IN MANY ways, the arc of Racheli Ibenboim’s life has followed the standard life path expected of young women growing up in the Gur Hasidic court in Tel Aviv.Her formative years were spent in strictly gender-separated environments, both at home and at the Beit Yaakov seminary she attended for high school.
She married her husband, Binyumin, at the age of 18, seven months after becoming engaged to him on their first and only “date” ‒ a 20-minute meeting at her sister’s apartment. Their eldest daughter arrived on their first anniversary, and she fully expected to help support the family with the teaching credentials she had earned as a teenager.Reality soon hit, however, when Ibenboim realized that the Haredi (ultra- Orthodox) community is oversaturated with primary and preschool teachers.Soon after beginning her job search, she began a career at a Haredi advertising company, and by the age of 23 she was appointed CEO of Meir Panim, a large charitable organization.Today, at age 30, Ibenboim is a mother of two and has cemented her place as a social entrepreneur in the ultra-Orthodox community with a variety of projects under her belt. Her accomplishments include founding Movilot, a coalition of organizations providing leadership training for ultra-Orthodox women, and she serves as chairwoman of the Women’s Committee for the Telem Center, an educational organization for Haredi girls who have been expelled from school, and has observer status at the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. It is an impressive résumé, and one that has given her a front-row seat to a community that is caught in the throes of a monumental battle between the forces of progress and modernity, on the one hand, and a community ethos that is deeply conservative, on the other.“People are right to be amazed when they look at Haredi society, and at Haredi women in particular,” Ibenboim tells The Jerusalem Report. “On the one hand you’ve got a very closed community in which the women earn academic degrees and make virtually all the money. It’s the women who are going out [of the community] to work every day. In that situation, you would usually expect the women to hold power inside their communities and hold decision-making roles.“But, in fact, we believe strongly that our main role in life as Haredi women is to support our families and to allow our husbands to learn Torah.“Yes, it’s a rejection of many things that Western culture so admires, and it shows that Haredi women have largely taken all this and not succumbed to all of the side effects that we might have predicted would have surfaced from academic education and from working outside our communities.”In the nearly 40 years since prime minister Menachem Begin agreed to subsidize a “society of learners” model in exchange for Haredi political support for settlement building in Judea and Samaria, the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel has exploded. (The Central Bureau of Statistics says there is no indication of how many ultra-Orthodox there were in Israel in 1977, but according to Library of Congress figures, Haredi draft exemptions have spiraled in recent decades.Prior to the 1977 election, exemptions were limited to 800 per year. Following the election, caps were removed and draft exemptions grew to 17,017 in 1987; 26,262 in 1995; 28,772 in 1997, and 61,000 by 2010).At the same time, the societal ethos that emerged of encouraging full-time Torah study for men drove the community to grinding poverty. The Haredi community responded to the increasing acceptance of non-traditional values in general society by building ever higher walls to guard against what they felt was a grave threat to ultra-Orthodoxy.On the whole, women have stepped up to address the resultant poverty, especially since the turn of the century. The number of ultra-Orthodox women who work outside the home has grown from 51 percent in 2003 to nearly 80 percent today, which is higher than the national average for Israeli women. To deal with those employment needs, there has been a dramatic increase in higher education for ultra-Orthodox women, with 65 percent today having either completed or are in the process of completing college degrees, compared to just 23 percent in 2007. That, in turn, has opened up the Internet to them, which is perhaps the biggest game-changer of them all.“It is clear that Haredi women are the powerful right hand of the ultra-Orthodox world, both in terms of supporting the community financially and in terms of preserving Haredi values and passing them on to the next generation,” Naomi Perl, director of the Mandel Programs for Leadership Development in the Haredi Community, tells The Report. Perl, who holds a master’s degree in music education from the Levinsky College of Education and a teaching credential from the Beit Yaakov Teachers Institute, has guided generations of students and community leaders through the complexities of modern-day ultra-Orthodox life.