Think Again: All in this together

Our primary natural resource is brainpower, and haredim represent our largest untapped reserve.

January 22, 2010 00:09
Think Again: All in this together

haredi children. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The Iranian nuclear threat serves as a handy reminder to the Jews of Israel that we are bound by a common fate. For those of us willing to live without that particular reminder, there are plenty of others - the water shortage for instance.

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The time has come for members of the various Jewish subcommunities to recognize that life here is not a zero-sum game: What benefits one group need not come at the expense of another. Improving the transportation infrastructure provides a good example.

Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center notes that Israel has half the average number of cars per capita but three times the congestion of other Western countries. The low level of our transportation infrastructure constitutes a major drag on worker productivity, an area where Israel is falling behind its major competitors. Rapid transit connecting the periphery to the central region, the country's economic hub, holds the key to the development of the periphery.

The haredi community too would benefit greatly from a closer connection of the periphery to the central region, where the major haredi population centers are located. One of the great challenges facing the haredi world today is the lack of housing for young couples. In neighborhoods that were considered a "buy" just a few years ago, two- to three-bedroom apartments, usually in need of renovation, cost close to $200,000. In the meantime, there is almost no building in satellite communities relatively close to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. As a consequence, thousands of young couples find themselves living in tiny, windowless rented apartments reminiscent of the cages used to study the impact of overcrowding on laboratory mice.

In the long run, there is no alternative but to develop new outlying communities. The ability of such communities to attract residents will depend on their accessibility to the center of the country. Without Route 6, for instance, it is doubtful that planning for a new haredi community in Harish would have proceeded so far. An expansion of the periphery would, in turn, bring down prices in the center of the country.

IN NO AREA, however, are the interests of the general and haredi populations so congruent as haredi employment. Israel's high rate of non-employment, to which haredim are a major contributor, is a major cause of our low productivity and sliding relative standard of living.

Our primary natural resource is brainpower, and haredim represent our largest untapped reserve. A secular teacher of the preparation course for matriculation exams at Jerusalem's Michlala Haredit described to Haaretz's Yair Ettinger how the exposure to the rigorous logic of the Talmud and the ability to focus for many hours straight enables older haredim to overcome sharp gaps in a relatively short time. In his course, 70 percent scored over the national median and 15% above 700 (as opposed to 5% of the general population) on the matriculation exams, despite having almost no formal education in math and English.

In the haredi community too, there is a growing recognition of the need for work. More than half of haredi families, according to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, do not cover their monthly expenses, much less save anything. And economic pressures give rise to a whole set of corollary problems. The Talmud states that most domestic squabbles arise out of economic pressures, and a good deal of recent survey evidence supports that observation. Feelings of deprivation among children growing up surrounded by a relatively affluent society are a contributing factor to dropouts from the haredi community.

Young haredim are voting with their feet. Approximately 2,000 are currently enrolled in degree granting programs, according to Haaretz. At Hamodia's last annual Forum for Administrators, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer spoke of the impact on the country's economic future of the high rate of non-employment. Haredi MKs responded that job discrimination constitutes a major factor underlying low employment rates among haredi men. That response implicitly accepts the necessity of higher and better paid haredi employment.

The claim of discrimination cannot be dismissed out of hand. In a recent survey, 56% of employers said they would not hire haredim. Haredim running major institutions and organizations are barred by civil service rules from serving on government boards because they do not have bachelor's degrees. Though the number affected is small, doing away with such rules would broadcast an important symbolic message.

The government could do more to facilitate haredi employment - e.g. through expanded job training programs. Income tax deductions based on family size that were not limited to mothers would remove one current disincentive to haredi male employment. A limited affirmative action program, designed not to force employers to hire inferior workers but to overcome barriers caused by a lack of familiarity with haredi workers, is another possibility.

Structural barriers to haredi employment are already coming down. In the past, if a haredi man learning in kollel thought about going to work, he was often scared off by the cost of training and the loss of his only source of income in the form of his kollel stipend. Today, scholarships, and even some stipends, are available from a number of sources.

Kemach, a private philanthropic initiative, with some support from the government and the Joint Distribution Committee, has approved more than 2,000 students for vocational or academic scholarships, and hopes to provide 2,500 scholarships in the coming year. The vast majority of the recipients (85%) are male. Their average age is 29, and they have on average 3.4 children. Without the scholarships, embarking on training courses of one to three years would be unthinkable for most.

Of Kemach graduates so far, 76% are working full-time; 78% of those report significant increases in their monthly income, and 89% see the potential for further advancement.

The recent formation of a reserve unit within Nahal Haredi offers hope for the removal of another barrier to haredi employment. The new reserve unit represents the model of a framework within the army within which married haredi men can do basic training and subsequent reserve duty. Already the IDF, through its Shahar program, has emerged as a major employer of haredi males.

AS IMPORTANT as security, water, transportation and employment are, all Jews in Israel share an even more fundamental interest: the need for a stronger connection to Torah. Without a belief in a unique Jewish mission and the sense of purpose it provides, many secular Israelis with the skills to do so will eventually leave rather than live under constant threat.

This is the area where the haredi community has the most to contribute. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, who created a program of study partnerships for 5,000 pairs of secular and haredi women under the auspices of Ayelet Hashahar, and is currently building a similar program for university students under the banner of Nefesh Yehudi, represents the ideal attitude. She tells every potential haredi volunteer: If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship, but don't feel you have anything to gain from your secular partner, this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believe every Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to one another.

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