Many Israelis have difficulty understanding why Chareidi leaders insist on opening Talmudei Torah and yeshivos despite the possibility of a spike in infections and a renewed closure.
However, Dr. Asaf Malchi of the Israel Democratic Institute (IDI) says in a new study that there is a “spiritual epidemic” of huge proportions in the Chareidi public and an unprecedented number of youths leaving both the yeshivas and chareidi society.
Malchi told Ynet that this phenomenon had started even before the advent of COVID-19 but has gained momentum due to the lack of cohesive frameworks for youths during the virus period.
Malchi’s research, based on 38 interviews with heads of institutions as well as interviews with heads of chareidi NGOs and associations, points out that there has been a total failure to deal with chareidi youth at-risk and a lack of a formal body which would direct all of the different services.
In the past seven months, thousands of chareidi yeshiva students have found themselves without a framework – and the dropout rate, which had always existed in a minor way, has soared as a result. Malchi has unofficial data of 15% hidden dropouts, meaning that they are only partially within a framework.
Some chareidi elements have blamed the authorities. Rabbi Shimon M., a kollel head from Modi’in Illit, is associated with the Jerusalem Faction, a group organizing numerous demonstrations against any form of agreement to chareidi army enlistment.
He says that “I have no doubt that the government and other elements have found the opportunity to disturb the normal regimen of the yeshivos. They simply want to cause the chareidi public to disintegrate. They know that the yeshivos are the central anchor of chareidi society and they are trying to harm this aspect. Unfortunately Aryeh Deri and others who pander to the media don’t understand this and cooperate with this trend.”
Rabbi M. says that he met lots of youths on the streets in the summer and this led him to open a special framework: ‘We organized zitzes (evenings with inspirational songs and speakers) and brought food, music and speakers who can touch people’s hearts. During these evenings many youths agreed to attend ‘alternative yeshivas’ which we opened and thus we saved them from the streets.”
Rabbi Shlomo B., a yeshiva ketana teacher, considers the smartphone the most dangerous foe of yeshiva students during coronavirus. “There’s no studies, kids are bored and they realize that it would be fun to meet at a cookout. There’s always one who doesn’t belong to the yeshiva students and brings a smartphone. The first time they see it they are shocked at what it contains, the second time they are less shocked and take a few peeks and by the third time they ask for it. Watching such content drags them inexorably towards other negative influences which could eventually lead them on to the streets.”
David, a chareidi registrar for yeshivos, also sees boredom as a cause of negative behaviors: “In the first week of the closure of yeshivos I came to the seaside. I met tens of students from one of the most prestigious Bnei Brak yeshivas. They were swimming and having fun on the separate beach. The second week they played with beach bats and by the third week they had professional beach bat kits. In the fourth week I was amazed to see them playing backgammon and smoking nargilas as if it was their home. They came as sweet students and after a month they were street boys.”
The rabbis, however, are not just concerned with smartphones and the army, but rather with the entire change in religious outlook. Rabbi Shlomo B. says: “Take me, for example.
I never in my life listened to the radio. When did I have time for it? Since the pandemic started I find myself listening daily to the news. This is the bad influence of coronavirus.”
Rabbi Shimon M. says that prominent rabbis encourage their students to gain a Torah profession as sofrim or mohalim. He sees this as a tragedy, since “it will reach the stage that yeshiva won’t be a default but just another framework. When you provide an alternative, you change the yeshiva from the only place for young chareidim to just another option. First they’ll study to be mohalim but then they’ll say: ‘Why not hi-tech?
Why not the army? What’s so wrong with it?’ This will ruin yeshivos.”
Rabbi Shlomo B. laments the fact that students’ diligence and ambitions to grow have been hard hit by the virus: “How can I permeate my students with love of Torah via a telephone lesson?”
Dr. Malchi describes a “huge crisis in Chareidi society” adding that until now the dropouts were mainly children of Baalei Teshuva from Sephardi background who came from “wavering societies” which were either not chareidi or “chareidi-light.” However the long closure of chareidi institutions has left more “spiritual victims of corona” in the chareidi mainstream.
Rav Shlomo B. concurs: “I have a friend whose son studies in one of the prominent Jerusalem yeshivos. After Shavuos, when boys returned to capsules, he got a call from the rosh yeshiva:’Take your son, he’s finished. I can’t do anything with him.’
Go figure where he was during this period.”
Chareidi roshei yeshiva feel it’s time for mesiras nefesh (giving up one’s life). Rabbi Yisrael Landa, a Jerusalem rosh yeshiva, says that “corona is life-threatening but for a Jewish girl kidnapped by gentiles we can desecrate Shabbos to return her to religion. A situation where students are sitting at home is dangerous and one could desecrate shabbos to prevent it, it’s that dangerous.” Rabbi Shimon B. agrees: “If there won’t be yeshivos, the danger to the people of Israel will be much greater.”
Dr. Malchi believes that the state should intervene and set up an office which would provide educational responses for these youths in order to stream them into society and the workforce. He notes that the chareidi yeshiva high schools which include general studies have grown exponentially and now number over 2000 students.
It is unclear, however, whether mainstream yeshiva heads, devastated by the loss of so many yeshiva students, will accept as a legitimate option sending such students to these high schools, as the entire concept of general studies is anathema to them.