Live from the Lilith Blog

April 21, 2009 by

Recession in a failing religious system

In my real life, I am about to lose my job. Furious networking and frantic emailing have left me little time to write anything other than job applications and embellishments on my resumé (all job offers welcome). However, I have had a lot of time to think about what the recession means for Orthodox women, and how paid employment differentiates the role of women across various segments of the Orthodox community.

In the charedi [ultra-Orthodox] community, especially in those sections where the men are in full-time learning at a yeshiva, women are childbearing and bringing home the proverbial bacon. They generally have relatively low-paid jobs such as teachers, secretaries, beauty therapists or shop assistants that provide the basic infrastructure for a community to function. Rarely are they in business (unless it’s sheitels [wigs] or housecoats) and even the recent Israeli initiatives to provide computer training and jobs found that many women were willing to take lower pay in exchange for working in an all-female work environment with flexible hours.

Men in full time learning, teaching in yeshivot or managing religious communal organizations have already started to feel the impact of the increasing numbers of American and European businessmen who can no longer afford to support these institutions across the Jewish world. Even in a good economic climate, most of these men have very few skills that would enable them to get a decent paying job outside the community. By minimizing the value of a secular education, their rabbis have failed to enable these men to provide adequately for their families and have perpetuated their dependency on the tzedakah [charity] of their neighbours (or in England, on the munificence of the welfare state).

The better-educated and savvy women in the charedi community are going to manage this recession by taking second jobs or piecemeal work, while the single working women in the charedi community with no husband or children to support are going to be the most financially secure. Is it too optimistic to think that this economic crisis will force rabbis and educators to re-evaluate the sort of life skills and training they are giving their young boys?

In the modern Orthodox community, there isn’t a minyan where a man hasn’t lost his job – bankers, lawyers, computer specialists and accountants have had their role as family provider snatched from under their tallis, leaving many of them feeling emasculated and depressed. For women, the implications of the recession are still evolving – while a few women complained that their husbands had cancelled this year’s Pesach holiday to a five-star resort at the Dead Sea, most are being much more careful about what goes in the their shopping cart. Mothers are distraught as they start cutting back on extra-curricular activities for their children – jiu-jitsu, folk guitar and tap dancing are under threat, and in a community that heavily guards the phone number of a good Polish cleaner, a few have taken to cleaning their own bathrooms and ironing their own husband’s shirts.

Many of these women are highly-educated professionals who can afford to be full time homemakers, while others are underemployed in mildly interesting jobs for a couple of days a week with their earnings reserved for little treats. After relying on their husbands for years, are these women willing to work full-time to support their families? More significantly, after so many years out of the work force, do they have the requisite skills and confidence to find the increasingly scarce jobs that are out there? When things get tough, what sort of role-modelling will these couples provide for their children? Will young girls finally realize that they need to train for careers with serious financial rewards so that they can support themselves in the future?

There is of course the other group of single, divorced or married women who are already working full time, often as the sole breadwinners in their family or as part of couple where two middling incomes are needed to create one almost decent Jewish salary that will enable them to live in the Jewish area, eat overpriced kosher food and send their kids to summer camp. For these women, it’s business as usual, juggling work and home, with the sceptre of redundancy hanging over their heads, even though fortunately, many are in teaching, nursing, local council and other public sector jobs where there is greater job security.

Rabbis in every community are tackling the economic crisis according to their community’s need – it might be facilitating introductions to potential employers, setting up a discrete emergency fund, calling for simpler simchas or providing some spiritual sustenance during these challenging times. There is much talk of lowering expectations, especially amongst children, and recognizing this crisis as a corrective for previous greed and excess (which is extremely annoying as those struggling the most are not those who created nor benefited from this excess or greed).

In what might appear to be unrelated, there is also increasing concern about the number of young people who are going “off the derech,” and rejecting the Orthodoxy of their parents. Some are motivated by the poverty of their own families and want to escape the inevitable consequences of a poor education and limited contact with the secular world. It strikes me that the fallout from the religious system is less about the big theological questions and more about overcoming deprivation. As long as desire, and not doubt, continue to fuel religious disquiet, the recession will only exacerbate the feelings of hopelessness and cynicism in a failing religious system. And if anyone tries to tell me that the recession is due to the immodest dress of women… well, I may just have to throw my sheitel to the wind.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted at The Jerusalem Post blog.


  • http://rairakuza.com/computer-training computer training

    Exactly what I needed for my paper. Thank you very much. I will post a link back to you when I have it done (maybe before Christmas).