Men at work? Ultra-Orthodox join the job market

Most haredim still prefer study, but attitudes are changing and programs are there to help.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDI
January 17, 2012 20:56
Haredim protest in Shabbat Square

Haredim protest in Shabbat Square 311. (photo credit: Jeremy Sharon)

Israel Edri is a young Israeli ultra-Orthodox man. He’d like to spend all his day in religious studies. But as the father of two children and a third on the way, life’s challenges have stepped in and today he works in telemarketing.

“Reality hit. If you ask me I’d like to sit and study all day long, but the reality is that you have to get out and work, especially if you want to live in an expensive city like Jerusalem and give your kids what they need,” the clean-shaven Edri told The Media Line. 

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Israel Edri, 27, is the exception. The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work or serve in the army, choosing instead a pious and largely impoverished life of studying religious texts, or Torah, mainly the Talmud. It is not that they cannot find work – Israel’s unemployment rate is at its lowest in decades – rather they do not want it and have none of the education or training needed to be employed.

With birthrates three times the national average, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities are mushrooming. Many live on government allowances and private charity and on their wives’ earnings. It wasn’t always that way nor is it a problem among ultra-Orthodox Jews living outside of Israel.

In 1970, 20% of working-age men in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel were not working by choice; today, the figure is two thirds (65%). Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the US and Britain traditionally take jobs and their labor force participation rate is the mirror opposite of Israel’s.

Once a tiny minority, ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as haredim, now number about 700,000, or about 10% of Israel’s population. And that’s a problem. Israel’s economy can’t afford to have such a big part of the population permanently out of the work force and living on government handouts paid for by the rest.

“By the time you are up to 10% of the population of whom 70% of the male part of the population doesn’t work, you are getting to a macro-economic issue,” Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, said at a briefing. “This is not sustainable. We can’t have an ever increasing proportion of the population continuing to not go to work.”

While the burden on the economy was growing, the rest of Israel largely ignored the problem as voters and politicians focused on security issues. But the country’s economic problems, particular the high cost of living and shortage of housing, emerged as a key issue last summer in an explosion of mass protests and tent cities.

In the last month, the growth and increasing extremism of the haredi sector took center stage. A spate of incidents in which girls and women regarded by the most extreme ultra-Orthodox were spit upon and yelled at captured headlines and pointed up the wide gap in lifestyle and attitudes between ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

“A haredi town would not be self sustaining. Nobody would pay taxes. Nobody works. Well, hey, this is where [they] are taking the entire country. Do that math. This is a problem,” Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist who heads the Taub Center for Social Political Studies, told The Media Line.

Now, a host of organizations are making an effort to quietly reverse the trend towards shunning work by finding ways to integrate haredi men into the workforce. The economic crunch has led to more and more ultra-Orthodox working for a living, says Motti Feldstein, the director of Kemach, an organization that provides job training and support for haredi men and women learning a trade.

“It’s not a revolution but a change in realities. There’s not more openness to working, but recognition of a changing world,” he told The Media Line.

Kemach means “flour” or “bread,” but is also used in a famous biblical quote about work (“Without bread there is no Torah “) and is an acronym for Promoting Haredi Employment. Over the past three years it has helped over 12,000 haredim with guidance and scholarships.

But Feldstein is keen on stressing that his organization is not luring people out of yeshivas – the academies where religious texts are studied – but only helping those who had already chosen to stop learning full time.

“A rabbi is not going to come out and give a sermon [to go to work]. Everyone has to come to their rabbi and seek his blessing and the rabbi helps direct them. The rabbi’s job is to create a society. It is not to bring money to his community. Everyone is responsible for themselves. They have to decide what is better, to be a schnorrer [beggar], or to go out and work,” he says.

But most ultra-Orthodox have never studied much in math, science, English and other core subjects employers require. Furthermore, many young men have no experience in the job market and conditions. They imagine themselves working few hours and earning high wages even though they have few skills, if any. They have been taught that Torah learning is paramount. If they decide to take a job and accept the lower social status that workers have compared to full-time scholars, they prefer to do it discreetly.

Shmuel Gotlieb, is an employment counselor at Mafteah, a venture by the Joint Distribution Committee’s Tevet program. He interviews men seeking to get their first job.

