Economic pressures are forcing haredi men into the working world

Emergency campaign launched as yeshivot fund-raisers fear catastrophe.

November 6, 2008 21:09
Economic pressures are forcing haredi men into the working world

Haredi training 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Tuvia, 20, is working the night-shift this week at Teva Pharmaceuticals. While many of his peers are in the middle of three years of mandatory army service, Tuvia operates a drug-packaging machine to make ends meet. "Right after I got married I knew I had to find a job," said Tuvia. "I did not want to wind up like my brother who fell into $40,000 debt. My mother-in-law didn't like the idea. She threatened to stop paying our rent if I went out and got a job. But I was determined." Tuvia, a Breslav Hassid from Mea She'arim, is one of a growing number of young haredi men who are leaving the yeshiva world earlier due to economic pressures. "Even if I received it every month on time - which I didn't - the stipend I was getting from the kollel was not enough to raise a family," he explained. "Besides, I was paid in dollars. So what I took home became worth less and less in shekels terms." Tuvia's main obstacle to joining the labor market was the army. In a country with mandatory conscription, all healthy males aged 18 are expected to enlist for three years. Haredim, some of whom are opposed to army service for a variety of religious and ideological reasons, are permitted to postpone service as long as they devote themselves to fulltime Torah studies in one of dozens of Kollelim [study halls for married men] located in haredi neighborhoods. But as soon as they abandon Torah study, haredi males become candidates for enlistment. "I told the IDF psychologist that I hate Arabs and want to kill them," he said. Tuvia said that his interview took place shortly after Eden Natan Zada, 19, killed four and wounded a dozen in a shooting attack on a bus full of Israeli Arabs in Shfaram in August, 2005. "They did not want to take any chances with me," said Tuvia. The financial crisis which has rocked the world has the donor-dependent yeshiva world reeling. Jewish businessmen in the US, Britain and elsewhere are either unwilling or unable to provide as much philanthropic support as in the past to the dozens of Israeli kollelim that pay Torah scholars to learn. This week, leaders of Israel's largest kollelim held an emergency meeting to discuss what they called a crisis of catastrophic dimensions. "Fund-raisers who regularly travel to the US and receive donations of tens of thousands of dollars are barely able to cover their air fare," said Rabbi Ya'acov Segal, who is spearheading a special fundraising campaign to bail out cash-strapped study halls. "This month kollel heads were forced to take out loans to pay monthly stipends. Next month I don't know what is going to happen." Segal, director-general of the haredi Eitz Hada'at school system, said that he has taken leave from his work to devote all his energies to salvaging the yeshiva world from imminent financial collapse. The message being sent out by Segal and the rabbis he represents to wealthy American Jews is that there is a symbiotic relationship between those who learn Torah and those who make money. "All the heavenly merits accrued by a Torah scholar who sits and learns go to the wealthy man that supports him," said Segal. "Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky [a Bnei Brak-based spiritual leader] promised that anyone who gives generously to supporting the yeshiva world will not hurt by the financial crisis," added Segal, who said that all the major Israeli rabbis are praying for Jewish donors. Segal estimated that the economic collapse would not force the hardcore of "about 32,000" Torah scholars who learn in kollelim to abandon their studies and join the workforce. But he admitted that many students who were planning to get a job at some point in the future would cut short their kollel stint. Chaim Guggenheim, Business Development Manager at the Jerusalem branch of Manpower Bereshit, a subsidiary of the international placement company that specializes in the haredi market, expects a rise in haredim men and women looking for jobs. "We are definitely going to see a rise in haredi job seekers as the US financial crisis affects the haredi society as a whole and haredi philanthropy in particular. This is a process that we already witness," he said. In September and October 2008, a total of 478 haredi men and women registered in one of Manpower Bereshit's Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, El Ad and Haifa offices, up from 305 in the same period last year. Tzvi Holtzer, head of the Employment Service office in Bnei Brak, one of the nation's largest haredi towns with a population of 150,000, said that in September there were a total of 3,100 job seekers compared to 2,800 in August. Part of the rise is a result of more haredi women looking for work after the children go back to school. But Holtzer said that the financial crisis hitting the yeshiva world was also a major factor. "I hear people talking about their economic difficulties," said Holtzer. "And there is an increase in the demand for job-search training courses that we offer." Even before the present global financial crisis there has been a steady rise in the number of haredi men who have joined the workforce. According to Central Bureau of Statistics figures, for the first time in at least a decade there are more haredi men working than haredi women. Fifty three percent of haredi men between 20 and 54 are officially a part of the labor market, compared to 51% of haredi women. This is still much lower than the percentage of secular Israelis in the same age group (93% men, 86% women), but higher than the 2002 level of 42% for men. Some haredi sources claim that there has not been a rise in the number of haredi men who work, but rather that there are now more haredi men who left the black market and are now legitimately employed. "More haredim want social benefits and fewer are hiding from the IDF. So it makes no sense to get paid under the table," said the source. Guggenheim said that recently Manpower Bereshit organized six focus groups in major haredi towns to learn more about haredi employment. "We discovered just how difficult the decision is for a haredi man to work. They have been taught their whole lives that Torah study is the most important thing that a man can do. When they finally do decide to leave the yeshiva world, they often have unrealistic expectations. Everyone wants to start in a managerial position, everyone expects to receive a company car and everyone expects to rake in the cash." However, the vast majority of haredi men lack professional skills, and most haredi men and women get their first job in customer service, says Guggenheim. Insurance, telecommunications and banks are all willing to hire haredim. Guggenheim estimates that these fields will also be less affected by an economic slowdown. Back at Teva, Tuvia admits that he is not crazy about his work there. "But it is better than living in poverty and debt," he says. "I prefer operating a machine to that any day."

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