(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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.
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 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
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
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
Young haredim are voting with their feet. Approximately 2,000 are currently enrolled in degree granting programs, according to Haaretz
. At Hamodia
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
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.
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
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