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Andrew Yang’s $1000-a-month stipend reminds me of a time-honored Jewish tradition

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Imagine a world in the not-so-distant future when most jobs in our economy will be replaced by machines; not just blue-collar workers like truck drivers and garbage collectors, but also accountants, bookkeepers, teachers, even doctors and lawyers.

Let’s face it, the rapid transition to automation is going to happen because it means increased productivity, more efficient use of materials, better product quality and improved safety. And also because we consumers want it. Self-driving cars and same-day delivery of Amazon products are innovations that we expect and desire, because it makes our lives easier and more rewarding.

But it does mean that by 2030, about a third of Americans will be displaced as a result of technological automation.

And now with the coronavirus pandemic casting a shadow for the unforeseeable future, the unemployed will undoubtedly also include those working in the arts – particularly theater – film and music, and those in the hotel and restaurant industries.

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who’s running for mayor of New York City, says he has a solution. Since millions of people will likely be out of work with little or no chance of finding another full-time job – because, he states, there is little evidence that retraining the unemployed is working – he’s proposing a radical solution: a monthly universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 to all NYC residents over the age of 18 for life. Everyone, both employed and unemployed, would receive the money, so as to prevent the stigma often attached to jobless people receiving welfare checks.

Since no one can sustain themselves on $12,000 a year, most would need to find part-time jobs to supplement their income and probably have to accept a very modest standard of living.

But what will people do with so much free time on their hands? Maybe the kind of work many do each day that doesn’t get recognized or compensated: taking care of their children or tending to elderly parents. Engaging in activities they find meaningful, like volunteering at a hospital or local charity. Or simply doing things they love to do – like baking, hiking or playing an instrument.

In some ways, Yang’s $1,000 a month sounds a lot like a kollel paycheck.

A kollel is an institute where newly married men come daily to study the Talmud and rabbinic literature and receive a regular monthly stipend from the organization, which is itself funded by private philanthropists and smaller contributions from many members of the community.

Most kollel students receive about $600 a month and an additional bonus of between $500 and $1,000 right before the week-long holidays of Sukkot and Passover to help their families pay for the holiday expenses. Their wives supplement their income by taking on jobs within the community and occasionally even outside of it.

For those who wonder why the community would pay someone to study, it derives from the belief that, unlike other pursuits, learning Torah and the exploration of Talmudic discussions changes the world for the better and brings one closer to God while spiritually lifting the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Bentzi Epstein, director of the Dallas Area Torah Association in Dallas, Texas, was part of a kollel in Lakewood, New Jersey right after he married, and said the experience wasn’t just about learning from books.

“The members of the kollel would learn each day from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm, go home for lunch, and then go back and learn from 3 to 7:30,” he said. “The real goal is to start off marriage on a Torah footing and about building character: learning how to problem-solve, how to show up on time, consistency, responsibility.”

Eventually, most students leave the kollel to go for job training in trades that don’t require a college education – like accounting, real estate or computer programming. But some men stay in the kollel for years, especially if they become distinguished Torah scholars who regularly give shiurim, or Torah lectures, or tend to the religious needs of the community.

If Yang is right, that society is destined to become so automated and to be run so efficiently that a third of its adult population will no longer be needed in the workforce, it could mean a huge transformation of how we view ourselves in the world. In a worst-case scenario, not having a career could lead to widespread depression and feelings of failure and worthlessness. On the other hand, throughout history, most people have proven themselves to be resilient even in the most drastic of circumstances. Here too, I believe people will find ways to thrive in this new reality.

A kollel student may not have much money but he sees his learning Torah as a way of bringing spiritual sustenance to his own life, to his fellow Jews and to the world. I wonder if this focus on the non-material sphere could serve as inspiration for those of us who may someday find ourselves with much more time on our hands than we ever thought possible. Instead of focusing on doing things that make us richer, we might begin spending our time doing things that simply make us happier.

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