The slow Haredi revolution

A quiet revolution is occurring among Israel's Haredi population.

Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
A quiet revolution is occurring among Israel’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, which numbers between 444,000 and 795,000, depending on which of four different surveys you believe and on how you define “Haredi.”
More of them are serving in the army or in civic national service (in place of army duty), studying, learning skills and finding jobs.
The numbers are not yet massive but the trend is pronounced and significant. The change is a result of both some enlightened policy measures and new recognition among Haredim that they must do more to support themselves and rely less on public funds. When as many as one Israeli Jew in every eight is Haredi, integrating them into the economy is vital.
However, despite the revolutionary change, the gaps are growing and much more remains to be done.
I spoke about this key issue with Dr. Reuven Gal, who heads the ultra-Orthodox integration project at Haifa’s S. Neaman Institute for National Policy Research. Gal was the IDF chief psychologist from 1976 to 1982. In 1978, he founded the IDF Behavioral Science Department, retiring in 1983 with the rank of colonel.
In 2007, he founded the National Civic Service program, which offered Haredim and Israeli Arabs the option of civic service in place of army duty, and headed it until 2009. Unlike Sherut Leumi (National Service), launched in 1953, National Civic Service is specifically tailored to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox.
Let us begin with the good news, according to Gal. Major gains have been made in the past five years. In 2005, only 300 Haredim did military or civic service. In 2010, the number was 2,200. In 2005, about a thousand Haredi men attended academic institutions; in 2010, that number more than doubled. Gal notes that when you include Haredi women, and men under and above ages 20-29, the number in academe rises to 6,000. In 2005, ultra- Orthodox employment centers, founded by the Joint Distribution Committee and administered by the Ministry of Industry, did not place a single Haredi in a job. In 2010, 2,000 Haredi men aged 20-29 were placed in a variety of workplaces by these centers.
Here are several success stories of growing Haredi employment:
Intel: Intel’s Jerusalem R&D center employs 600 workers, of whom a fifth, or 120, are Haredim, mainly women, who test software. Yishai Frankel, head of the center, explains there are huge advantages for Intel in keeping R&D close to Intel’s Israeli production sites; the high productivity and low turnover of Haredi workers make them highly competitive with, for instance, similarly skilled workers in India.
Visa C.A.L.: Visa’s call center employs 100 Haredi women as call respondents, half of all the center’s employees. VP Amit Efrat says the Haredi women have far lower turnover than other employees; two-thirds of them have held the job for more than 18 months, compared with only 28 percent of non-Haredi workers.
CityBook: This company analyzes real estate contracts originating in the US , and has grown massively, from 7 workers to 280 in seven years, employing mainly Haredim.
Matrix Global: At this software testing firm, 780 Haredi women, most with no previous experience, underwent training and now provide expert, dedicated skills.
IDF Shahar: Haredi military service began with the Air Force and later spread to the Navy, Intelligence and other branches.
In this program, Haredim do military service in uniform and contribute to their country’s defense while learning employable skills in civilian life.
Gal and his team have prepared a “Beginner’s Guide for Those Who Employ Haredim.” “The major obstacle to integrating Haredim in the workforce,” says the guide, “is the alienation between Haredi job-seekers and potential employers.” Many employers who overcome such alienation find that it is worthwhile to employ Haredim. One survey of employers of Haredim showed that 41 percent think that Haredi workers have a strong work ethic, loyalty and respect for their employers. They also have lower turnover than non-Haredi workers. The same survey showed that 95 percent of those employing Haredim would recommend them to others.
The bad news, Gal reports, is that despite these figures and successes, the gaps are growing. While 92 percent of non-Haredi Jews do military service, only 10 percent of Haredim do. A third of non-Haredim undertake higher education; but only 7 percent of Haredim. And most worrying of all – while two-thirds of non- Haredi men aged 20-29 are in the workforce, only 28 percent of Haredi men are. By 2021, Gal notes, one in every five Israeli men aged 20-29 will be Haredi. “The number of ultra-Orthodox young people who join the three tracks (army, college, workforce) is not keeping pace with the growth of the ultra-Orthodox society, which is growing by 5 percent a year,” Gal observes.
What must be done? Gal attaches high probability to a scenario according to which half of Haredim aged 20-29 are in the workforce by 2021, up from 28 percent today. But for this to happen, Haredi yeshiva students must have the option to study three basic subjects − English, mathematics, and computing.
Universities should provide “support envelopes” for Haredim, perhaps including programs with male-female separation and financial aid. Gal’s views are echoed in the recently tabled Trajtenberg Report on socioeconomic reform, which urges the Ministry of Education to ensure that all Haredi elementary schools teach math, English, computing and one or more basic sciences (biology, physics, chemistry); the report also recommends that Haredi high-school yeshiva students be taught employable skills as well as Torah.
Above all, Gal stresses, ways must be found to integrate Haredim without affecting their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. “This is the only way,” he says, “to bring prosperity to the entire Israeli society and economy.”
The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.