(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
According to a Bank of Israel study conducted in 2011, less than half (46 percent) of Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men were gainfully employed that year. By way of an “apples to apples” comparison, the employment rate among all Jewish men in 2011 was a significantly higher 78%. Of course, this deviation is partially by design, as haredi culture has long developed the belief that immersion in Torah study should remain the Jewish male’s sole occupation, even at the cost of a wage-earning career.
Without delving into the substantive halachic merits of this philosophy, its impact must be recognized. By and large, haredi women have willingly – and sometimes unwillingly – carried most of the financial burden for their families, while simultaneously raising a large number of children. Since males typically have more substantial employment options than females, haredi women face many challenges in finding jobs suitable for their overloaded schedules.
Criticizing this culture that promotes reverse gender roles, many academics and members of the secular community have branded the haredim as abusers of social norms and accuse them of entering a state of “voluntary poverty” in which they are left without a source of stable income. And it’s hard to argue with the facts on the ground.
With large numbers and no formal academic education, haredi families have experienced diminished living standards and increased difficulty in obtaining real financial assistance for basic human necessities, such as food, water and children’s clothing.
This economic strain places an unnecessary burden on each family and on many occasions has negatively impacted the peace in their homes, the “shlom bayit.” Financial instability most definitely causes daily strife in a marriage, inevitably leading to unhappiness and constant infighting between spouses.
In 2012, a Kansas State University researcher published the findings of a study that deciphered longitudinal data from more than 4,500 couples in the renowned Family Relations journal. The study found that couples who argued about money early in their relationships – regardless of their income, debt or net worth – were at a greater risk for divorce. The research also concluded that arguments about money were longer and usually more intense than other types of marital disagreements. The researcher stated that arguments about money, whether initiated by the husband or wife, were by far the top predictor of divorce, more than children, intimacy, in-laws or any other internal or external factor.
Couples usually fight about money because they are experiencing negative financial events (like a job loss), and the stress that accompanies financial problems overwhelms the spouses causing the shalom bayit issues. But the effects of shalom bayit problems are never confined within the walls of the family home. In the case of a Jewish family, these problems affect the husband’s ability to conduct many tasks, such as remaining productive at work, learning Torah, and interacting with society as a whole. In extreme cases, this could lead to divorce, putting further financial strain on the family and the entire nation, as the women and children may become public charges.
For Israel’s haredi population, whose families are already viewed by many in Israeli society as public charges, addressing this crucial “shlom bayit” issue could potentially improve the overall perception of haredim and, in turn, affect Israeli politics and the funding of haredi institutions.
Realizing the importance of “shlom bayit” (as even God intervened for the sake of Abraham’s “shlom bayit”) and recognizing the inescapable punishment that “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” many haredi men are now motivated to seek employment in order to pay for household staples such as food, clothing and education. With no formal secular education, the haredi population is seeking out “hybrid institutions,” such as the Jerusalem College of Technology, which offer vocational training and professional career development in an environment where students can commit time and energy to the study of Torah while developing their technical skills. It’s truly the perfect solution.
Students in these institutions develop their skills and lay the groundwork for a strong financial future without compromising their long-held religious beliefs. This “kosher” option allows haredi families to focus on the health of their interpersonal family relationships instead of straining those relationships with monetary strife. Though this concept may seem elementary, it is truly revolutionary in the haredi world and needs the support of the entire Jewish community if it is to succeed.
Though there is the ever-present requirement to look out for our fellow Jews, the advancement of dual-curriculum, employment-focused education as the social norm in the haredi world is about so much more. It’s about promoting self-fulfillment just as much as it is about relieving the Israeli tax payer. And it’s also about preserving the sanctity of Jewish marriage and establishing a stronger, wiser and more confident Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.
The author is the executive director of development for the American Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology. She previously served as the executive director of finance at Magen David Yeshiva as well as the assistant director in the Office of Financial Aid at New York University.
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