August 7, 2017 No college: shopkeepers and entrepreneurs
A reader asked: How are Hasidic Jews so wealthy? They don’t believe in a college education, but one was able to buy a former hotel in my neighborhood.
As a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, I’ve gotten used to being asked this question. The first time I explained how Hasidim are educated – with all emphasis on religious learning – and I got this question, I didn’t expect it. Having grown up Hasidic I wasn’t used to thinking of education in the strictly vocational way that secular people think of it.
Apparently in the secular world, and that is everywhere (we have tourists from all over the western world) education is thought of as purely work training. People think they go to school only so they could earn a living. Twelve grades plus four years college, plus a master’s, in order to peddle this skill or that product. It is fascinating that people have forgotten that you could learn things on the job. People assume that if you don’t have a formal education in something, then surely you are handicapped forever. But the world wasn’t always that way, and humans can learn things quickly.
There was a time when people learned skills on the job, and schooling had nothing to do with those skills. If you were to become a carpenter, you’d apprentice for a few years. If you had gone to the local one-room schoolhouse, your elementary training would have done nothing for your carpentry skills.
It makes me ask: is work really what education is for? Just a job? Are you learning all these subjects only to sit at a nine to five? Shouldn’t education be for a greater purpose?
And why can’t people learn things without being taught explicitly how to do it? What happened to osmosis or adaptive skills or autodidactic learning?
Here is the thing. In the secular world, people believe you can’t do anything if you haven’t gone through some formal training, paid money, and received a paper to assert your qualification for that work. Never mind that to get said paper you just need money for tuition and to show up. You just. Must. List. Degrees. Colleges. Proof.
But Hasidim have a different system. I was hired right out of high school without even a valid high school diploma. I was trained to do whatever work in the insurance office needed to be done and ultimately did large group renewals. Everyone in our company had less than a high-school diploma. We operated in a world in which you were given economic opportunities just because you had a good reputation.
Some men got work through family at early ages, maybe at nineteen, and by the time they were 24 were experienced and out on their own, successfully. Almost no one among Hasidim has heaps of student loans or years whiled away getting a degree. That gives these people a significant advantage in the competitive economic market. Never mind the advantage they have in their built-in network that the community is.