“On the one hand, the playing field has been evened out ‒ everybody has equal access to knowledge. And, on the whole, Haredi women are more educated and have more money [than the men].Now, many people think this will lead to the collapse of our society, and especially of the hierarchy upon which our society is built. But what we are seeing is exactly the opposite. Our girls have been educated with such a deep, powerful, emotional love of Torah, and they are phenomenally ideological. You can see it when they pray, or just while talking to them ‒ they really consider it a privilege to work to support their families, thus making it possible for their husbands to study in kollel,” Perl says.STILL, SOME academic observers argue that the triumvirate of education, employment and exposure to the outside world will inevitably lead to fundamental changes in Haredi society.“Haredi schools continue to be a bastion of traditional values with an uncompromising message that women should be reserved and unassuming, and especially that they should fall in line with the views of their husbands and rabbis, says Dr. Lee Cahaner, chairwoman of the Multidisciplinary Studies Department at Oranim College of Education and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.“But that creates a strong discrepancy for women, who go to work at Migdal Insurance or IBM or the Prime Minister’s Office, where they are expected to confidently state opinions, disagree with their bosses when necessary, to harbor career aspirations and even display a certain type of assertiveness. All of which means it requires a dramatic adjustment when a woman arrives home from work and is expected to revert to her role as traditional homemaker, wife and mother,” Cahaner tells The Report.To the outsider, ultra-Orthodox women appear to navigate this divide with a clearly defined “lens” that defines interpersonal relationships in accordance with the surroundings. At work, women take care to balance the professional need for outspokenness with a keen sense of reserved confidence and inner modesty.In addition, social interactions are largely guided by a “lens” of social context.Every woman interviewed for this article was friendly, engaging and passionate.Shabbat meals at many of their homes, on the other hand, would be segregated events where interactions with male guests would be limited to a formal “Shabbat shalom” greeting and a polite thank you at the end of the meal.“I’d say that Haredi women go to work with a sort of spiritual ‘raincoat’ that helps preserve their identity,” says Cahaner.They go out to the world with a mindset of seeing everything and understanding the world around them, but they take great care not to ‘get wet.’ “Even so, there is still potentially some community blowback. Those who work in the secular world have the support of their husbands, but often, the extended family will shun the working woman, either because they fear change, losing influence or because of jealousy. As a result, many women hide the fact that they work in a mixed-gender environment,” she says.Cahaner, who is secular, predicts that the experience of supporting a family will eventually lead to women demanding larger roles in decision making.And in some ways, this is happening.Last year, a group of women (including Ibenboim) called on the ultra-Orthodox not to vote in national elections unless women were represented on the election slates for the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties.Another group, led by 34-year-old Ruth Kolian, went one step further by creating the ultra-Orthodox women’s party Ubezchutan, which ran in the elections a year ago and made waves in the community even though the group failed to win a seat.Ultimately, however, Haredi women say that although the ultra-Orthodox world is experiencing a series of changes, they also stress that the community is still very conservative and slow to adjust.“The community’s embrace of modernity is selective.” Dr. Tehila Kalagy, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba tells The Report.“Most people see higher education primarily as a tool to support our families, and only then as a means for personal realization. Yes, the Internet has played a role in harming spirituality, but that will be temporary. That will balance out, and we will swing back to simplicity and authenticity.”Ibenboim contends that “women are in a unique position to balance the demands and expectations of the workplace with those of Haredi society. In the yeshiva world, boys focus entirely on Talmud and halakha, but they don’t learn anything about Haredi philosophy or ideology.“The decision to live apart from general society has trampled, or at least pushed under the carpet, these sorts of meaningful ideological questions, at least for boys, but these issues are an important part of girls’ education. As a result, women are well placed to navigate the sharp clash between the two divergent worlds,” says Ibenboim.“Overwhelmingly, Haredi women are a conservative force in the community, not a force for change,” Ibenboim concludes.All the ultra-Orthodox women interviewed for this article agreed with Kalagy’s assessment that they want to remain ultra-Orthodox. All said that they, and nearly all the working Haredi women they know, ask the rabbis for their views about work, child rearing, etc. They also all agreed that they want their husbands to learn Torah, and their boys to become Torah scholars, as well.“For both men and women, that is our primary identity. It is what gives us strength and vibrancy,” says Naomi Perl.“It’s who we are. Haredi women are certainly not going to let that change.”