Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Av 5763 - July 31, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











In Defense of Jewish Babies
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

One way, it seems, to garner criticism from American Jewish newspapers and religious leaders is to try to assist poor families in Israel -- at least if they include chareidim.

The first stage of a host of "family unfriendly" Israeli budget cuts commenced on July 1, with the curtailment of the one-time-per-child grant of 1354 shekels that has long been provided to Israeli parents. The grant, which was cut to 406 shekels for each child after a couple's first, has both served to signal the importance of population growth and provided families with a modest sum to assist them as they care for a newborn.

With the new reduction, not only has the baby-friendly message been mitigated but the severe economic pressures being felt by Israeli families, who are soon to be saddled with severe reductions in their monthly per-child allowances, has been compounded. In an effort to both maintain the vital message and try to make up for the shortfall, Agudath Israel of America recently created a special fund aimed at continuing the "baby bonus" for as many Jewish families as possible.

Agudath Israel also reached out to the United Jewish Communities, the general American Jewish community's major philanthropic arm, suggesting that it might want to help fill the budget cut gap by following suit with a similar fund of its own. While Agudath Israel's constituents are dedicated and generous, their donations to its fund will not likely be able to provide the "baby bonus" to more than a small percentage of Israeli families with newborns.

The reaction, at least in some circles, was harsh -- essentially, it seems, because many Israeli babies are born to chareidi families. While Agudath Israel wants to see all Jewish parents encouraged to have children and assisted in caring for them (a major reason we asked that the UJC consider a fund of its own), the highest birthrate among Israeli Jews is, to be sure, within the chareidi community.

Reform and Conservative leaders objected to our outreach to the UJC, on the grounds, in the words of one, that our concern "does not represent the mainstream priorities of American Jewry." He went on to call the fact that so many chareidi men are involved in full-time Torah-study "a distortion of Judaism."

Two Jewish newspapers denigrated our effort as well. One, The Forward, averred that it makes no sense for American Jewish communal organizations "to spend [their] limited funds on campaigns to undermine Israeli government policy."

Explaining itself further, the paper noted that "Chareidi Jews are expanding exponentially as a share of the Israeli population, thanks to a high birthrate that's practically subsidized by government child allowances." Most of those chareidim, it went on to claim, "don't work, don't pay taxes and don't serve in the army."

Those words betray a disturbing bias, and are as misleading as they are irate. Most chareidi families, in fact, include an active breadwinner (often the woman of the house, something that should hardly be offensive in our day and age); chareidim pay income taxes like anyone else, not to mention the Value Added Tax attached to many major purchases in Israel; and, while there are indeed only limited numbers of chareidim in the army, the top brass has repeatedly insisted that it simply would not be able to handle an influx of chareidi recruits, considering the special religious needs they would necessarily bring along.

For their part, chareidim sincerely believe that Jews' physical security is ultimately dependent on spiritual merit, and thus that their dedication to Torah study and observance is itself a vital factor in the protection of their fellow Jews.

In any event, whether or not Israel's economic decisions are in fact fueled, as The Forward assumes, by an attempt at social engineering, it can be safely assumed that no Israeli chareidim will choose to have smaller families because of child-unfriendly cutbacks. And so, the only choice facing the rest of us is simply whether to help them -- along with all Israeli families -- feed and clothe their children, or not.

There may be a small percentage of draft-dodgers or freeloaders in Israel's chareidi world, but they are overwhelmed by the vast majority of Torah-students who, along with their wives and children, live their Jewish idealism to the fullest -- and, in the process, enhance the Jewish character of the Jewish state immeasurably. Whether the average American Jew agrees or disagrees with their lifestyle, certainly their hungry babies have a Jewish moral claim on all Jews.

At a time when the Jewish world outside of Israel is, by all accounts, shrinking, and Israel is threatened in an overt way by those who would seek to make the Middle East Judenrein, shouldn't all Jews, rather than nurturing their biases, be cherishing Jewish babies, and seeking to help their parents?

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.


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