor. His Torah remains sacrosanct, something that cannot be interfered with. Whatever his wife does, he will not become the family cook. But when the father of the family becomes “just a Kollel student”—somebody for whom Kollel is a workplace rather than life itself—he may find himself in a masculinity crisis.


Hard Labor, 2020 Style

Many Charedi women are true superwomen, used from an early age to perform a large variety of tasks.[1] Whenever a husband falls short in discharging his spiritual responsibilities at home, they might also take command of the spiritual aspects of the home, in addition to material occupations at home and outside. Many Charedi women have extensive halachic knowledge and impressive erudition in terms of Mussar literature—areas in which they can even challenge the average Yeshiva student.

In the build-up to Pesach, I often hear women at work conversing on the phone with their husbands, managing preparations remotely. Women who work practically up to the moment of bedikas chametz are forced to enlist their husband, who is home with the kids, to get preparations moving. To generalize, my sense in these situations is that wife and husband would very much like to trade places. She would love to be the one making the home spotless, and he would like to get as far away from it as possible. Contemporary hard labor, a la Pharoah.

The problem is that for the gender relationship to work, our “reasonable Avrech” doesn’t do the job. If a husband can conveniently be home between 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon while the wife cannot, why go the extra mile?

To emphasize, I am not describing some sluggard, a man who finds himself learning Torah against his will and is simply wasting his time in Kollel. I am referring to the mediocre to good Kollel student, one whose position in the Kollel and the community is stable and who is truly interested and devoted to the world of Torah and the values of a Torah life. This is a man who does not search for opportunities to skip a learning session. He enjoys being in the world of Torah study and would not leave it unless he really had to. He is the “reasonable Avrech,” the one with whom we are all familiar. But like most Kollel students, he also has a life outside Kollel. His counterpart in the working world is the “responsible employee” who does his job and goes home. He’s not made of the stuff of being on call 24/7, his life revolving around the office. Our world is replete with such people, and there is nothing wrong with that or them. The problem is that for the gender relationship to work, our “reasonable Avrech” doesn’t do the job. If a husband can conveniently be home between 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon while the wife cannot, why go the extra mile?

The implicit and unfortunate message projected to the Kollel student who fails to live up to the perfect ideal is that he’s practically superfluous. His wife can do his jobs better than him. He neither lives up to the ideal of the Torah scholar nor that of the expert housekeeper. It is a tough place to be.


Harming Domestic Tranquility

The situation detailed above ultimately harms both partners in the Jewish home. Lacking significant and rewarding activities while living alongside a spouse who juggles a plethora of meaningful tasks is a recipe for disaster. The same nice guy who was pampered with a “full ride”—the apartment his father-in-law purchased for him upon marriage—may find himself in an utterly different situation shortly after the wedding. The inconceivable gap between his theoretical status as “king of the home” and becoming the junior partner of his wife can break his spirit. Naturally, this situation hardly benefits the woman of the home, who needs a strong husband in her life no less than he does.

I am describing a reality I see all around me and which I hear time and again from female peers who share their experiences—experiences of living with a husband who feels unrealized and dissatisfied, leading to understandable problems at home.

The inconceivable gap between his theoretical status as “king of the home” and becoming the junior partner of his wife can break his spirit

A sense of achievement is a necessary part of the psychological well-being of anyone, and certainly of men; it is important both for them and for the home. Sometimes, the privileged Avrech will find himself a shtele, a Torah position as a teacher in a Yeshiva, or another position in a religious institution. But this provides only a partial solution. Charedi men employed in Torah frameworks often suffer from low pay and bad conditions, so the position only slightly lifts the morale and diminished stature of the Charedi man. Moreover, the number of available shteles is small, and tens if not hundreds of Avrechim complete for each available position.

So, where does that leave us?


Under the radar, we have witnessed the emergence of a society with reversed gender roles, one which even the most radical feminists could not have aspired to. Absurdly enough, this reality has developed in a society raised on traditional gender norms and which abhors, at least in an official capacity, the ideals of liberal feminism. This state of affairs has a far from simple effect on the emotional state and morale of the Charedi man, as well as the Charedi family and community as a whole. As a mother of small boys, I worry over their future far more than I do over my girls.

