Ultra-Orthodox: 50 shades of black

It is incumbent on the non-ultra-Orthodox to reach out to the Haredim with wisdom, understanding and patience to gently encourage integrating their young people into modern life.

Haredi men hold on to their hats on a windy day in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi men hold on to their hats on a windy day in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Cowboys! In the small Western Canadian community where I was born and raised, this was the denigrating name given to the ultra-Orthodox shlichim (emissaries) who often came to ask for money. The image was based on the wide-brimmed black hats they often wore and still wear today and has morphed into today’s “black hats.”
Not much has changed in more than 50 years. The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are still widely scorned and shunned by secular Jews in Israel and abroad, and their closed lifestyles and rigid values are also widely misunderstood.
It is time to take a closer look at the ultra-Orthodox, in part because they are a large and growing part of Israel, and also because they are undergoing major changes that are positive for us all. Beneath the surface of the ongoing religious-secular conflict lays a major new trend, one worthy of careful analysis.
According to Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s ultra-Orthodox in Israel program, “The Haredi community is adapting itself to the modern world, but not assimilating into it.”
Within the Haredi community, there are vast differences. The largest and perhaps most extreme anti-Zionist Haredi community, the Satmar Hasidim, is concentrated in Brooklyn, where they compete with (and battle against) the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A large group of ultra-Orthodox are Litvaks (Lithuanians), who reject the Hasidic world view.
The entire ultra-Orthodox community has 50 shades of black. To better understand how the ultra-Orthodox are changing and progressing, I spoke with Dr. Reuven Gal, former IDF chief psychologist and former deputy director of the Council for National Security.
Gal is my colleague at the S. Neaman Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute in Haifa. He is a rare sixth generation Sabra (Israeli born). His great, great-grandfather was Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the favorite student of the Vilna Gaon. Rabbi Yisrael arrived in the Holy Land in 1808 because the Vilna Gaon said it was a great mitzva to do so. Gal describes himself as secular, but says his ancestry created “a soft spot in my heart” for the ultra-Orthodox.
In 2007, Gal initiated the National Civic Service – a framework in which Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and the handicapped could volunteer to serve their country. Gal worked with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert who called on him to build the National Civic Service framework. Gal called it “service without guns.”
Until then National Service had been largely limited to Orthodox women, who were exempt from regular IDF service. Gal had to convince the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (the gedolim or Great Ones) that serving in hospitals, schools, clinics and welfare institutions was consistent with the ultra- Orthodox lifestyle. “To convince them,” he recounted, “I had to get to know them and gain their trust. I had a series of meetings with ultra-Orthodox leaders and managed to win their initial consent. How? I visited them in their tiny offices. After a half an hour or so, generally they excused themselves because they had to lecture and teach. I would ask, ‘May I join you?’ I joined them in the beit midrash (house of study) and studied a blat gemara (page of the Talmud) with them. I could do this because in my youth I went to a religious school, Yavne, up to the fifth grade.
“In general,” Gal explained, “there was suspicion of national service. Anything but Torah study was bitul Torah, a denigration of Torah. Unmarried yeshiva boys (bachurim) studied Torah. Married yeshiva students (avrechim) studied in the kollel (yeshiva for married men). Sometimes avrechim would ask their rabbi, ‘Is it OK to do National Civic Service?’ In sharp contrast with earlier times, the rabbis would not say ‘Yes!’ outright, but they would nod. Their gesture meant, zol es zein, Yiddish for ‘OK, so be it.’ Within five years, by 2012, 10,000 Haredim had done either civic service or IDF military service.
“In 2012, we regressed,” Gal lamented. “The Tal Law was enacted in 2002 and enabled yeshiva students to defer IDF service under certain conditions. It was named after the retired justice Zvi Tal, who headed the public committee that wrote the law, and the law was renewed for five years in 2007. The Tal Law was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2012 as unconstitutional, in a 6-3 decision.”
Gal says this was a terrible mistake that led to a decline in the number of ultra-Orthodox doing civic service and IDF service.
