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In light of the budget cuts to the charedi community in Israel, a new initiative has been launched: Adopt-a-Kollel! This enterprise seeks to raise funds for kollels in Israel; specifically, to pair every kollel in Israel with a shul in the Diaspora that will fund it. To many, it sounds like a wonderful idea. In fact, it is a disastrous proposal, as well as being extraordinarily offensive in its execution.
First, some background. Facing government expenditure that was much greater than government income, the Bank of Israel, in its Monetary Policy Report for January-June 2012, insisted that a massive cut was necessary for the 2013-2014 state budget. Accordingly, a whopping three billion shekels was cut from the defense budget, alongside various cuts to other ministries, and VAT and corporate taxes were increased. Alongside all these cuts, 350 million shekels was cut from yeshivos and kollels. For families in kollel, receiving 279 shekels per month instead of 856 shekels per month is very difficult. Accordingly, many people in kollel are in dire straits. Hence, the Adopt-a-Kollel initiative.
The first advertisement that came to my attention was printed in the US edition of Yated and HaModia (and I think also in Mishpacha). It prominently quoted (part of) the famous and much-abused Rambam in Hilchos Shmittah about honorary members of the Tribe of Levi:
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people - such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies -
- and here the quote ended. It failed to quote the last part, in which Rambam states that:
and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, "O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."
Radvaz explains this to mean that the person manages to get by with his own efforts and reliance on God; he notes that it does not mean that he casts himself upon the community for support.
Insofar as Rambam does equate Torah scholars with the tribe of Levi with regard to material sustenance, he makes the meaning of this clear elsewhere:
...the Torah permits scholars to give their money to others to invest in profitable businesses (on their behalf)... and to receive priority in buying and selling merchandise in the marketplace. These are benefits that God granted them, just as He granted the offering to the Kohanim and the tithes to the Levite... for merchants occasionally do such things for each other as a courtesy, even if there is no Torah scholarship to warrant it. A Torah scholar should certainly be treated at least as well as a respectable ignoramus. (Commentary to the Mishnah, Avos 4:7)
In Rambam's view, Torah scholars, like Kohanim and Leviim, receive benefits, but the benefits are of a different nature. They involve the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial gifts. (This is similar to the Yissacher-Zevulun relationship, which, according to Chazal, was nothing at all like it is popularized today; rather, it involved Zevulun marketing the produce that Yissacher farmed.)
Rambam clearly would not have been in favor, to put it mildly, of the modern phenomenon of mass kollel. He makes this clear elsewhere:
One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come... (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10)
This quote from Rambam did not appear in the Adopt-a-Kollel advertisement. I guess that "Adopt-a-Profanation-of-God's-Name-and-Bringing-of-Torah-into-Contempt-and-Extinguishing-the-Light-of-Religion-and-Bringing-Evil" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
The second advertisement for "Adopt-a-Kollel" is downright offensive. It includes the following line from the Haggadah:
"In every generation, they stand against us to exterminate us..."
They are comparing the Government of Israel, making vital budget cutbacks, to the enemies of the Jewish People who tried to annihilate us?!
It's not as though the cuts are not a singular measure directed at the charedi world by evil Torah-haters. They are part of a general cutback in the national budget. The defense budget, which is understandably of much greater concern to the State, was cut by ten times as much. How dare Adopt-a-Kollel speak of this as an attempt at extermination?!
But let's leave aside the perversion of Rambam and the offensiveness of the advertising. Let's not even dwell upon the fact that mass kollel is a modern innovation that goes entirely against the position of Chazal and the Rishonim with regard to taking money for Torah study.
Let's simply instead point out the following: The modern kollel system is a disaster. It is a disaster for the State of Israel, with only 40% of charedi men being employed. This is part of the very cause of the Government budget crisis in the first place!
And the modern kollel system is a disaster for the charedi community. Institutionalized poverty causes myriads of problems, from health to shalom bayis. And it's a problem that constantly gets worse; people in kollel don't just make a personal choice for their own lifestyle, they raise their children with no secular education and no desire to work.
Unfortunately, the charedi world has shown little interest in breaking out of this disastrous system. They have fought secular education tooth and nail. A new charedi school that offered full matriculation exams was unable to locate itself in Ramat Beit Shemesh (thank God, my children attend one of the many non-charedi schools). And Rav Steinman visited and gave a speech in which he condemned secular studies in schools.
Tragically, the only thing that really seems to work is hitting rock-bottom. According to a report in The Times of Israel, as a result of the budget cuts, "for the first time in years, the number of Haredi students enrolling full-time in yeshiva study dropped by a whopping 4,400." Far from trying to "exterminate" charedim, the goal of the government is to encourage charedim to work for a living and to follow Chazal's eminently sensible directive that a person should teach his child a profession.
Asking shuls in the US to help perpetuate the cycle of enforced poverty is not a solution. Instead, we need to help people help themselves, as per Rambam's highest level of charity - perhaps by supporting Kemach, a foundation that helps train charedim to enter the professional workforce. Adopt-a-Kollel is simply Adopt-a-Disaster.
(See too this post: The Charedi Tragedy of Ignoring Chazal)