Think Again: Looking for win-win
Changes in haredi society have taken place largely under the secular radar.
Haredi combat soldiers Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Eight or nine years ago, I received a visit from a kollel student in his late
20s. The young man in question had been one of the outstanding students in one
of Israel’s most prestigious yeshivot. Yet by the time he came to visit me, he
was angry, even bitter, over what he viewed as a lack of communal leadership
over the increasingly untenable financial situation of many kollel
Two months ago, he came to visit me again. Gone was all the
bitterness that had been so evident at our first meeting. “I could never in my
wildest imagination have anticipated the changes that have taken place in recent
years,” he told me. He is right. Despite the conservative nature of
haredi (ultra- Orthodox) society – evolutionary, not revolutionary – change has
The change has come about in two areas. The first is in the
acquisition of training for entry into the job market. Today there are close to
3,000 haredi young men and women in academic degree programs. Academic campuses
in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak each offer courses under the auspices of Israel’s
leading universities to over 1,000 students, and colleges have established
programs for haredim in a number of professions.
In addition, there has
been a massive jump in vocational training. The Haredi Center for Technological
Studies, the largest group of vocational training centers, has more than doubled
its enrollment to close to 2,000 over the past four years. These are not
rinkydink programs, but in subjects such as architecture, civil engineering,
computer programming and hardware, with national exams.
Much of this
expansion has been made possible by the infusion of millions of dollars annually
from abroad to provide scholarships for haredim – mostly men – pursuing academic
or vocational degrees. Whereas previously haredi men feared to leave
kollel and lose even the minimal kollel stipend or to take on the costs of years
of academic or vocational training, the scholarships have made it possible for
them to contemplate the jump. The private funding has been generously matched,
in many cases, by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli
The second area of rapid change has been in army service,
both in the number of 18-year-olds entering Nahal Haredi, which is now over
battalion strength and will soon have its first reserve unit, and in the number
of older, married men entering special programs developed primarily by the air
force and IDF intelligence. The growth of the latter has been rapid and offers
the greatest possibility for expansion.
In return for sophisticated
training in an environment that takes careful account of the religious needs of
the haredi enlistees, haredim are helping the IDF meet some of its most critical
manpower needs. The re-enlistment rate of married haredi men in the Shahar
Kachol program has been the highest in the IDF.
YET THESE changes in
haredi society have taken place largely under the secular radar. In part, that
is a function of a certain mythology – shared to a degree by haredim themselves
– about haredi society.
According to that mythology, hundreds of
thousands of haredim are automatons who tune in every morning to receive their
marching orders from the senior Torah leaders (gedolim) of the community, which
orders they march like lemmings to fulfill.
Thus if there have been no
orders from the gedolim on the front pages of the major haredi daily papers (nor
will there be) announcing that all but the most accomplished scholars should go
out to work, the assumption is that nothing major has changed.
society, even the most totalitarian, functions in such a fashion based
exclusively on directives from above. All societies follow a more complex
dialectic, a mixture of changes based on new directives or laws from above and
trends from below based on the accumulated decisions of hundreds of thousands of
individual decision-makers. And haredi society is no exception.
two factors are driving change from below within haredi society. The first is
the impossibility of applying an elite model, based on a few hundred highly
idealistic, self-selected, largely homogeneous group of young men who rallied to
the Hazon Ish’s call in the early Fifties to rebuild the citadels of Torah
learning destroyed by the Holocaust, to a much more heterogenous society of over
half a million souls, of all intellectual and spiritual levels.
second is the inability of large numbers of haredim to support themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, Israel’s levels of social benefits are low by
Western standards, and do not come close to covering the expenses of large
haredi families. Nor do haredim receive cheap apartments from the government for
their children. It is hard to find an apartment in the major haredi centers,
even one purchased on paper, for much less than $300,000.
is simply no longer enough to support a large family. And as economist Glenn
Yago has sharply observed, “Trends that cannot continue forever, won’t.” The
model of the past two decades of nearly every haredi man in full-time Torah
studies for as long as possible after marriage is increasingly
THE CHANGES taking place in haredi society will never take
place fast enough to satisfy the secular public. The pent-up anger is too great.
Yet the choices made by the secular leadership will to a large extent determine
whether current trends continue or a major pushback develops in the haredi
Incentives to speed the entry of haredi men into the workforce
are far from exhausted. A negative income tax and allowing men, and not just
women, to benefit from child allowances are just two
Maintaining the accommodations to haredi religious needs in the
IDF is also crucial. The more common it is to see former kollel students in
uniform in haredi neighborhoods, the less IDF service will be seen as somehow
not haredi. And the more young unmarried haredi men who do not view themselves
as suited for years in full-time yeshiva study will join combat units within the
Nahal Haredi framework.
The recent resignation of the chief rabbi of the
air force, citing his inability to ensure the continuation of accommodations to
which he had committed himself, was a major setback in this regard.
the other hand, if the government resorts to coercion, instead of incentives, to
expedite present trends, it will only succeed in giving credence to those within
haredi society who claim the secular public is motivated primarily by hatred of
Torah and those who study it and thereby strengthen the most conservative
elements in haredi society. The demand that all unmarried yeshiva students, with
the exception of some specified number of iluim (geniuses), undertake IDF
service or some form of civilian service is of this nature. It will be perceived
not as some minor tinkering with the structure of haredi society, but as a
frontal attack on the primary value of that society: the primacy of Torah
In the haredi world view, Torah study – all Torah study, not just
that of certified geniuses – is the most potent trigger for Divine blessing to
the world. No one can predict at 18 who will become the greatest scholars, for
that success is only partly a function of IQ.
Nor is there a single
standard of greatness: The debate between whether depth of reasoning or breadth
of knowledge is more important goes back to the Talmud itself. Finally, the
battle over a limited number of places in yeshivot would tear apart haredi
society the way the Cantonist decrees tore apart Eastern European communities in
the late 19th century.
“FAIRNESS” IS an important societal value, but it
is not the only one. The next American election, for instance, will turn to a
large extent on President Barack Obama’s preference for equality of outcomes, in
the name of “fairness,” over economic growth and renewed prosperity. In the same
vein, I wonder whether most Israelis would choose greater equality of IDF
service, even at the price of increased danger.
I spent Shabbat two weeks
ago with the chairman of the non-profit organization behind Nahal
Haredi. He is himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, and he shared with me
a story from his army service that had an impact on his own religious
While in the service he met and officer wearing a kippa. The
officer told him that he was a West Point graduate. One day in a course on
history’s greatest battles, he asked the colonel teaching the class why he had
not mentioned the Maccabees or the Six Day War. After class, the colonel called
him to his office and lambasted him for embarrassing him in class.
course we study the battles involving the Jews,” the colonel said, “but they all
have an inexplicable element to them, and that’s why we don’t teach
Maybe, just maybe, that inexplicable element is the Divine
protection aroused in its strongest form, by dedication to His Torah. At the
beginning of the portion of Matot, we read three times “a thousand from each
Tribe.” The Midrash explains the threefold repetition as referring to three
different groups of one thousand from each Tribe – one thousand to fight in the
battles, one thousand to form the rearguard and guard the supplies, and one
thousand to study and pray. Each group was an indispensable part of a successful
No country faces the magnitude of threats to its existence
comparable to Israel; no country is in as great need of Divine
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written
a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of
eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.