Religious Affairs: An emerging haredi middle class?

The ultra-Orthodox community’s participation in the workforce is on the up, but some remain concerned over slow progress and question whether the increase is sustainable.

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April 5, 2012 21:41
Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem

Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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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 concern.

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.

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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 Post. “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 law.

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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 word.

“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 livelihood.”

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. “But 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 process.”

“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 modern life.

“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 mixed.

“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.

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.

“Their 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.

There are, 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.

“You 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 and lawyers.

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 78%.

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 climate.

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 introduced.

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.

Before 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 coalitions.”

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.

According to 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 recent developments.

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.

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