Grounds for optimism about the ultra-Orthodox

“Today, many members of Haredi society understand that their responsibility extends beyond the boundaries of their own communities,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer.

Haredi residents of Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi residents of Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
(Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population, now 1.3 million strong) are like the old saw about the weather. Everyone talks about them, but no one knows what to do about them. Which, in Israeli fashion, doesn’t stop people from talking about them nonetheless. This is a shame, because if they stopped long enough to look around, they might see signs of change that would temper their pessimism.
Haredim are associated with full-time Torah study for men, failure to serve in the IDF, lack of secular education and under-employment for those who do work. Moreover, the Haredi birth rate is well over double the national average (more than seven children per each Haredi woman). Depending on how you look at it, they either threaten to overwhelm the state’s ability to provide, or they are its only dependable source of sustained Jewish population growth.
While at one point seen by non-Haredim as the “other,” attitudes have softened a bit. Their ubiquity has steadily aroused more interest from outside their ranks, probably beginning with the conversion of showbiz stars Pupik Arnon and Uri Zohar from secular Israelis to Haredim. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sara have Haredi children and grandchildren. Even Avigdor Liberman – whose stridently anti-Haredi platform has brought two recent elections to stalemates – has a Haredi son. Meanwhile, television series such as Shtisel and Shababnikim have highlighted the human side of Haredi society. And the word is out that Haredim, despite their self-imposed poverty, have higher life satisfaction than their secular co-religionists.
Attitudes are not the only things that have changed. A short while ago, I taped a video podcast at Urban Place in Jerusalem, one of those shared workspace locations in which a cavernous space is divided into common areas, scores of smaller and larger offices, and conference rooms. The beer on tap and espresso machines strategically located, and the background buzz of hundreds of workers intently attending to business gave it the feel of Silicon Valley, rather than the Mediterranean flavor of the shwarma joints a few flights below.
I expected most of the clientele to be secular. Quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority were religious. Of them, the majority were Haredi – not the more acculturated National-Religious. Both men and women. (Their choice of headgear gives it away for both.) How could this be? The men were all supposed to be studying in kollel, and the women were supposed to be teachers or secretaries!
I turned to Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer for some explanation. Pfeffer is a congenial, Oxford-trained transplant from the UK, who is also a Haredi Torah scholar and rabbinic judge, with close ties to some of the top echelon of Haredi leadership. He lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem law faculty. He is equally comfortable giving a Talmud lecture and presenting a serious academic paper on modern Jewish history or political philosophy.
He is also devoting serious time and effort to the new realities of the Haredi world. It used to be, he explained, that leaving the kollel for a job made you a social pariah. Everyone believed that when people made that decision, they were giving up their Haredi identities and Haredi values.
While it is still socially difficult to pursue an academic degree or enlist in the IDF, so many have done so that they have become a critical mass, with enough members to give the lie to the assertion that if you leave the more typical life track, you have forsaken your principles. People are opting to explore more options not out of a sense of rebellion, but simply to escape the poverty of their parents. Over the last few years, the rest of Israeli society has helped provide those options for those seeking them, without trying to coerce those who are not. Virtually every Israeli university offers a remedial program for Haredi men to bring them to matriculation level, so that they can enroll in college programs. Haredi students on the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew University are no oddities.
They have their own student organization. Jerusalem College of Technology offers a plethora of gender-separate academic programs – insisted upon by Haredim –  for both men and women, in a variety of disciplines. Yeshivat Derech Chaim offers a full hesder program for Haredi men, merging a full day of Torah study, evenings studying cyber-technology, and a two-year stint in the IDF, to which they can contribute their cyber skills before turning them into well-paying jobs.
Menachem Bombach, who grew up in a Hasidic family in Mea She’arim, established a Hasidic high school that incorporates general studies and full matriculation exams; he did this with much success notwithstanding frequent demonstrations outside his home.
Moshe Friedman, a graduate of prestigious Haredi Torah institutions, became a social entrepreneur leading Haredi integration into the Israeli workforce, especially the hi-tech industry, and established KamaTech, a coalition of 80 large hi-tech companies to help Haredim integrate into the hi-tech industry.
Pfeffer has a hand in many projects to help Haredim who are looking to join the Israeli mainstream without compromising at all on their Haredi principles. As an insider, he can hold their hands through their challenges like outsiders cannot. Perhaps his most unusual project is Tzarich Iyun, a website by and for Haredim that has garnered some 50,000 readers monthly, sparking conversation on issues that would previously have been considered taboo: women’s status in Haredi society, the challenges of men in full-time Torah study, the Haredi singles crisis, institutional discrimination in Haredi schools, the growing challenges of Internet use, censorship of Haredi literature and so on. It is a sign of the times that authors, rabbinic and lay, are prepared to publish pieces in their own name (and with their own pictures, including those of female authors) – something that would have been unheard of in the past.
Pfeffer believes Haredi society is slowly entering a new phase, a “phase of responsibility:”
“Today, many members of Haredi society understand that their responsibility extends beyond the boundaries of their own communities.” This shift begins on an economic level, extending from there to mitigate the traditional them-and-us attitude prevalent in Haredi society and head toward an us-and-us approach. As Haredim and non-Haredim meet face to face, he hopes that their common ground will outweigh their significant differences.
“Perhaps,” he adds, somewhat mischievously as a forever-committed Haredi thinker himself, “this might even allow Haredi society to provide general society in Israel with an insight or two from its own accumulated wisdom, which has hitherto been tucked away in enclaves of Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim.” ■
The writer is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and founding editor of the American blog Prior to his aliyah he held the adjunct chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. His Netivot Shalom, based on the writings of the Slonimer Rebbe, was recently published by Koren