At Israel’s first college for the haredi Orthodox, lectures on social work and computer programming are conducted just down the hall from a pair of classrooms transformed into a nursery for the students’ babies.
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The average female student here -- women comprise a majority of the 1,100 student body at the Jerusalem Haredi College -- will have two babies in the course of her four years of study.
It’s one of many indications of Israel’s large and rapidly growing haredi population. Now comprising nearly 10 percent of the state's residents, the community is expected to double its numbers in the next decade.
“I want to do something I love and go into the world with it,” says Brachi Nir, 23, a psychology student and mother to a baby girl. “And here I don’t have to be a trailblazer. I can simply study.”
The unique circumstances and growth of Israel’s haredim pose a
significant challenge for the country -- one this college is attempting
to answer. There are a few factors keeping haredim out of the workforce:
haredi values, including wariness of the secular world; government
subsidies for yeshiva study; and the rules of the army draft, which
mandate yeshiva study for those seeking to avoid military conscription.
Some 65 percent of haredi men do not work. As their numbers continue to
swell, so does a growing sense of alarm that the rest of the Israeli
population won’t be able to shoulder the country’s economic or defense
burdens if the status quo of state-subsidized, full-time Torah study
“If we continue to give benefits that the government gives and don’t
give the haredim a proper education, then why would other Israelis stick
around?” asks Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist and
executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in
Israel. “There will be wide-scale secular flight, which we have already
seen in some professions like doctors and professors.”
Ben-David argues that the absence both of many haredi and Arab Israelis
from the workforce is perhaps the greatest threat to the country’s
“But when you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom
because if we are able to capitalize on it, we have a brighter future
than most Western countries, which are growing old,” he says. “We have
tons of children. The problem is what will we do with them?”
Sitting in the audience during a lecture by Ben-David on the subject
several years ago was Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,
the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party. The lecture
helped spark her idea to launch Israel’s first-ever haredi college.
It wasn’t easy to get support from the haredi community -- or her father
-- for the idea. Haredi Orthodox Jews long have viewed higher education
as suspect, something that since the Enlightenment period has been
viewed by haredim as a potentially dangerous road that could lead to
assimilation and secularism.
“But I thought that academia gives a person confidence, it opens doors
for work, and we need it most for our society,” Bar Shalom told JTA.
Efforts like the college Bar Shalom founded are part of a new wave of
private, public and government initiatives to move more haredi Israelis
into the workforce.
The Finance Ministry says it has invested some $88 million in the
effort. Some of that money is being spent to increase the small number
of haredim who serve in the army; 400 were recruited in 2010. Some are
assigned to units in which they are trained to provide technological
assistance, which can give them skills for civilian jobs later in life.
The Air Force, for example, trains haredi recruits in computer
programming and electrical work while providing an all-male environment
with strictly kosher food and time for prayer and even some Jewish
With 14,000 haredim turning 18 each year and only 1,500 students per
class of specialized haredi academic programs and colleges annually,
plus approximately 1,000 in the army, the challenge is how to make a
significant and transformative change, according to Shahar Ilan of
Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious pluralism and diversity
Tevet, a partnership between the government and the American Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee, is working on several major initiatives to
help haredim transition to the workforce. The organization, which is
focused on setting haredim on career paths, not simply getting them
low-level jobs, claims to have made 16,000 job placements.
The idea is to develop career programs so people can promote themselves
within the labor market, says Yossi Tamir, Tevet’s director general.
“We are not doing this just for the sake of the ultra-Orthodox," he says, "but to increase the resilience of society in Israel.”
Within the haredi world, Torah study is considered sacrosanct, and
rabbis and communal leaders have been reluctant to speak publicly about
the problem of growing poverty in the community.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor in chief of the leading haredi newspaper Mishpacha
, says the problem has been overstated.
“Not everyone studies at kollel,” he said, using the Yiddish term for
subsidized Torah study. “Today there is an understanding that some men
need to find other professions, and the haredi community understands it
needs to help them do that. People are trying to stir up panic because
they hate the haredim.”
Jack Schuldenfrei, one of the founders of Kemach, an organization to
train and place haredi men, said there is growing openness within the
haredi world to the idea of working for a living. But, he says, it’s
difficult for community leaders to publicly endorse the idea because the
notion of working for a living is still frowned upon.
Since it launched in 2007, nearly 10,000 men have applied to Kemach for
help finding work. Kemach has matched haredi men with jobs as
locksmiths, plumbers, engineers and physicians’ assistants.
One man from a strict haredi sect dreamed of becoming a commercial
pilot, and Kemach is now funding his studies, according to Schuldenfrei.
“We see this as an evolution, not a revolution,” he says. “Because we
have kept a low profile and never made any noise, rabbis don’t feel
threatened by us.”
Menachem Friedman, a sociologist and one of Israel’s pre-eminent
authorities on haredim, says the situation is too dire for anything but a
“Things cannot continue this way,” he told JTA. “I hear people saying we
need to proceed slowly, gently, to understand them, but each year their
numbers go up and the math just does not add up.”
Friedman says a large percentage who do venture into the workforce don’t succeed because they lack the necessary education.
Recently there has been a public backlash against the haredi school
system over officials’ refusal to teach boys (most of them in Ashkenazi
yeshivas) a core curriculum that includes science, math, English and
civics. Haredi figures say they don’t want outsiders interfering in the
“purity of Torah learning,” which many of the haredim fear could pave
the way toward a secular lifestyle.
While men have stayed in the yeshiva, a growing number of haredi women
have gone to work -- some 60 percent, according to the Bank of Israel.
But with an average of eight children per family, it’s hard for the
women to work full-time, well-paying jobs.
Yisrael Schulman is one of several haredi men trained by a company
called Verisense to be verification engineers for the semiconductor
design industry and placed in well-paying jobs. Schulman works as one of
the company’s project managers in an office with mostly secular
co-workers in Herzliya.
Raised in the strictly religious neighborhood in Jerusalem where he
still lives, it took Schulman, 30, some time to adjust to daily exposure
to secular Israelis.
“At first it felt like we were coming from two different worlds, but
soon we realized we actually are from the same place,” he says.
One of the things that surprised him most, he notes, was how little he
knew when he started. He lacked even basic math skills like algebra,
which is key to his work as a computer programmer. Now Schulman
supplements his work with university studies in computer science and
While Schulman’s 28-year-old sister, who has five children, has had her
water and electricity cut off several times because she and her husband
could not afford to pay for them, Schulman, a father of two, is able to
support his family and drives to work in a company car.
But within the haredi community, Schulman says he is considered second
rate because he works. Of his nine siblings, two brothers work in
low-paying jobs selling shoes, and his other brothers are kollel yeshiva
“Now people are living a very low quality of life," Schulman said. "I
don’t think the community can survive without education and work."
“Ultimately more people will have to work, and you can feel a shift
toward that. Change will come because people do want to work,” he added.