The Elephant in the Room
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman • VosIzNeias / VIN News
Agudas Yisroel sponsored an event last night in Borough Park entitled, “VeAsisah HaYashar VeHaTov.” The conclusions of course were that the bottom line is that Chassidim and all Hareidi Jews should conduct their financial activities lawfully. Whether one is in business for himself, or works for someone else, or whether one is in the lofty field of AVodas HaKodesh, there is no excuse to cheat.
There is an expression known as “an elephant in the room” and clearly, even though the hall was packed there was a rather large elephant in that room. The expression means that there is an important and very obvious topic, which everyone present is thoroughly aware of, yet for some reason it is never discussed. It is too uncomfortable to discuss, and it will not be discussed.
So what is this elephant? You can see it in virtually every comment that is posted on VIN News. You can see it on the labels of packaged kosher Heimish produced food. You can see it in the demographics of bank managers in Borough Park.
One Shabbos after I bought my first house I bought a number of packaged Heimish cakes to bring home. They were fairly good tasting cakes but my wife knew that it was out of character for me to buy packaged cakes. They were labeled “Spunch Cake” and were produced by a Heimishe bakery in Borough Park.
Go into any bank in Borough Park and you will see a bizarre reality. Of all the branches of every bank in the community there is only one Hareidi bank manager. There are no Hareidi tellers. Why is that?
The answer is quite simple and is also the never discussed elephant in the room. Chassidim cannot spell. As a general rule, Chareidi English skills are notoriously deficient at best, and completely non-existent at worst.
Our secular education in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Monsey, Kiryas Joel, and the many other Charedi communities ends at 6th or 8th grade. Sure, sure, the system allows you to study for ninth grade regents examinations, but it is always optional. Usually, study time is limited to about thirty minutes and to a time when the other boys have their supper break. What kid wants to study for regents when every single one of his friends are running around eating and generally enjoying themselves? Teachers are present to help, but no instruction is given.
Some drop out immediately. Some drop out in tenth grade. And those are the better ones.
There is a Gemorah in Kiddushin which lists the obligations a father has toward his children. There are five obligations and it is debatable whether swimming is a sixth. The list, however, should not be a list that remains stagnant. As society and technology has changed, the too have the obligations. We should be teaching our kids how to get along in life so that they will be able to earn a parnasa and serve Hashem properly. We need to get with the program and in this case it means making sure that we have decent communication and writing skills.
As the situation stands now, the socio-religious atmosphere in Chareidi circles actually discourages education. Kollel Yungeleit are discouraged from leaving Kollel and even preparing for a Parnasa until they have a family to support. At that point, who has the time or money available to get an education?
Touro College has a program called the Parnasa Institute, and it is shameful that the people behind this initiative are not treated as heroes that are addressing a real social problem – indeed, a crisis.
Even in the Litvish world, our Roshei Yeshiva are not encouraging the Kosher programs that are available to their students for those that will not be entering Klei Kodesh fields, or even to have it as a backup plan.
Those in the Chareidi world who did enter the fields of medicine, accounting, or the job force in the general corporate world did so against all odds and despite our system of education – no because of it.
Some former yungeleit are, in fact, successful. They enter businesses of their father or father-in-law. But most do not have these options. One writer wrote in and explained how right out of Kollel he obtained a job in a medium sized company where the principals were Chassidish. After a few years he was laid off due to the economic crisis. He needed another position. To his shock the only positions available due to his lack of English skills were entry-level positions.
I quote from his letter below:
“The reason why I don't stand a chance at a decent job is simply, because the education side of my resume ends after 8th grade. No company would look at a resume for any worthy position with a (sic) education that doesn't even include any high school.”
Shlomo HaMelech tells us “Soneh Matanos Yichyeh” – one who disdains gifts will live. Rav Dessler zatzal interprets this verse as a philosophical recommendation for life. Let us always be givers and never be takers.
This is, of course, excellent advice but without an education we cannot step into the general workforce. Chareidim are forced to be takers – section eight housing, food stamps, wic, school vouchers and much more. And then come the challenges of maintaining our principles of honesty and integrity.
In stressing this point, a common and typical response is, “But there are thousands of people that have made a fortune without having an education! Bill Gates never graduated college. There are plenty of millionaire businessmen, many of them Chassidim that never had an education – and they fabulously successful!”
The answer to this is that it is true. There are many millionaires that did not have an education. But it is also true that there are many, many, people that never brush their teeth and have no cavities. Dentists cannot and should not deny this. However, it is also true that overall it is a terrible mistake not to brush your teeth and it is a terrible mistake not to get an education.
The stark conclusion is that we need to retool our entire education system and we need to retool it now. Our high schools have to teach English, writing and communication skills, and math skills. They have to do it and do it well. Our parent body has to demand it. They cannot be embarrassed about demanding excellence in education, either. Perhaps they should band together in groups and approach the principals of the schools with their desires.
Our elementary schools have to destroy the atmosphere that is pervasive in many chareidi elementary schools that English classes should be derided and abused. They are the life line that will vouchsafe the future honesty and integrity of our children.
This is the undiscussed “elephant in the room” that existed in the room last night. The problems addressed in the Agudah sponsored meeting will never be resolved until and unless the underlying causes are addressed.
The dire and terrible incidents of the past week should be viewed as wake-up call. We must act and act now. Perhaps another Asifash should be called. These issues are as important as any and they are necessary to ensure that our children have the skills necessary not only to thrive but to survive.
Just like in gardening one cannot resolve a weed problem by merely cutting the weeds in the middle. They must be pulled by the roots. So too must we resolve the underlying social problem in our system. We need to value the skills of communication, reading, and writing and to realize that education is the key to the future.