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Last month, the English Yated Ne'eman bravely published a two-part article by R' Avraham Birnbaum on some of the consequences of the ever accelerating dominance of Lakewood within the American learning community.
While the transformation of Lakewood is largely a tale of the remarkable growth of the American learning community, the changes have not come without costs.
It is now a standard rite of passage for American bochurim who are ready to marry to head for Lakewood. While they are in shidduchim, they will learn in overflowing batei medrash, with a thousand or more bochurim. After marriage, the default assumption is that the young couple will continue to live in Lakewood.
The presence of most of the eligible young learners in one place also has its effect on young women. Those from "out-of-town" communities must either leave their parents' home and move to New York or endure costly and draining long-distance dating.
The Lakewood community of today bears little resemblance to that of even twenty years ago. At the time of the petirah of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt"l, in 1962, the number of kolleleit was no more than a hundred, and only a few hundred when his son Rabbi Shneur Kotler, zt"l, passed away almost two decades later. Today the number is 4,000.
Twenty years ago, most of the community lived in aging homes on a few tree-lined streets around Bais Medrash Govoha. Today it sprawls over vast suburban housing developments far beyond walking distance of the Yeshiva. Many of the capacious new homes are occupied by young couples drawn by cheaper housing than they can find in Brooklyn.
The changes in the community are ones of kind, not just quantity. The kollel couples in Reb Aharon and Reb Shneur's day were idealistic pioneers charting a new course for American Jewry. By and large, they had left their home communities in response to Reb Aharon's call of learning Torah lishma. Today, Lakewood is the most comfortable place for young Torah families to live, and a new trend is emerging of parents purchasing homes in Lakewood and eventually joining their married children there.
Not surprisingly, there have been tensions between the denizens of the "old yishuv" of idealistic kollel families and some of the newcomers, who bring a different lifestyle to Lakewood.
Perhaps the most significant development discussed by R' Birnbaum is the "brain drain" from other established communities to Lakewood. He suggests that an infusion of a large number of young kollel familes from Lakewood into established communities would not only inject needed new blood into those communities but also be good for the kolleleit. The latter would regain some of that pioneering idealism to spread Torah that Reb Aharon instilled in his closest talmidim. (That is already taking place in many towns around Lakewood, where kollelimhave been established and to which groups of kolleleit have moved.)
The presence of larger kollelim might also attract bochurim returning from Eretz Yisrael to the yeshivos in which they previously learned and where they have a personal connection to the rabbonim. In smaller yeshivos, the danger of bochurim falling between the cracks, with no one to guide them personally, would be reduced.
THE CENTRALIZATION OF FULL-TIME AVREICHIM in Lakewood is, in part, economically driven by the lack of affordable housing in major cities with large Orthodox populations. In Israel, economic factors are pushing in the opposite direction.
In Eretz Yisrael too there is a great centralization of the learning community. The dream of every yeshiva bochur is an apartment in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, or, failing that, in one of the new all-chareidi communities within commuting distance – Beitar, Elad, or Kiryat Sefer.
Yet that dream is increasingly beyond realization for many young couples. In outlying Jerusalem neighborhoods in the process of "chareidization," the price of a small apartment that the couple will likely outgrow in a few years is rapidly climbing towards $200,000. Recent government-imposed housing freezes in Beitar and elsewhere have sent housing prices skyrocketing, if one can even find an apartment to buy.
Clearly, the dream of an apartment in or near Bnei Brak or Jerusalem for every young couple is not sustainable. Few parents can afford even half of one $200,000 apartment, much less of many such apartments.
What the long-range solution is no one knows, but part of that solution will have to be more young couples moving to the periphery, whether in the South or North, where apartment prices are less than half of those in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
That move will encounter resistance from both young couples and their parents. The former will claim that their growth in Torah learning will be imperiled by being removed from the major centers of learning.
Not necessarily. When Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was a young rav in Tzitevian he had no one with whom to talk in learning regularly. And the same was true of most of the other 300 communal rabbonim in Lithuania. And yet Reb Yaakov testified that you could not catch one of them on a Tosofos anywhere in Shas.
Today there are many great talmidei chachamim in communities like Tifrach, Ofakim, Netivot, and Rechesim. And there is a special atmosphere of mesirus nefesh for Torah to be found among those who did not insist that they could only learn if they received an apartment in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, and who may have even followed the Gemara's recommendation to seek the daughter of a talmid chacham, even one without a handsome dowry attached. Young couples in these communities also do not have start married life with the burden of guilt of watching their parents crumbling under debts they can never hope to repay.
And finally let us not forget an old A. Amitz story - which, as readers know, are all true - in which the narrator is the youngest sibling of a large family. By the time she gets married, there is no money for her to buy in Jerusalem, and she must move to the periphery. But in the end, it is she who ends up living surrounded by all her married children (and nieces and nephews as well), and who can, as principal of the school, provide jobs for all her daughters and daughters-in-laws.
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