The needs of Israel's haredim are changing – will leaders find solutions?

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and educators are well aware of the depth of the crisis and of the problems faced by the young men; but they are afraid, and perhaps should be.

 Prayer at the Belz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Belz is a Hassidic dynasty founded in the Ukrainian town of Belz. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prayer at the Belz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Belz is a Hassidic dynasty founded in the Ukrainian town of Belz.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties rejoiced over the outcome of the recent elections in Israel. The brief interlude in which they were relegated to the opposition intensified their feelings of persecution by those they see as the advocates of modernity and secularism. 

Now back in the government, they have let out a collective sigh of relief. With great diligence and energy, they are promoting the interests of their constituency, already calling for an increase in the stipend paid to kollel students, matching the salaries of educators in the ultra-Orthodox system with those of their non-ultra-Orthodox colleagues, and even-implementation in the near future of Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to level the budgets of haredi schools with those of the state and National Religious streams. It is important to note that this disparity is real, but there is a reason behind it: The haredi schools, as is well known, do not include essential core subjects in the curriculum (math, English, science); and when they do teach secular subjects, they do it in a half-hearted way that does not provide their students and graduates with the tools needed to compete in the Israeli job market.

But perhaps the drive to fortify the haredi “camp” and increase the budgets for the ultra-Orthodox sector does not stem only from the haredi rabbinic establishment’s and politicians’ sense of being under siege. Precisely today, more than in the past, ultra-Orthodox society, with all its diversity and communities, is experiencing a strong earthquake that, nevertheless, sometimes goes unnoticed. 

The strong and unnoticed earthquake in haredi society

In light of the rapid demographic growth of the haredi sector, which is doubling its numbers every 16 or 17 years, its needs are changing as well: a huge increase in the need for housing; the economic hardship caused by the mounting cost of living, which affects the ultra-Orthodox more than other groups in the population; leadership crises; and a growing number of marginal and at-risk haredi teens. All these imperil the unity of the haredi community and force its leaders to find creative and immediate solutions for the yeshiva world which, contrary to in the past, no longer seems immune to the changing times and the influence of modernity.

A research project and survey I conducted recently looked at the social challenges facing the yeshivas that enroll haredi men aged 17 and over. It found that even this ultimate bastion of haredi culture and education is facing a crisis that demands major reforms in their pedagogic method of study, dating back to the last century. Whereas in the past the yeshivas accepted only the intellectual elite and the study format and curriculum were designed accordingly, today they have become mass institutions that are inherent to the education and socialization of every young ultra-Orthodox man who wants to remain in the community. However, at the same time, the curriculum and pedagogy have not been modified to suit the new reality. Moreover, these yeshivas and those who run them are not equipped to deal with thousands of students, given the shortage of appropriate educators; nor do they measure achievements and abilities or set clear educational targets. For many young ultra-Orthodox men, the result is great frustration. Historically speaking, the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas established in the 19th century were intimate venues that emphasized the value of religious studies. 

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

They were meant only for the elite, the best of the best, and had no intention of growing into mass institutions with thousands of students. Only some of them had the capacity for intensive and demanding study day and night. Today, many young ultra-Orthodox men stay in yeshiva mainly for social and pragmatic reasons—to remain part of the community, to find an appropriate match, and perhaps to gain an honorable rabbinic appointment or educational position. But given the vast increase in yeshiva enrollment—a total of 47,450 students—many of these young men see no future for themselves at the end of their exhausting studies because there simply aren’t enough well-paying jobs in these categories. As a result, the satisfaction they derive from religious studies is on the wane, and disciplinary problems are more prominent than in the past. Upward of 20% of the yeshiva students who took part in the study understand that after they marry, they will have to find practical alternatives to the accepted track – that is, remaining as full-time kollel students – if they want to provide their family with a decent standard of living.

But the leaders of the yeshiva world have yet to realize that many fine young men cannot overcome the many hurdles posed by the yeshiva world. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and educators, both inside and outside the yeshiva world, are well aware of the depth of the crisis and of the problems faced by the young men; but they are afraid, and perhaps should be, of the possibility that yeshiva students might study secular subjects or a practical trade while pursuing their Torah studies at the yeshiva. Today, young men can do so only with the yeshiva head’s permission and to a relatively limited extent (no more than 15 hours a week). Nevertheless, the survey that was part of my research, which involved 530 unmarried yeshiva students from a diversity of institutions and groups, found that nearly 20% of them work part time to support themselves, generally at unskilled jobs that do not provide them with the tools to enter the advanced employment market. This is why 70% of them believe that lowering the age of military exemption—which was supposed to be part of the new conscription law, whose passage was foiled by the fall of the previous government—would encourage them to enter the job market earlier than planned. More astonishing is that only a third (34%) believe that most yeshiva students would continue their studies in kollel for many years after marrying.

So it is no wonder that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Knesset members want to fortify the Torah world and ensure that it is allocated more and more resources and budgets. It is quite possible that these demands are not connected only to a genuine desire to strengthen and fortify the Torah world against external threats but also to their fear that some of their horses are liable to bolt the stable because the yeshivas are no longer a source of satisfaction and self-fulfillment, excellence, and educational and personal achievement but merely a place where mediocrity prevails and frustration mounts. If this is indeed the case, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and representatives have another cause for concern; but it is far from certain that the solution lies in more state funding. What is needed is a sincere and honest effort to change and reform the educational approach and method of study so that thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men will be able to live decently, without impinging on their haredi way of life. 

As we see it, these changes can be introduced by the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community only if they feel confident about its inner strength and resilience. Combining quality Torah studies with meaningful preparation for the “real” world requires bold new solutions, including training ultra-Orthodox educators and professionals to assist yeshiva students. Since the rabbis will not permit integrating secular studies in their own yeshivas, studies toward a matriculation certificate and/or vocational courses outside the regular yeshiva day, through online learning in some cases, could provide the tools to develop a work-oriented mindset for those interested in employment. This is absolutely essential in order to enable the next generation of ultra-Orthodox men to remain ultra-Orthodox, while enhancing their prospects in the Israeli job market. ■

Asaf Malchi is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.