British philanthropist and property investor Leo Noe has said that government efforts to boost haredi employment are insufficient, stating that more must be done to reduce poverty in the sector and for the benefit and security of the Israeli economy in general.
He made his comments to The Jerusalem Post ahead of a conference organized by the Jewish Funders Network in New York on Wednesday for a strategic dialogue on boosting haredi employment in Israel and reducing poverty in the sector.
Noe founded the Kemach Foundation in 2007, an organization that provides scholarships to haredi men and women seeking to gain professional qualifications or enter higher education, in order to increase haredi participation in the work force.
He, together with fellow philanthropists Aaron Wolfson and Elie Horn, have provided some $60 million in funding to Kemach to date for its various programs.
Speaking to the Post, Noe said that the Kemach Foundation had always been careful to simply offer its assistance to those in the haredi world looking to leave the study halls of the yeshiva and join the workforce, and not to promote any agenda that could be viewed as an attack on haredi values.
But he said that the number of men in the haredi world studying in yeshiva had increased dramatically, based on the wishes of the haredi rabbinic leadership to reinvigorate Torah study after the Holocaust, and that the current levels of haredi men staying in full-time yeshiva study is now too high to be sustainable.
“It has bothered me greatly that there was a sector of society in Israel not working, and that Israel was the only country in the world where haredim weren’t working,” said Noe, who is himself religious.
“I’m not against studying in yeshiva or kollel. We need Torah study and we need rabbis and religious leaders. But what bothered me was the amount of people learning, and I wanted to do something about this.
“After the Holocaust, the rabbis felt they had to reinvigorate and revitalize the world of Torah study, rightly in my opinion, but I think that the rabbis now realize the current model is not sustainable and that they don’t need everyone to learn.”
According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, the employment rate among men in the haredi sector in 1979 was between 80 percent and 85%, but plummeted to a nadir of less than 35% in 2002.
Since then, the employment rate among haredi men has risen steadily but slowly and, according to the latest figures from the Economy Ministry, stands at 49% compared to just over 80% of all Israeli men. Some 74% of haredi women work, which is close to the national average for Israeli women.
Approximately 11,500 men and women from the haredi community have received an education grant from the Kemach Foundation, 7,150 of whom are currently in the midst of their studies and 3,900 of whom have graduated their programs. Some 400 people who received a grant ultimately failed to complete the course they began.
The grants are offered for both vocational courses, for which Kemach offers stipends of NIS 6,200, or 58% of the cost of the course over 14 months, and academic courses, for which the foundation offers NIS 19,300 over three years, or 49% of the cost of the course.
Of those embarking on educational programs with support from Kemach, 38% have joined vocational courses such as graphics and design, bookkeeping and computer programming, while 59% joined academic courses including law, education, business administration, computer sciences and accountancy.
Noe says, however, that the government is not providing enough resources in the critical task for increasing haredi employment.
He also noted the high poverty rate in the haredi community, 66% according to recent figures from the National Insurance Institute, and said it was the obligation of a society to help those who are least able to look after themselves.
The government provides approximately 56% funding for Kemach’s programs, but Noe said this figure needs to be increased. In 2013, the ministry also announced a new budget of NIS 500m. to be used through 2020 for boosting haredi employment, of which approximately NIS 200m. has been used so far on establishing employment centers for haredi job-seekers, funds for employers taking on haredi employees, and providing vocational training and other tools for those seeking work.
Noe pointed out that it is in the government’s economic interests to fund programs such as those provided by the Kemach Foundation, since ultimately it would gain increased tax receipts from haredi men and women in employment and spend less in welfare benefits.
“It shouldn’t be down to individuals, philanthropists or trusts to deal with this issue.
The government should be doing an awful lot more,” he said. “This is a huge issue, and it’s vital to the long-term security of the Israeli economy.”
One of the major obstacles confronting haredi men, especially when they seek to join the workforce, is their frequent lack of a basic education, since many haredi high school equivalents teach virtually none of the core curriculum subjects.
This situation frequently requires haredi students to undertake remedial education courses before they can begin an academic course, placing greater financial strain on them, since the period in which they are studying and not working, or working part time in unskilled jobs, is extended.
It also decreases motivation to embark on higher education programs in the first place.
“We need to tackle this at both ends, but once men and women from the haredi community get into work, you change their mindset, and that could lead to greater demand in the haredi community itself to change the school system,” said Noe.
He said, however, that “coercion simply doesn’t work,” regarding proposals to increase the study of core curriculum subjects in haredi schools.
The purpose of Wednesday’s conference, attended by Michal Tzuk, deputy director-general and head of employment at the Economy Ministry, was to bring major philanthropic organizations together to look at the issue of haredi employment in Israel and highlight it as one of the most pressing needs for the Jewish state.
More than 60 major funders and foundations participated in the day-long series of panels and discussions to share ideas and lay the groundwork for future collaboration.