With government closed, some workers turn to study

Some federal employees have been coming to Yeshiva of Greater Washington to study Torah during the government shutdown. Photo by Jared Foretek.

It’s Thursday morning and Paul Werner is sitting inside the Yeshiva of Greater Washington with the Book of Esther open. He’s not a student at the yeshiva but this isn’t a normal Thursday. The federal government is shut down and employees like Werner — who would only say that he works in the executive branch — have been furloughed.

For Werner, the shutdown has its upsides. He can spend more time with his family and use an otherwise lazy weekday morning to learn Torah. But at the end of the day, he wants to get back to work as soon as possible as the prospect of a missed paycheck looms.

“I have six children,” he says, “and I pay private school tuition.”

Werner is one of about 400,000 “non-essential” federal employees on furlough as President Donald Trump demands more than $5 billion from Congress to build a wall on the border with Mexico.


It appeared that Democrats and Republicans would be able to narrowly avoid the third shutdown of the Trump presidency when the Senate passed a stopgap measure to fund the government on Dec. 19, but by the next day it was clear that Trump wouldn’t back off of his demands, which Democrats refused. By Dec. 20, Werner knew what was coming.

“There were reports that [Trump] changed his mind and now he wants money for the wall. As soon as I read that, I knew it was going to happen,” Werner said.

He’s been through this before. In 2013, he was furloughed for 16 days when congressional Republicans refused to fund the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But Werner said it’s impossible to be fully prepared for something like this, and he’s concerned that the shutdown could continue until Democrats take over the House of Representatives Jan. 3, or even beyond.

“There’s obviously a cash flow issue. Every single shutdown that’s happened, the employees have been paid retroactively, but that’s never guaranteed,” Werner said. “It’s nice to have time to spend with my family and sit here learning Torah, but it’s not like a vacation that you can prepare for. Every single day you could be back to work.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Reingold has been opening up the school’s beit midrash, or study room, for government employees on holidays for years. On Christmas, he said, a special study session brought out 100 people.

“Dec. 25 is a good day for Jews to study,” he said.

But now, you can find a few government workers there almost every day as long as the shutdown continues, he said. Last Thursday, two federal employees had come to learn. “With Hashem’s help the government should re-open soon but until then … come and learn!” read a flyer on the door.

Though Werner said he was happy to take advantage of the additional free time, it’s a luxury most would prefer not to have.

Government workers received paychecks last week, but for those who are furloughed, the next one — scheduled for Jan. 11 — won’t go out without an agreement between the president and Congress. If he misses that paycheck, Werner said he may have to reach out to creditors and ask for some leniency.

“And outside of the cash flow, I feel very privileged to have my job and I take pride in the work I do, so it’s demoralizing to be told you’re furloughed,” he said. “I don’t want to take any free rides. It debases the whole thing on a certain level.”

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