In a rare bid for cooperation, the leading voice of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the United States is reaching out to the nation’s main Jewish philanthropic network to seek assistance in a plan to aid Israeli families.
The Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, appealed in a letter last week to United Jewish Communities, the roof body of federated Jewish philanthropies, for help in compensating for an Israeli budget cut that reduces support grants for large families.
While the Aguda letter does not say so explicitly, its assistance plan appears intended to counteract a policy shift deliberately adopted by the Sharon government as a way of altering social patterns in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, community. In effect, its letter to UJC seeks to enlist the federated Jewish philanthropies in fighting the government reform and preserving the existing system.
The Israeli government budget for 2003-2004, approved by the Knesset last month, includes several cuts in per-child subsidies to large families. The grants, enacted decades ago, were intended to encourage fertility and are seen as benefiting mainly the ultra-Orthodox community. Cutting them was a top priority in the election platform of the anti-clerical Shinui party, which won an unprecedented 15 Knesset seats and insisted on having cuts in large-family subsidies included in the budget.
Aguda is seeking to raise $13 million for a so-called Baby Bonus Fund to restore a one-time per child grant. It sought assistance from UJC in a letter to the roof body’s president and CEO, Stephen Hoffman, which was dated July 3 and signed by the executive vice-president of Aguda, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom.
No reply had been received from UJC at press time. Federation officials contacted by the Forward declined comment. Leaders of other religious wings of Judaism said they are opposed to federation assistance to the fund.
Seeking assistance from the federated Jewish philanthropic system is an unusual step for Aguda, which rarely interacts with non-Orthodox Jewish bodies and refuses on principle to accept representation on the boards of community-wide institutions such as federations.
Aguda does not encourage its constituents to donate to federated Jewish fundraising campaigns, with a few rare exceptions, such as the Soviet Jewry resettlement campaign during the 1980s.
Both the Shinui party and its ultra-Orthodox foes have publicly acknowledged that the reduction in child grants is part of a larger effort to force the traditionally yeshiva-bound ultra-Orthodox community into the workforce and to reduce the government-funded incentive to ultra-Orthodox families to have more children. The cuts passed in the current budget are essentially symbolic, targeting one-time grants to mothers.
The fertility rate for ultra-Orthodox mothers greatly exceeds that of the Israeli Jewish population at large, averaging 6.5 children per mother in the ultra-Orthodox community compared to 2.6 among Israeli Jews overall.
Unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men in Israel is estimated at about 50%, although some proportion is said to work in the gray market while officially registered as yeshiva students, who are exempt from military service.
Aguda appears to be counting on cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews in its outreach to UJC. While debate and conflict between the Orthodox and secular communities in Israel are robust and uninhibited, non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are frequently reluctant to voice open opposition to Orthodoxy as such for fear of fueling communal division.
“There is a greater tolerance for diversity in America,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Nonetheless, spokesmen for other religious wings — including Modern Orthodox and Reform and Conservative Judaism — were quick to distance themselves from the Aguda initiative and the Israeli welfare system it is intended to reinforce.
“There must be a major effort by the charedi world and the world they represent to see to it that the next generation has secular or occupational talents that will allow them to stand on their own two feet,” said Mandell Ganchrow, a former president of the Orthodox Union who is currently executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America.
Ganchrow told the Forward that Aguda’s Baby Bonus Fund is a “wonderful idea,” but he said it should “go a step further.” The problem, he said, is that “it doesn’t go to the heart of the problem — that people have to go out and earn a living for their children.”
Ganchrow also complained about the American Orthodox community’s contribution to the federated system, saying it is too meager for that community to expect financial support for the children’s fund. “We don’t see enough Orthodox involvement in federations to have that kind of power.”
The one-time grant per child, according to Aguda, was reduced as of July 1 from about $270 to $81, yielding a total savings for the government of $13 million.
“At a time when Israel is threatened in an overt way by those who would seek to make the Middle East Judenrein, there is a deep irony — some would say madness — in Israel’s severe reduction in subsidies intended to help ensure the demographic growth of its populace.” Aguda said in its letter to UJC.
Ganchrow’s religious Zionist group recently hosted a top figure in the Israeli Modern Orthodox community, former finance minister Ya’akov Ne’eman, who supported in a speech broad cuts in government subsidies to large families.
“There is no other way to go back to growth of economy unless you reduce these expenditures,” Ne’eman said in May at the annual convention of the Religious Zionists of America. “If we will not make this change the entire system will collapse.”
Reform and Conservative movement leaders in the United States contacted by the Forward said they were opposed to federation assistance to the proposed Baby Bonus Fund.
“It does not represent the mainstream priorities of American Jewry or the priorities of donors to the federation,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, the Zionist and world arm of the Reform movement.
Hirsch said he supported the Shinui party’s efforts to reduce subsidies as a way of prodding members of the ultra-Orthodox community into the workforce. “It’s a distortion of Judaism not to work,” he said.
“There are limited dollars,” said another critic of the Aguda fund, Rabbi Joel Meyers, professional head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. ”At this moment I would come down on the side of greater support for Jewish families in the United States because there is a tremendous cost to maintaining Jewishness here.”
Bloom, the Aguda leader, defended the fund in an interview, arguing that Israel benefited from the lifestyle of those charedim who eschew the workforce for study in yeshiva. “A nation of five million Jews surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who have sworn to send them into the sea cannot exist on the basis of logical, reasonable decision,” Bloom said. “There is only one way we could exist, with the spirit. That core of people learning and studying Torah are the spirit of Israel.”
The federated system, continued Bloom, “should realize that with the Jewish population being reduced in the United States, at least in Israel we should encourage having Jewish children.”