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Aid for Torah study challenged in Israel

Rabbi becomes critic of practice

By Isabel Kershner
New York Times / December 29, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Chaim Amsellem was not the first parliament member to suggest that most ultra-Orthodox men should work rather than receive welfare subsidies for full-time Torah study. But when he did so last month, the nation took notice.

Amsellem is a rabbi, ultra-Orthodox himself, and his outspokenness ignited a fresh — and fierce — debate about the rapid growth of the ultrareligious in Israel.

“Torah is the most important thing in the world,’’ Amsellem said in an interview. But now more than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work, compared with 15 percent in the general population, and he argued that full-time, state-financed study should be reserved for great scholars destined to become rabbis or religious judges.

In response, he was ousted from his own ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, whose leaders vilified him with such venom that he was assigned a bodyguard.

The intensity of the attacks from his own ranks appeared to underscore the party’s own fears about a growing backlash to the privileges and subsidies long granted to the ultrareligious. The issue is not just the hundreds of millions of dollars doled out annually for seminaries and child allowances. Worry and anger are deepening about whether Israel can survive economically if it continues to encourage a culture of not working.

Already, an increasing number of programs prod the ultra-Orthodox to join the work force and to serve out the military duties required of all other Jewish Israelis. But critics say these are not enough: Amsellem says what is needed is nothing less than revolution.

The ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as haredim, or those in awe of God, make up 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7.5 million, but they are increasing rapidly.

Treading carefully, in coordination with the rabbis, JDC-Israel, the Israel branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has pioneered military programs, provided professional training, and set up employment centers for haredim.

Arnon Mantver, the group’s Israel director, said the haredim had gotten used to living frugally, often with help from charity.

Seeking a way out of poverty, about 10,000 haredim have passed through the group’s programs over the past decade, and a few thousand are engaged in adult secular studies at special campuses.

The government is discussing prodding haredim to perform a year of community service as ambulance drivers, firefighters, and the like, in lieu of military service, after which they would be free to join the work force.

“The government is putting a major emphasis on getting the haredim to go to work,’’ said Isaac Herzog, Israel’s minister of welfare and social services. “I see them as a major engine of the economy for the future, and we are seeing more and more change.’’

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