How Lakewood, N.J., Is Redefining What It Means To Be Orthodox in America
Seventy years ago, Rabbi Aharon Kotler built an enduring community of yeshiva scholars by making peace with capitalism
BMG’s pragmatic approach informs student life in the yeshiva as well. The Lakewood yeshiva is unusual in that it is a type of graduate school for older students. Most students arrive at the yeshiva when they are around 22, after they have already devoted a good number of years to intensive Talmud study, at a time when they are thinking of marriage and starting a family. A rule prohibits dating during the student’s first six months at the yeshiva (referred to as being “in the freezer”), but nearly all students get married soon after, within their first two years. Of the 6,600 students at Lakewood today, approximately 1,200 are single and 5,400 are married. Lakewood students are highly valued in the Orthodox marriage market. The young men meet women through the involvement of parents and the help of intermediaries, shadchanim, who earn a fee if a marriage results. I met a young married BMG student who runs a successful matchmaking business—no doubt his vantage point in the beit midrash provides him with a critical competitive edge. The yeshiva supports the efforts of students to get married by offering a range of classes on topics thought to be critical to a proper Jewish home, as well as premarital counseling. Married students receive a small stipend from the yeshiva; $85 a week, according to one student I spoke to. Yungeleit are able to get by financially through a combination of the income of the wife, who typically works while her husband studies, the yeshiva stipend, government support, and support from parents. BMG is an accredited college and grants undergraduate and masters degrees. Students therefore are eligible for student loans, Pell grants, and work-study pay. Given their low declared income, these families are entitled to inexpensive or free health care from the state of New Jersey, as well as food stamps.
Most BMG students at some point leave the yeshiva to make money to support their growing families, usually when they reach their late 20s or early 30s. Finding jobs or establishing careers that would provide an adequate income to comfortably support a large, growing family would appear to be a daunting task for a 30-year-old adult male with no real secular education beyond the eighth grade, but BMG alumni seem to have figured out how it can be done. Some go for quick college degrees at state universities or private universities like Touro; others are able to use their BMG degrees in Talmudic law, together with credible board scores, to get directly into masters degree programs in business and accounting. Some are able to gain admittance to law schools: BMG alumni can be found at Columbia and Harvard law schools (not many, to be sure). Many go directly into business, joining a family business or starting their own, which can provide the flexibility of being able to continue to devote many hours on a regular basis to the study of Torah. One full-time student I met owns two drugstores in town and showed me how he is able to track cash register transactions in real time on his smartphone.
Visiting the batei midrash of BMG—the yeshiva has eight main study halls—it is easy to envision how the students could function well in corporate jobs at banks or law firms. Each beit midrash is tightly packed with row upon row of chairs, and the students appear to tackle their studies with their chevrusas, or study partners, in a disciplined, workmanlike manner. They are mostly from the Lithuanian community of Haredi Jews and therefore wear dark business suits rather than the long coats of Hasidic Jews and are generally clean-shaven and well groomed. English, not Yiddish, is their primary language, which they speak unaccented. Wearing a yarmulke, or even having one’s tzitzit strings showing, is no longer a barrier to employment, at least in the New York area. Many careers are of course foreclosed by the lack of secular education, such as the sciences or engineering, but these students have a very practical focus on earning a good living. The material comforts provided by a successful business career—a large house, resort vacations, fine clothes—are not considered, in and of themselves, inconsistent with a life of piety.
The “Primacy of Torah” was an apt phrase for the motto for the azkarah, as it hints that there is something else that serves as a necessary supplement to the study of Torah, namely making money. The pragmatic approach of Lakewood stands in stark contrast to that of the Lithuaninan Haredi community in Israel, where the prevailing ideology is one of “Only Torah.” Yeshiva students there are expected to devote their entire lives to the study of Torah; secular education and jobs are actively discouraged. According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, a Hebrew University lecturer whose research focus is Orthodox Judaism and Haredi society, Israeli Haredis view their American counterparts with a measure of condescension: The bourgeois lifestyle of American Haredis may be acceptable “for them” in America, but not in Israel, where the Haredis hold themselves to a higher, less compromising, and more austere standard. Torah study itself in America is also considered by Israeli Haredis to be on a lower level, which Brown believes is supported by the fact that “American bochurim [unmarried yeshiva students] come to learn in Israel, not vice versa.” The same perspective was shared with me by Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Haredi religious court judge in Jerusalem. According to Pfeffer, the “mainstream” Israeli Haredi “looks upon his Lakewood counterpart as being part of the American experience of affluence and luxury and generally believes that Torah greatness cannot emerge from America—even from Lakewood.”
I asked Aaron Kotler what he thought of these assessments of Lakewood by Israeli Haredis and, not surprisingly, like a good CEO, he declined to respond. Kotler does not appear to harbor within himself any doubts concerning the rectitude of Lakewood’s religious path and its scholarly achievements, and he would therefore have no need to defend himself and his institution. He may also recognize that behind the critique there lies covert respect or even admiration. Pfeffer noted that Lakewood, and the American Haredi community more generally, is perceived by Israeli Haredis to be more “tolerant,” allowing its members “greater freedom of choice in leading their lives: the choice to work rather than learn is not shunned, the dress code is not as rigid … and the ‘prohibitions’ (against iPhones, iPads, etc.) are more flexible.” Although some see this greater tolerance and flexibility as evidence of weakness and compromise, others “admire the American model and wish there could be more tolerance and freedom of choice in the Israeli Haredi experience,” he said. As the constraints barring young Haredi men from entering the workforce and business world in Israel are beginning to loosen, and with the political pressure unleashed in the last election on Haredi society to “share the burden,” the Lakewood model may become more than a secret wish. The “primacy” of Torah may one day rival or supplant the Israeli Haredi ideology of “only” Torah—another example, perhaps, of the steady Americanization of Israeli society.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Daf Yomi: Our literary critic discovers more rules on male authority, Shabbat meals, and how the rabbis thought about wealth