The release last week of new government population forecasts, along with the
2011 annual Bank of Israel report, once again drew attention to the low
participation of the ultra-Orthodox community in the workforce and led to
renewed calls for greater efforts to be made to address this ongoing
Indeed, it seems that hardly a week goes by without one
commentator or another prophesying about the imminent collapse of the Israeli
economy under the burden of state subsidies and the need to prop up the
ever-increasing haredi (ultra- Orthodox) population.
But despite the
doomsday predictions, there is evidence of a steady increase in ultra- Orthodox
participation in the workforce. Haredi enrollment at institutes of higher
education is growing, as is the increasing number of ultra-Orthodox men and
women working in professional vocations, such as accountancy and law. Haim
Yashar, age 40, of Bnei Brak is one such person who left the world of full-time
Torah study and became a successful lawyer, while nevertheless staying within
the fold of the haredi community whose values and lifestyle remain a central
part of his life. When he was a child, his parents sent him and his siblings to
a haredi school, but one that also taught core curriculum topics he was able to
matriculate with a high-school diploma.
Now a partner at Ron Gazit,
Rottenberg & Co. law firm in Tel Aviv, Yashar did spend considerable time in
yeshiva, learning for three years in the prestigious institute of Yeshivat
Hevron in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem and, after marrying, continued for a short
time to study in kollel.
“It’s important for me to emphasize that I
really admire and value those who study all day and really sacrifice themselves
for the sake of learning Torah,” Yashar said in conversation with The Jerusalem
. “I still believe that the ideal and the most important pursuit is the
study of Torah, but it’s not suitable for everyone; not everyone can do it.
Personally, I came to the conclusion that I’m not able to sit and study like
this all day.”
And, he adds, there is also the issue of wanting a better
standard of living. One of the major impediments to the ultra-Orthodox joining
the workforce is the requirement to first serve in the army or national service
before receiving salaried employment, which many haredi men are reluctant to do
largely because of lifestyle concerns and exposure to the way of life of those
belonging to more open sectors of society.
But Yashar enlisted in the IDF
nevertheless; he did basic training and entered the Education Corp, where he
served for two years. When he was released from the army, he began a course in
law at Bar Ilan University and after four years gained his LLB and a masters in
Yashar says he did not experience any opposition to his decision to
go out to work. It was also something he had discussed with his future wife when
they first dated She knew that he intended to work after spending a short time
in kollel so and was supportive of his decision.
“My family, my parents
were completely fine with me going to work,” he says.
“Why? Because it is
possible to be a ‘ben-Torah,’ someone with a deep commitment to a traditionally
haredi way of life, and work at the same time. Work is not a swear
“I have a haredi household and I’m proud to say I’m haredi. Torah
is the most important value in my life; it always was and always will be – but
that doesn’t contradict the fact that I wanted to go to work for my
Professor Yedidia Stern, vice president for research at the
Israel Democracy Institute, says that the growing numbers of haredim in the work
force is a trend that will only increase in coming years. The IDI recently
produced a report about what it calls a burgeoning haredi middleclass, comprised
of professional people working in professional vocations but who maintain their
culture and identity as members of the haredi community.
“They live next
to ultra- Orthodox communities, they send their kids to ultra- Orthodox
educational frameworks, most have no televisions,” he tells the Post
occasionally they may go to the theater, if the production is appropriate, and
will read the secular as well as the haredi press.
“They work hard to
live in both worlds,” says Stern.
“They don’t want to lose their original
identity, and the reality is that this is how haredim outside of Israel live
their lives. In Antwerp or London or Borough Park, haredim go to work; they’re
exposed to the outside world, but they remain haredi.”
As to the cause
and timing of these developments, Stern speaks of the poverty prevalent within
the ultra-Orthodox community and what he terms the “maturation of the social
“The community is less and less seeing an economic horizon for
their kids and they’re fed up of being in the ghetto and being poor,” Stern
explains. “The haredi population is increasing, which gives them more political
power, but they have less ability to maintain their way of life because the
economic possibilities for them are decreasing and many communal leaders are
beginning to realize this.”
The ubiquity of the Internet has also been a
driving factor in the exposure of members of the ultra-Orthodox community to
wider horizons and possibilities. Stern describes the Internet as “an open
channel to the world,” exposing the community to more information than was
previously accessible. The rabbinic leadership, he continues, fought
successfully against television but preventing people from accessing the
Internet is a losing battle because of its prevalence and ease of access in
“There are big holes now in the ‘walls of holiness’ that
have traditionally surrounded the community,” he says.
ITA KOLEDEZKY is a
senior manager for the ultra-Orthodox sector at Deloitte, Brightman, Almagor,
Zohar, a leading accountancy and consulting firm in Tel Aviv. The firm boasts a
high number of ultra-Orthodox employees, particularly women, among its
approximately 1,000 members of staff, and also includes a handful of haredim in
senior management positions. Koledezky says that the firm provides everything
necessary for haredi employees to maintain their lifestyle, such as kosher
kitchens and spaces for people who prefer to work in a single-gender
environment, although she emphasizes that the offices are completely
“Integrating haredim into the work force is important,” Koledezky
says, adding however that the idea needs to be implemented practically, which is
what her firm has being trying to do.
As such, Deloitte works in
cooperation with the Lustig Institute in Ramat Gan, an academic college for
ultra- Orthodox girls. The firm helps formulate the syllabus for the institute’s
Accounting and Information Systems degree, to ensure that practical and not just
theoretical aspects of the profession are imparted to the
Students from the institute can also elect to do their final
course project in financial auditing at the Deloitte offices, on a voluntary
basis, and Koledezky states that of those who do so, an average of 75 percent
are subsequently employed by the firm.