“A lot of people come to me and say ‘Give me a place to work where I’m not going to be seen. Why? Because it is unpleasant for me. Because my brother doesn’t know I’m working,’” Gotlieb told The Media Line. “I know a guy who has worked in a high tech firm for three years now and no one in his family knows he’s working.”

The ultra-Orthodox disdain change. Even their dress of black frock coats and wide-brimmed hats hearkens to 19th-century and speak Yiddish, the language of their Europe forebears. Some economists say their background is so constricted that they can’t supply the needs of a modern economy.

“A Third World economy can’t support a First World army,” says Ben-David of the Taub Center. “We need more and more educated people because we are a more advanced society and we need less and less uneducated. What is happening here is perverse because we are enabling a huge portion of society to deprive their kids of what they need when they grow up and to deprive us as a society of the doctors and engineers and everything else that a modern society needs.”

The Technion, Israel’s top engineering school, has been running a program for the past three years to bring in ultra-Orthodox into their civil engineering program. They receive a crash course in core subjects like math, physics and English.

“One of the teachers told me it is like teaching the ABCs at the Technion because they know nothing,” Muly Dotan, director of the center for pre-university studies, told The Media Line. 

Out of some 100 candidate discretely recruited from the ultra-Orthodox community, some 30 are chosen annually and receive a hefty scholarship to cover their four-year degree. The first graduates are expected soon and jobs have been earmarked for them, Dotan said.

But Yossi Tamir, executive director of the Tevet employment initiative, counters that despite a lack of formal education, haredi men and women catch on fast.

“It’s very easy for them,” Tamir told The Media Line. “If you are talking about computers, they have a very high ability and capacity of learning those issues. So they can move into technology, computers and mathematics without any problems. Even if they didn’t study it when they were in high school. That isn’t a barrier.”

At Mafteah, they are aiming lower and direct people to training as bus drivers, nurse’s aides, locksmiths and construction workers.

“People are not connected to reality because they are cut off. They’ve never worked and their fathers never worked. They never saw anyone who ever worked and so they don’t have any idea what a working man does. But the moment they understand that a man with a job needs to work, they work,” Gotlieb said.

Still, once they gain a profession, breaking the stigma that they are lazy or untrained is often hard.  Itzik Omasky, an electrician, said he hasn’t had good experience with them.

“There aren’t many haredi guys in the profession. But my experience with them hasn’t been good. I took one from Ramat Beit Shemesh and he was awful and split. He ended up quitting because he wasn’t used to working so hard,” Omasky told The Media Line. “He knew his craft, but he told me he could not work so much and at two o’clock had to stop. He was always wanting to take a break. I told him that this wouldn’t work out and he had to work a full day. After 10 days he quit and left me in a lurch.”

Another barrier to their employment is the growing phenomenon in the haredi world of segregating men and women. But like the phenomenon of shunning labor, the rising gender divide is also a modern phenomenon that has little basis in Jewish tradition, says Ben-David.

He points to the well-known New York electronics retailer, B&H, which is owned and operated by ultra-orthodox Jews.

“In New York, haredi men serve non-haredi women. B&H doesn’t have a marker in the door ‘women only’ - ‘men only.’ It’s not part of being haredi. It’s not part of being Jewish. What we are seeing here has nothing to do with being Jewish,” says Ben-David. “They should get used to what modern society is and not the other way around.”

But Ben-David admits that there is a change taking place among the haredi community.

“At the anecdotal level we see more and more haredim who apparently get it and want to get the skills and go to school. There are now haredi colleges where there were none before and there are now haredim going to the army where there were none before and on the face of it this is a good direction,” he says.

Unusually for someone in the ultra-Orthodox community, Matan Nitzky is a volunteer for Israel’s civilian national service as an alternative to the army. He works in the Hatzala emergency medical service, which he hopes will serve as a springboard for a career in medicine. 

“My father is a doctor, my mother is a nurse and… it’s been my dream to also one day do that. With the civil service I have the option to fulfill my dream and hopefully one day go down that path,” he told The Media Line.

Israel Edri, the young working haredi father, said that he hopes the stigma that ultra-Orthodox don’t want to work will fade.

“It’s hard to get rid of a stigma,” Edri says. “I believe that after a few years this stigma will go away when they see haredim in many more senior positions.”


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