Hassidic Communities Are Built On Charity – Thanks To Their Schools
There has been a lot of drama surrounding this year’s legislation around governing yeshiva education. But in all the discussions, something dramatic and important has been missing: the role of charity in Haredi education.
As I have argued previously, socialization is at the heart of Haredi schooling, and like any religious community, Haredim want their schools to produce students who will internalize Haredi culture and values. Everything in school, from the religious education to the secular education to everything in between, is designed to produce students with a coherent religious worldview that reflects Haredi values.
It is impossible to talk about those values without acknowledging one of the most significant elements of Haredi socialization: interpersonal kindness and charity. Within both the Hassidic and Yeshivish communities, it is schools that socialize students into a particular religious worldview. And it’s simply undeniable that this worldview is a crucial factor in producing the deluges of charity and good works that are ubiquitous within these communities.
In some of my early research, I looked at how certain school activities common to Haredi schools (but also present to a large degree in other Orthodox Jewish schools) help structure religious sensibilities. Small stories, midrashic (homiletical) tales, words of Hasidic thought (or words of mussar — ethics) pepper the day with moral and ethical instruction that privileges a life of giving and service. In that work, I tracked how these stories and inspirational asides framed students’ modes of thought, a large part of which revolved around the importance of living a life of charity.
Significantly, in addition to religious guidance and ethical instruction, students are actively trained in the pragmatics of providing those services, and in many cases this is made explicit in the schools’ curricula. Girls in these schools have a certain number of chesed or charity hours that they must fulfill, helping overwhelmed mothers with new babies, working with autistic or developmentally delayed children, or helping to pack food for delivery to the poor, among others. Boys are also involved in chesed, for example, visiting the elderly at nursing homes and providing them with religious services.
These are not unique to the Haredi schools, but they are present in much greater numbers than in any other Jewish community. These greater numbers are no accident, as the schools’ religious values privileging charity are inextricably tied to the way in which the entire system works.
The intense focus on religious study, the smaller proportion of secular studies, post-high school religious study, young marriage, religious occupations privileged over secular, secular occupations that don’t require extensive education privileged over those that do — all of these features would be impossible if there was no ethic of charity and interpersonal support. The large infrastructure of charity serves to make these religious choices possible: religious study can be supported and lower salaries can be endured when others step in to help out wherever needed. This is why charity and good works are so essential to the curriculum, aside from the obvious religious values expressed; the same curriculum that emphasizes a life of study must also emphasize a life of service, or else the whole system would be unsustainable.
Most people, Jews and non-Jews alike, have probably encountered Chabad shluchim putting tefillin on strangers, providing them with lodging and kosher food, and holding public campaigns to increase Jewish mitzvah performance. But Chabad is only the highest profile group to provide communal services, not the only such group.
Every week, in every Haredi community, boxes of food show up on people’s doorsteps, camouflaged as ordinary grocery delivery boxes, but actually delivered for free, with food and drink for Shabbos meals packed by volunteers. Volunteers also drive people to and from doctors’ appointments; counselors help people with genetic testing; groups provide legal aid, soup kitchens, funds and resources for fertility treatments and children with disabilities, burial services, and supplies for sitting shiva.
Organizations arise wherever there is a gap or a need and can be highly specific: kidney matching resources, support for women on bed rest, roadside assistance, wedding entertainment for orphans, support for Jewish refugees from Yemen and Iran (yet another group pays tuition for Russian immigrants), and the list goes on.
This is all in addition to Jewish loan societies that provide more than just money; they cover every need imaginable: stroller and car seat loans, bridal gowns, men’s hats, and chairs and tables for events.
And it might surprise many that, when it comes to charity, these communities are not actually very insular. As with most things, once the schools socialize students to pursue these values, they are not only expressed within the community; as a general cultural orientation, they tend to extend well beyond the small boundaries of any particular community. Although I have sometimes heard Haredi community members speak disparagingly about outsiders, I have also seen those very same people rush to help when others outside the community are in need. And the degree of help I have seen dwarfs the insular comments I have heard, by many orders of magnitude.
A year and a half ago, I spent three and a half months living in the NICU at Columbia University Medical Center. These were the most difficult and traumatic months of my life, ones in which my wife and I were dealing with the life and death of our son, while also trying to juggle our jobs, other children, and sanity.
During that time we survived — literally, physically — predominantly thanks to the efforts of Satmar and Skver Hassidim, who generously provided heimish meals, places to sleep, and any other resources my wife and I needed while in the hospital. When we needed medical advice, we used more than one medical referral hotline run by Haredi organizations to find the right doctors and hospitals.
These good works were provided to us without question; there was no requirement to be a member of the community, or even an Orthodox Jew. Instead, the only questions I got were of the form “How can we help you more?”
These Hassidim happily provide services to all, not just their own, and they work closely with communities who are often stereotyped as anathema to Haredi sensibilities. For example, Chesed 24/7, run by Hassidim from New Square, partnered with some of the most modern of Modern Orthodox schools (Frisch and Kushner) to provide the food that I consumed in the hospital.
When a non-chassid calls for roadside assistance and a chassid shows up, or a generally irreligious Jew desperately finds himself wanting religious services in a hospital, and it is a Haredi group that provides it, it is important to recognize that this would be impossible were it not for Haredi schools. It isn’t possible to change one aspect of the school day without radically impacting the entire structure.
And when people suggest a radical transformation of these schools, with State oversight of the curriculum, they are indirectly suggesting gutting the schools of their religious curriculum. This is what the current New York State guidelines would do, albeit indirectly, and as a result, it is not just religious study that will be lost, but religious service as well.
It would be a shame, because those values are something we could use a lot more of in these fractured times.
Moshe Krakowski is an associate professor at the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education at Yeshiva University in New York.