Working men

Haredi men who choose to leave the world of Torah study and seek employment face unexpected obstacles.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
Rabbi Shmuel Papp enheim stands apart, watching the festivities in his synagogue from a distance. Inside, hundreds of haredi men dressed in distinctive goldstriped frocks and large light-blue and gold belts, dance in near ecstasy, their furtrimmed shtreimels (hats) bouncing on their heads, their sidelocks flying.
Pappenheim, 46, tall and plump, with gentle blue eyes and a long blond beard, is the scion of one of the greatest leaders of this community, Toldot Aharon, a Hasidic sect in Jerusalem that zealously refuses to recognize the State of Israel. Despite his venerable lineage, he is not welcome at the festivities.
Pappenheim has crossed the line that the community has drawn: Over the past 15 years, he has helped thousands of young Haredim to leave the world of full-time Torah study and enter the workforce.
“Some rabbis say that it is better to die [in poverty] for the world of Torah study, but this is not our way,” he says sadly.
Pappenheim continues to view himself as a member of Toldot Aharon and emphasizes that he has never once collaborated with the Zionist institutions of the state. He works only with non-governmental organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee, where he is currently employed.
Although haredi women have always worked outside of their homes, the Israeli haredi community, unlike the haredi communities in America and Europe, developed into a society that values a life of study above all other life activities for men.
Numerous studies, from the recent Trachtenberg Committee Report, established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after this summer’s protests, to the most recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have pointed to the dire consequences for the Israeli economy and society if haredi men continue this trend.
According to figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, while in 2010 the haredi population in Israel made up some 10% of the general Israeli population, only some 43% of them are gainfully employed.
And haredi politicians do everything they can to keep it this way, lobbying the government for subsidies for the yeshiva learning men and blocking any attempts to enforce core curricula in their schools.
Yet Pappenheim is not alone. Poverty, the extraordinary growth of haredi society, and economic changes, including the cutback in National Insurance benefits, have created a new reality for haredi men. Since the beginning of the 1990s, increasing numbers of yeshiva students are seeking gainful employment. At a recent job fair in Jerusalem, hundreds of haredi men – many times more than the government organizers had anticipated – turned out to inquire about gainful employment.
But the road that leads out of the yeshiva and into the world of work is fraught with difficulties for these men. They must face the extremists in their own community. The transition from welfare benefits to gainful employment is financially challenging, if not impossible. The training available to them does not often prepare them for the job market. And if, after all this, they do find a job, many feel that they are rejected by the same secular society that demands that they get out and work.
Pappenheim sighs when talking about the reactions in his community to his choice. Then, as if to brush the sigh aside, he says sarcastically that he “doesn’t have the time to waste on a bunch of unemployed ignorant people.”
But he adds, speaking sadly and softly, that he has had to leave his own synagogue, because the community will no longer allow him to lead the prayers nor read from the Torah, and this is very painful for him. “I am only welcome to pray at my rabbi’s own small synagogue,” he says. “But my rabbi supports me, my wife trusts me, and my whole family agrees with me. In our community, some people are known for their extremism. I am sure I am doing a holy thing.”
The growth of the “community of scholars” is largely attributed to Rabbi Abraham Yeshaya Karlitz, popularly known as the Hazon Ish (“the man of vision”), who died in 1953, but whose influence has extended well beyond the first years of the creation of the state. According to a 1952 agreement between then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the Hazon Ish, who was motivated to replenish the world of Torah scholars annihilated by the Holocaust, the state agreed to allow especially promising scholars to declare that the “study of Torah is their vocation,” entitling them to extensive public benefits and subsidies, and exemption from compulsory military service.
However, because their study was meant to be full-time, most of them were unable to obtain any kind of professional training. And thus, for decades, haredi men married early (by the age of 22) and raised, on the average, 7 or more children, but had no means to support these large families.
