The Black Swan to Save Orthodoxy’s Economy

In a poignant letter to an Orthodox magazine, a young woman lamented that the price of her idealism was too great. Wanting to pursue work within her community that would be compatible with marriage to a young man who would ‘sit and learn’ in a yeshivah, she was encouraged to became a kindergarten assistant. This woman was not from a wealthy family and so when it came to suggestions from the matchmaker, it became clear that her low earning potential was held against her. ‘Top boys’ expect to be supported financially, and if his future in-laws cannot provide this assurance, then a young woman inspired to educate the next generation just won’t get to first date.

At the same time, some schools report difficulties recruiting women for these low-paid jobs;  no one is suggesting that the work is not important, but schools are strapped for cash. However, in most families, this income can’t simply be regarded as a bit of ‘pin money’ for the wife. Rather, if she is expected to generate the main source of income that will allow her husband to fulfill their joint desire for a life dedicated to Torah study, teaching, particularly as an unqualified assistant, simply won’t pay the bills.

Critique and commentary that the lifestyle of the ‘learning’ family is not economically sustainable is not new. A community that combines a dependence on charitable donations with a sense of  unwarranted entitlement is flawed. Yet, pending the community and the country, there has been a shift so that a small, but growing number of Orthodox women pursue professional degrees in computer science, law, accounting and medicine, and some men limit their full time study till the birth of 3 of 4 children, and then go into business or take up a limited number of professions.

The impact of COVID-19 is going to widen and deepen the economic and social fissures across the global Jewish community. In particular, the reverberations will be significant in those families where men are in full-time learning and the women have jobs with a paltry income. Currently, the fundraisers who travel from Israel to wealthier communities abroad, are grounded. Their generous benefactors may be able to make some emergency funding available, but in the long-term, they will have to reassess and prioritize their charitable donations pending the impact of the economic fallout on their own businesses.

Those responsible for the religious infrastructure including yeshivot, the ‘courts’ of Chassidic rebbes, and women’s seminaries will have to diversify their funding streams if their traditional sources start to dry up. How will they make their case in a new reality?  How will they ask others to fund their lifestyle choices, particularly given the negative press coverage of some of the Orthodox community’s behaviour during the pandemic?

If there has ever there has been a time to celebrate teachers, it is now. In communities where the internet is still not [officially] allowed in people’s homes, or where, understandably, there are simply not enough screens for 8 children, teachers, many of whom have their own large families, are trying their best to convey their lessons over the phone.

Are the men in the family sequestered away in their bedroom, continuing their daily study routine as if the world has not changed? Have the women, relentlessly burdened by home and work responsibilities all at the same time, wondered to themselves if this seems fair? The answers will be different for every family and it is not just a question for religious households – across the globe, the pandemic has highlighted the way that families, communities, and the formal economy are dependent on women’s invisible work.

Rabbis have responded to all sorts of halachic questions arising due to COVID-19 including virtual kaddishmikvah attendance and burial complications. Time will tell if any temporary measures become enshrined as normative practice, but little has been said about the long-term social changes. Granted, it is hard to predict, but there’s no doubt that the Black Swan has arrived. As we emerge from the lockdown, and as government grants diminish, the religious communities will have to re-calibrate their economic and social structures. Common assumptions will be up-ended and the loci of control might shift if parents can no longer rely on external support to feed their families or if educational opportunities don’t adapt to prepare its students with skills for gainful employment.

Religious leaders are facing extraordinary challenges in the face of COVID-19, but with foresight and intelligent risk-taking, they can help shape an attitude towards secular education that is more mindful of the changing world around them. Perhaps it’s a naïve ask, but let’s encourage those young girls completing their last few months of compulsory formal education to explore a wide range of careers that will help them meet their full potential: pursue a holy teaching career if it can be rewarded with a decent wage, discover an entrepreneurial streak or pursue professional options that demand intensive study.

Let’s give her the tools to make a choice. Help her support her future family with dignity because her response to this Black Swan will shape her community’s economic future.

Published May 10th, 2020