The division of labor in the Charedi family has taken a sharp and unsettling turn over the past few years, yet it seems the matter is not being handled or even substantively raised by the different echelons of Charedi leadership. At the end of the aforementioned speech by Rabbi Kessler, he expressed this confusion, even if not very precisely:

We truly face great confusion. I don’t know if there is a public solution to all these issues. The high-school (seminary) principals offer what they have within their limits. Every individual needs to know what fits their hashkafa, their way of life, and the traits of their daughter. And all this does not absolve us from trying to figure out the issue.

Admitting a problem is the first step in dealing with it. But we should recognize that doing so cannot imply a return to the “sun and moon model”—belittling the woman and her salary or forcing her back to the traditional, private realm will not work. We cannot turn the clock back. The horses have long since fled the barn. Whether we like it or not, Charedi women are not returning to the grindstone and the loom.

So what is the solution? I don’t know. I’m just someone who hears the distress signal, giving it a voice and a platform and hoping that someone listens. Charedi women need to be aware of what is happening around them rather than hunkering into the familiar track without considering their partner for the journey. If both are aware of the relevant issues and guide their path wisely, we can reduce and provide some relief for those paying the price of all this.

In addition, we are in serious need of leadership. What needs to be in the behavioral, emotional, and Torah toolbox of the Charedi family emerging before our eyes? Do we need a new direction, a new horizon? We would do well to give these questions careful consideration; far better than allowing the answers to emerge from a new reality molded by a distorted agenda not of our own making.

[1] Though not all make it; see Maayan Meir’s article on the subject.


Photo by Paul Arps from The Netherlands, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “The Kollel-Man Masculinity Crisis

  • Thanks for this important article, raising an issue that has disturbed me for years. My father was among the first Israeli Avreichim, and my mother took upon herself every task under the sun, in the home and outside. Over the years, my Father was pushed out of any significant decision, his voice was barely heard, which was a damaging situation for him, for my parents’ relationship, and for the kids. I don’t know about changing the model – it is deeply entrenched – but within the model I would urge women to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and that the home continues to reflect the significant of Torah study even when this is not easy. I would also point out how unfortunate it is that the secular media in Israel jumps to highlight empowered women, especially modern women who might even be social media personalities, and their disempowered husbands. There’s no shame in helping at home, but I wouldn’t want to be one of those husbands.

  • Thanks for the welcome piece. Unfortunately, I don’t see any rays of sunshine coming from the leadership, and the only development is going to come from grass roots motion such as the type we read about on Tzarich Iyun.

    • I think there is a femininity crisis as well. Many (though certainly not all) women would rather stay home with their children and be full time mothers. Work leaves them feeling a nagging sense of emptiness because their maternal yearnings are not being fulfilled, in spite of having children. A system which relies on full time work and sending newborns to childcare at 6 weeks simply does not work for all women.

  • Great article, just needs to go the extra mile and make the case for going out to work. I suppose this is implied, but some things just need to be said out loud.

  • Duh, a non-traditional system has flaws. what a surprise! And what brings it to the fore: men cooking and cleaning for Pesach. Is that not ironic and reflective of a male dominated society.

    When klal Yisroel saw the likes of RAK, the GRASH, RYK, RYYW, RAEK, etc all zichronom le’vverakhah in kollel, no one raised an issue. Their gadlus/uniqueness was always acknowledged. after a period in kollel, they went on to lead different parts of klal Yisroel. No issues arose.

    Kollel for all, forever, including the run of the mill bochur, has to cause problems. Any reason to be surprised that a new mode of existence faces issues?

    we need fundamental change, not tinkering around the edge

  • Walking through the parks of Yerushalayim or the lobbies of its hotels one cannot help but notice the plethora of haredi shidduch dates. With few exceptions, it seems as if the young women are more mature and ready than the often effeminate boys with whom they are meeting. The girls radiate a certain measure of life experience that may come from having washed dishes, made beds, cooked meals, cared for younger siblings, earned some money of their own, and acquired a marketable skill, trade or profession that is needed in the real world. One gets no such impression of the boys. They want their expensive Borsalino and gold cufflinks, their tight fitting trousers and suit jackets, but one senses a lack of even minimal worldliness, no callouses on their hands, and not much ruchniyut radiating either.

    There was a time when a life of learning Torah might have meant a life of mesirut nefesh, and a readiness to live in poverty l’shem Shamayim. This is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was. Yeshiva bochurim demand a comfortable middle class lifestyle without anything being expected of them, and knowing full well that the apartment they demanded from their prospective father in law is something they will never be able to provide when their own daughters are ready to marry.