Although officially forbidden to do so, “over the years, most of the graduates of these yeshivot went to work at some point,” says Betzalel Cohen, presently a student at the Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership, a graduate of a haredi yeshiva and one of the leaders of the move to enter into remunerated, productive work. “But they largely worked at what are referred to as ‘religious jobs’ – they were rabbis, kashrut supervisers, teachers in yeshivas, and so forth… But the numbers of yeshiva scholars grew faster than the general haredi population, so over the years, there were simply no such jobs left for them.”
Furthermore, Cohen notes, the pensions for the religious jobs were not wellorganized, and the men did not retire until as late as 80 years old. Thus, he says, “the great revolution has been from working within the ultra-Orthodox community to working outside the community, and not from no work to work.”
“There is no doubt that the terrible poverty has facilitated the decision taken by hundreds and thousands of haredi men to go to study and work,” agrees Dr. Dan Kaufmann, a sociologist at the Hebrew University and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Indeed, over the past 15 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of haredi men who have either left the yeshivas or drastically reduced the hours they spend studying there, in order to pursue professional training or study at academic colleges. Thousands of haredi men have chosen to take up a trade, ranging from professional driving to graphic arts, or to study in academic programs created especially for haredi men and their religious needs (including strict gender separation) in academic colleges.
Increasing numbers are now choosing, in addition to the academic professions such as law, accounting and business administration traditionally associated with the haredi community, new areas such as sociology and political science. By 2010, with increasing numbers and greater self-assurance, they established the Haredi Students Union, which, within less than a month, had 6,300 registered members, more than one-third of them men.
Pappenheim chose academic studies where, although most of the studies were based on distance learning, he did have to attend some classes at the campus in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and sit there with secular men and some minimally dressed women.
He made this dramatic change in his life, he says, because he recognizes that reality has changed. “When we [the ultra-Orthodox community] were a small minority, we lived totally separate from the outside world and we were self-sufficient. Now we are close to a million or more people, our needs have grown. We need haredi speech therapists, haredi social workers, haredi doctors.”
He chose, he says, to study the social sciences because he “was not only interested in making money. I wanted to study things that would enable me to understand how modern society functions. I wanted to use this extremely important tool of communication, to learn how states, governments and institutions function, in order to benefit my community.”
Smiling, Pappenheim says that to his fellow students, he must have seemed very strange. “I wear traditional clothing, and with my long beard – people did stare at me. And not everything was easy for me to see, either. But with God’s help, it all went well.”
Mos he Lefkovitz is fo under and director of the “Afikim project,” which helps underprivileged children and their families cope with poverty and lack of education. He founded the project in 1996, and was one of the first Haredim to launch a professional training center for yeshiva students, in cooperation with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Now 44 years old, and a grandfather to three, Lefkovitz, a pleasant man with an easy smile, recalls the objections to his programs. “When I first began this project, on a volunteer basis, I would locate young yeshiva students who had already partly dropped out of yeshiva and were getting involved with drugs and other negative things. I proposed creating for them a program based on two hours of Torah studies in the morning and studies in computers, graphics and other employable professions for the rest of the day.”
Lefkowitz turned to the rabbis for approval. “They told me, ‘Better to let them die than to do this,’” he recalls. “The problem of employment is still first and foremost a problem of leadership. The rabbis and leaders of the ultra-Orthodox society may be great Torah scholars, but they are elderly and they don’t know anything about life outside the world of Torah,” he concludes.
With some hesitation, Lefkowitz tells The Report about a friend who secretly writes holy scripts at night in his home. The allowance from the yeshiva is not sufficient to feed his 9 children, and he would like to get a paid job, but how can he give up even this small allocation?
“Even his wife doesn’t know, not to speak about his children. What do the rabbis expect him to do? To die for the Torah? I have already heard about yeshiva students who steal bread to feed the children at home, yet not one rabbi has said loudly and clearly that this cannot go on,” he says bitterly.
But the quality of the training that they receive does not always enable haredi men to find gainful employment.
Avraham Mordechai Oren directs the Center for Haredi Vocational Training, which has branches in Jerusalem and six other sites throughout Israel. More than 760 students are registered this year and, according to data provided by the Trade and Commerce Ministry, which sponsors and supports the program, more than 5,100 former yeshiva students have studied there, since 1996.