She is also keen to stress that
haredi applicants are taken on for purely business reasons.
religious values are helpful in the field of accountancy, and they are stable
and reliable workers. They don’t look around to jump over to other firms
because frequently they are the only financial providers for their family so
prefer the professional security and stability of sticking with one firm, so
these factors make them good employees.” It is also a suitable profession for
haredim to go into, adds Koledezky, because it does not involve anything that
might entail compromising on their values or lifestyle.
nevertheless, challenges to overcome when employing people who have had very
little, if any, exposure to broader Israeli society.
The women in
particular often join the firm at a young age and frequently find it harder at
the outset to work in a professional environment than do ladies from other
sectors of society, especially those who have served in the army.
can’t compare them to others who have had broader experience, but we help solve
these issues by putting on workshops for preparing them to work for a large firm
in a cooperate environment,” says Koledezky.
The integration of haredim
into the Deloitte workforce has also often proven to be a positive social
bridge-building endeavor. Many of the female haredi employees said that it was
the first time they had met non-religious people.
And the reverse was
also true, with many secular employees never having interacted at all with
people from the ultra-Orthodox community.
“It opens their
horizons. The haredi employees can see that secular people are not always
hostile toward them and the others get to see and respect their lifestyle,”
explains Koledezky. Haredi herself, Koledezky is married with five children and
lives in Bnei Brak. She says that there is nothing at all unusual in her
position as a senior employee at a big professional firm, explaining that many
of her female friends are also professionals, working as architects, accountants
Many working women are the wives of avrechim, full time
kollel students, says Koledezky, and so it is very important for the women to
provide financial stability for their families. She points out that although the
ratio of haredi men to haredi women at Deloitte, Brightman, Almagor, Zohar is
lower, the gap is closing. Of her own personal experience she says less, but
states that she encountered no opposition to her desire to go out and integrate
into the mainstream labor market.
“The opposite is true, I received a
great deal of support. It is very much admired, as long as you can also
preserve your haredi lifestyle,” she says.
According to new data from the
Bank of Israel released last week, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox men who
worked in 2011 was almost 46%, with the national average standing at
Although the new figures represent a significant, if somewhat
sluggish, increase from the 2002 nadir in haredi employment of less than 35%, it
had previously reached as high as 42% in 1997. The figures for haredi women are
higher, with 61% employed in 2011, up from 47% in 1997, while the 2011 national
average was 66%.
Shahar Ilan, deputy director of the Hiddush religious
freedom lobbying group, is, however, less sanguine about the prospects for
increasing haredi participation in the workforce in the current political
Speaking with the Post
, he acknowledges that positive results
are now being seen but expresses concern that the recent rise in haredi
participation in the workforce may plateau unless more urgent measures are
According to Ilan, the recent rise in haredi employment is
due to the investment made over the past ten years in getting the ultra-
Orthodox sector into work, as well as what he says were crucial reforms carried
out by Ariel Sharon’s government to curb child welfare benefits.
2002, families received NIS 170 for their first through fourth children, but NIS
850 for the fifth and subsequent children. Following the reforms carried out in
2003 by Sharon’s government, which did not include any haredi factions and whose
senior coalition partner was the secularist Shinui party, child allowances were reduced to approximately NIS 150 for every child, regardless of how many
children the family has.
“There is a limit to what you can achieve with
just carrots,” Ilan says. “There is a need for pressure as well. The only
government that pressured haredim to go to work was the Sharon government and a
lot of what we see now is result of what was done at that time. Since then, it’s
been all carrots and no stick because of haredi power in the governing
Ilan believes that the recent increase of haredim in the
workforce will tail off unless yeshiva allowances are cut.
“If we want to
see the majority of haredi men at work we need to make it so it won’t be
profitable to stay in yeshiva and not go to work,” he says.
Ilan, a haredi man studying in kollel can receive between NIS 4,000 and NIS
5,000 a month from government stipends and benefits as well contributions from
his kollel. For someone without any higher education, earning more than this sum
through employment is tough, so there is little economic incentive to go out to
work, especially when bearing in mind extra costs like child care that may
result if both parents are working.
But Professor Stern worries that
coercive measures might seriously backfire and sees the current strain of
political populism that has largely focused on the haredi public as a threat to
Any legal intervention into the delicate
relationship between the ultra- Orthodox community and wider society could well
be counter-productive, he says, and would be used by extreme conservative
elements in the sector as proof that cooperation with the Zionists is not
possible. Ilan calls such sentiments the result of “haredi propaganda,” arguing
that the increase in employment figures among haredi women after 2003 shows that
the ultra- Orthodox, like every other population, has to take into account its
economic requirements and that people ultimately realize that they have to get
income from somewhere.
But from his perspective inside the community,
Haim Yashar argues that if the secular world goes to war against the haredim and
forces them out of Kollel and into the army, the progress made will most
certainly be arrested.
“Entering into a cultural war would be the height
of irresponsibility and would provide weapons to the extremists who’ll say
‘look, they’re trying to destroy the Torah world.’” Broader Israeli society
needs to be wise, not right, he says. “The current shift in attitudes toward
higher education, IDF service and integration into the job market would have
been unthinkable 10 years ago,” he claims.
Ultimately, says Yashar, if
the state wants to nurture a more moderate haredi society that is better
integrated into the economic and social fabric of the country, the current
trends need to be carefully cultivated and encouraged, not forcefully imposed,
in order to achieve what mainstream society demands and what ultra-Orthodox
society is gradually realizing it must accept.