    Having no intention of earning an honest living, these boys acquire no education or marketable skills needed should they ever have to enter the labor force. And they turn a blind eye as they blithely send their wives off to work in the real world, ignoring the likelihood of their spouses waking up to how normative people live, and how husbands are – as they always have been – expected to protect and provide for their families.

    But concomitant with the brainwashing a Bais Yaakov girl gets on the idea of being married to a ben-Torah, she also get a strong education (probably stronger than her husband’s) in Chumash and Navi. One day she comes coming home from her high-tech, or laboratory, or vocational therapy job and hands her paycheck to a husband who isn’t exactly “shtayging” in the beis midrash and who can hardly be counted on to be her protector and provider, and she remembers what she learned in Chumash, that an “ish” is a man who is “mi-ben esrim shana v’maaleh yotzei tzava” And that any man who does not meet this criterion in not even counted in the census nor is he accorded a plot of land in Eretz Yisrael. It’s as if he simply doesn’t exist. And she thinks of all the religious men at her work placed who provide for their families, and who pay taxes, and who do Daf Yomi at night or early in the morning, and who are sergeants and captains and colonels in miluim. And she begins to questions her entire life and the fact that she gets none of this from her husband yet she is still expected to defer to him as the totty, the king, the balebos in the house. And, tragically, it’s too late to change her lot BUT it is not too late to engineer a different life for her own sons and daughters. And this is where the yeshuah will come from. As increasingly the breadwinners, ie. the kollel wives, decide on a different end game for their own children ESPECIALLI since there will be no fathers-in-law among their generation to put the next one on kollel easy street.

  • In addition to a masculinity crisis it is also a major sholom Bayis issue in the Charedi world

  • A non-Orthodox Jew who lacks any Charedi acquaintances but does have Modern Orthodox friends, I can only suggest that the best solution is for the bride and groom to understand themselves and discuss their emotional needs with each other openly before marriage. The difficulty is that eighteen-year-olds of both sexes are generally not insightful or experienced enough to understand their needs.

  • Solution seems to be to integrate men more in the workforce and let women be stay-at-home wives to a greater extent. The inverted gender structure in the Haredi community doesn’t gel with its professed traditional values. This also means that fewer men can study the Torah all day (but can still do it *every* day, a distinction).

    • I agree that’s it is a male problem, and, as a previous commenter stated, it is also a female issue. I would just add, that due to dad not being fulfilled and respected, and mom not having the space to breathe, the children are all the worse for it and the entire family unit suffers. It is not a sustainable model nor is it endorsed by Judaism – to the contrary – mom at home with the kids and dad bringing in the bacon, or the beef as it may be, is enshrined in the kesubah from time immemorial. For good reason.

  • Haredi society is the only society in the world which produces more women working in hi-tech then men. Meaning, if you look at data about Haredi men who are working and work in hi-tech, Haredi women outnumber them with a ratio of 3:1. All the other societies of the world–which according to most of the comments above–are so much better than ours–fail to recognize the so so many things that are wrong about western society. We actually prove that gender biases need not be as they are.

    I appreciate the many complications described above and in our generation one size should not fit all. But of my three married children –2 are in kollel and one is working–are happy most of all because they live in a society that emphasizes early marriage, a religious life and values and living goodness. Leave that out of the picture or pursue other values and you have lost everything. I have worked for 30 years and earned my own way and without a life of Torah I could have been in a very different place.

  • Emasculation of men is worldwide today. From Botox to hairlessness to ”gender egalitarianism” (or lack of gender altogether!) these concepts exist big time out there. Feminism is fast slipping into the shadows.
    Normative families with their endless appetite for comfort, instant, entertainment, brand names and keeping up appearances, in any case demand two working partners.
    This in turn demands a level of caretakers, substitute parents and services unknown in previous generations.
    And this millennial generation we have birthed are in trouble!
    Forget for a moment yeshiva and bais yaakov ideals. Social pressures on our youth are insupportable!
    Kollel full time is no longer supportable financially or socially. So most DO work: Scribes, tutors, drivers, administrative yeshiva work, managing mortgages, gemachs, ”helping” wives run cottage businesses etc. In-between kollel, babysitting and shopping hours.
    And they ARE working on a shared basis. It just presents differently. While yeshivas and seminaries are still preaching the old model.
    This is today’s real friction!

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