The Centers do not offer any academic studies and concentrate on vocational training, particularly in simple engineering. “The rabbis determine the course of study. By putting the secular studies at night and the religious studies during the day, the students don’t have to serve in the army,” Oren explains. The rabbis also approve of studies only for married men who are over the age of 22, because, he says, unmarried and younger men are considered more vulnerable to secular influences.
Asaf Malchi, coordinator for vocational and academic studies for haredi men in the Department of Research and Economics in the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, is responsible for the development and implementation of a variety of programs that are designed to provide Haredim who decide to go to work with the skills to find and keep employment. Many of the men must acquire basic working skills; having spent their lives in a yeshiva, they are not familiar with work hours, discipline or social norms. Furthermore, few of them have knowledge of basic math or English; many of them speak Yiddish as their first language and Hebrew only as a second.
The programs span from training for jobs as train conductors to preparation for academic studies in the fields of law and business administration. Malchi acknowledges that when these vocational training programs first opened, in the late 1990s, they prepared the participants for low-level unskilled jobs. “The academic courses were opened only in 2005- 2006, when we understood that despite the limitations, including the lack of a basic secular education, they could not get paying jobs without a recognized academic degree,” he tells The Report.
According to Oren, nearly 85% of the men do find work. But for many, leaving the yeshiva means renouncing the small but steady allowance from the state (between 750 shekels and 1500 shekels a month), which poses an insurmountable obstacle.
For those who make this step before they are aged 28, it also means they will have to enlist in the army or at least perform national civil service.
Malchi, says that research conducted by his department shows that without support, few haredi adult men can move into the workforce. “We are trying to convince the budgetary departments of the Finance Ministry to allocate funds for this transition.”
Similarly, the Trachtenberg Committee also recommended allocating generous funding to encourage haredi men to begin to work, including transitional financial support. The government has accepted these recommendations, but there is no immediate plan for implementation.
Oren directs his complaints in particular to the civil service. The government sector is the largest employer in the country, but some 70% of the positions are closed to Haredim because they require an academic degree. “What can a haredi man aged 27-28 do? He has at least four children, if not more. He studies in a yeshiva in the morning and takes vocational courses at night and still has to work a few hours to provide for his family. So when is he supposed to have time to get an academic degree? The state should be more flexible and allow them to start to work and then complete their degrees afterwards.”
Kaufman, too, believes that the change is possible, but will require massive support from the state. “Vocational training is provided in the areas that are considered the most likely to provide employment – so these programs merely continue to provide low-paying work. They are based on the discriminatory premise that the state has to get these men out of the yeshiva and into the workforce – and no one would dare apply that principle to any other group. Why should a brilliant man, who could be a scientist, have to settle for a lower-level job?” Kaufman believes that the only solution is the establishment of haredi colleges, rather than special courses in general colleges, which often provide lower-level education. “If the state thinks this is important, then it should invest the sums of money that are needed to establish these colleges.
And even after all these hurdles, the secular community is not always willing to accept them, Oren says. Stereotypes, ignorance, fear and discrimination make inclusion of Haredim particularly difficult. According to data from the Commerce and Trade Ministry, in 2010, only some eight percent of employers in the private market employ Haredim, so that only 26% of the Haredim are able to find work in the secular private market.
“Employers are afraid that a haredi employee will have too many demands – that he will demand that the kitchen at work be kosher, according to their strict standards, or that there will be a dress code, or that they’ll demand separation between men and women. Employers just don’t want to deal with this. It’s based on ignorance and stereotypes – my experience proves that once an employer has agreed to take on his first haredi employee, he’ll continue to employ others – they are loyal, energetic and talented.”
Kaufman says that the secular public must do its part, too. “The market is competitive, and I fear that, as the market becomes more difficult, the graduates of the haredi colleges won’t be able to find employment. As a result the factions in the community who oppose leaving the yeshivot will become stronger and this entire revolution will come