I took a mission last month to see JDC-Israel programs, including an inspiring visit to a Haredi program in the Israel Air Force. This is going to be one of the most important issues we face in Israel in the coming years...
Israel Prods Ultra-Orthodox to ‘Share Burden’
Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
By JODI RUDOREN - New York Times
Published: June 6, 2013
JERUSALEM — One ultra-Orthodox job-seeker listed on his résumé, under technical skills, his success in building a hut on his porch for the annual fall harvest holiday and preparing his kitchen for Passover. Another brought a curriculum vitae handwritten on fax paper, folded in his pocket.
Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
When Binyamin Yazdi, an employment counselor, asks ultra-Orthodox clients their e-mail addresses, many respond, “What’s that?”
Israel has been consumed in recent months with the challenge of integrating the insular, swelling ultra-Orthodox minority, known as Haredim, into society. The animating theme of the last election campaign was a call for Haredim — and Israeli Arabs — to “share the burden” of citizenship, particularly in military service, and last week a Parliament committee approved legislation to end widespread draft exemptions for yeshiva students.
But while the draft is the emotional issue that has drawn thousands to protests, the low number of ultra-Orthodox men with jobs is much more important, with a dire effect on the economy in terms of productivity, taxes and the drain caused by welfare payments.
Because of Orthodox men’s commitment to full-time Torah study and a fear of assimilation, only a little more than 4 in 10 of them work, less than half the rate of other Jewish men in Israel, and their average salaries are 57 percent of other Jewish men in the country. Nearly 60 percent of Haredi families live in poverty, and by 2050 they are expected to make up more than a quarter of Israel’s population.
“It’s clear this is a situation which cannot continue,” Stanley Fischer, the departing governor of the Bank of Israel, declared this spring, a warning underlined in a recent report to the cabinet from the National Economic Council.
Without a radical change, cautioned Yedidia Z. Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute, “the Israeli economy will collapse in two decades.”
The urgent new focus by the government, which recently allocated $132 million over five years for training and placement, comes after years of lower-key private efforts, most underwritten by the Israel branch of the Joint Distribution Committee, a nonprofit group that helps poor Jews worldwide. The committee spends $10 million a year on Haredi employment.
There are many barriers to scale. Haredi schools teach little math, science or English: one recent study said graduates had the equivalent of zero to four years of secular education. The community shuns the Internet. Many men want to work few hours, and some refuse to work in offices with women.
“I’m always sort of looking behind me and seeing what is the distance between me and the people I left behind — I try to keep it a small distance,” said Yisrael Shlomi, 23, who is enrolled in a special college preparatory course for Haredim and wants to work in computers. “I have a kosher telephone,” Mr. Shlomi added, referring to a cellphone with restricted or no Internet access. “I still wear the same clothes, I’m speaking the same way.”
Mr. Shlomi said the first time he saw a non-Haredi newspaper was in the campus cafeteria the first day of class. The second day, he opened it. “The borders are getting a little fuzzy,” he said.
Avner Shacham, chief executive of Beit Shemesh Engines Ltd., which has $75 million in annual sales of parts for jet engines, said the Haredi men he had hired at his factory the past few years had had a hard time. The workers cannot read the English manuals for machines. They reject overtime because they want to attend afternoon prayers. The factory’s kitchens are kosher, but some complain they are not the stricter glatt kosher.
“We have rules — the rules are the same for everybody,” Mr. Shacham said during a visit to his plant last week. “It’s a question of performance. Are you willing to reduce the performance of the airlines? Are you willing to decrease the security in flying?”
While Haredi culture everywhere prioritizes Torah study, it is only in Israel that so many pursue it full time. It was not always this way: in 1979, 84 percent of ultra-Orthodox men worked, close to the 92 percent of other Jewish men, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Employment rates plummeted largely because those who skirted army service by citing Torah study as their vocation were blocked from seeking jobs. The new draft law — which still needs to be approved by the cabinet and Parliament — would remove that obstacle. At the same time, the budget scheduled to be approved this summer would drastically cut the subsidies their large families rely on, adding another incentive to work.
Unlike in many religious communities, Haredi women work at higher rates than men — about 61 percent, according to the Taub Center — in part to support their husbands’ Torah study. But that remains below the 82 percent of other Jewish women, and the Haredi women tend to be in low-wage jobs.
Even before the new public focus, change had begun. The number of Haredim in military or civilian service jumped to 2,321 last year from 305 in 2007. The Joint Distribution Committee has helped place 12,463 ultra-Orthodox Jews in jobs since 2005 — a small fraction of the estimated 346,000 Haredim over 20 years old in Israel, but part of an uptick since 2002, when 35 percent of Haredi men worked, according to the Bank of Israel.
The number of ultra-Orthodox attending mainstream colleges has also more than doubled to 7,350 over the past six years, thanks in part to a committee-financed program of special preparatory classes.
“I felt I was isolated from what’s happening in the country, and if I was going to advance in life I had to know the society,” said Yehoshua Salant, a 25-year-old father who is in such a program, linked to Bar Ilan University .
“My parents are not proud of me,” Mr. Salant acknowledged. “The silence is thundering.”
Of nine young men in Mr. Salant’s English class one recent evening, two had fathers who worked — one as a rabbinical court judge, the other publishing religious books. The sons aspired to computer programming, social work, accounting, engineering, owning a business.
“I’ve been in the yeshiva eight years, and I see that I’m not really succeeding — it was hard for me to sit all those hours,” said a 24-year-old from Bnei Brak who spoke on the condition he be identified only by his first name, Haim. “I don’t plan to work in a grocery. I want a real salary.”
Many of those involved in the push to integrate Haredim said the recent public outcry had only stymied progress. Twice this month, ultra-Orthodox soldiers in uniform have been attacked in Haredi enclaves. Mafteach, the employment service whose name is Hebrew for “key,” has seen a slight drop in clients in 2013 after years of steady growth.
“The more you push people, the more they close inside,” said Naftali Flintenstein, who runs Mafteach in Jerusalem and, like his seven employees, is Haredi. “It has a feeling of imposition, or forcing.”
While many men are referred to Mafteach by banks where they have debts and arrive desperate for immediate work, the organization tries to steer them into career training programs. His own black hat and long coat on the bookshelf behind his desk, Mr. Yazdi, 26, makes clients comfortable by quoting Torah verses and sharing his own struggle to balance Torah study, secular courses, a job and child-care.
“For them, it’s like diving into a pool and not knowing whether it’s water or acid or rain,” he said.
Aharon, a 25-year-old father of three who asked that his last name not be published to protect his family’s privacy, came with the handwritten résumé on fax paper. He and Mr. Yazdi sat together at a computer to improve it. “If you were looking for a wife right now and I am your matchmaker, what would you say?” Mr. Yazdi asked.
They decided Aharon was punctual, orderly and had a strong work ethic. They emphasized his love of math and perhaps overstated his experience with calculations.
Aharon’s hands were on the keyboard, but Mr. Yazdi was dictating. Under personal skills, they put: “I have the will and ability to learn additional things.”