Nonetheless, there have been sweeping changes in the ultra-Orthodox community. Many have entered the labor market and some 12,000 have enrolled in university. This has led to a fierce controversy over segregated classes (men only, women only) in university.
Gal has a common sense response. “Primarily Haredi men, who lack any knowledge of English and math, need to do a mechina, a preparatory year or two, to catch them up and enable them to enroll in college. The mechina should definitely be segregated. It gets them used to the higher education framework. But in college or university? Those who choose to study in a regular university understand that there is no possibility of segregating classes and excluding women. It just cannot be done! And eventually they accept it.”
The Technion, he noted, has some 100 Haredi graduates. Though this number is small, it is a proof of concept: Haredim can become engineers.
Gal’s recipe for success? “If we do things gradually, introduce change gradually, the Haredim will adapt to it.”
Gal explained that the ultra-Orthodox community is a unique “learning society.”
“There is no parallel anywhere of such a society. Lifelong learning is their goal. The reason? The Shoah (Holocaust).
“The Shoah left the ultra-Orthodox community literally in ashes,” Gal said. “After World War II, the rabbis, who led the remnants who survived, pondered how to bring those ashes back to life and light the flame anew. The answer was given, prominently, by a famous rabbi known as the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), named after a series of his books by that name. He was a great leader of the Lithuanian school and an outstanding posek (one who decided issues of Halacha, Jewish law). 
“The Hazon Ish felt that the only way to bring Jewish life back to life was total utter devotion to study, every minute of every day, for every male, regardless. ‘Everybody studies’ became the mantra. This led to the phrase “toratam omanutam,” Hebrew for ‘their [only] occupation is Torah.’
“Generations later, two things are clear,” Gal observed. “First, it worked! Out of the ashes, the ultra-Orthodox are back, in numbers and in spirit. Second, there is an internal conflict. Based on the normal distribution curve of abilities, not everybody is capable of high-level Torah study. This is increasingly recognized among Haredim. This has created a serious problem of dropouts. Some of the dropouts became delinquents. There are creative solutions like the yeshiva acheret (alternative yeshiva), especially for these dropouts. But this has not solved the problem.
“Half of the Haredi families live in poverty,” Gal added. The average monthly income in Haredi households is 12,816 shekels, or $3,636, 35% less than non-Haredi Jewish households.
“But increasingly, Haredim are saying, hey, I’m smart enough to work in hi-tech, I can be an entrepreneur!”
And indeed they are. After plunging into the depths of Talmud, secular studies are for many ultra-Orthodox men not difficult, despite the enormous gap they have in their basic math, science and English studies.
I once interviewed an ultra-Orthodox man who was completing his Technion degree in civil engineering. He told me that in the mechina, he once asked the math instructor, what is that cross (“x”) on the blackboard? He knew no algebra, not even the use of the symbol “x.” Today he is doing graduate studies.
A look at the numbers reveals the sweeping change the ultra-Orthodox community is undergoing.
Israel is home to the largest Haredi population. While Haredim made up just 9.9% of the Israeli population in 2009, with 750,000 out of 7,552,100, by 2014 that figure had risen to 11.1% out of 8,183,400.
According to a December 2017 report published by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research and the Israel Democracy Institute, the number of Haredi Jews in Israel now exceeds 1 million, comprising 12% of the population. By 2030, that number is projected to grow to 16%, and by 2065, to 33%.
The United States is home to the second-largest Haredi population, which has a growth rate on pace to double every 20 years, which is an unprecedented 4% annual growth rate.
In 2000, there were 360,000 Haredi Jews in the US (7.2% of the approximately 5 million Jews in the US). By 2006, demographers estimate the number had grown to 468,000 or 9.4%. There are some 790,000 Haredim in the US and their growth rate is among the highest of any population in the world today.
In Israel, since 2002, the proportion of adult ultra-Orthodox males who are employed rose from 35% to 52%. Among women, the rate has increased from 50% to 73%. But among men, between 2015 and 2016, the increase in workforce participation stalled.
In 2003, the average ultra-Orthodox woman had 7.5 children. That number has fallen to 6.9, but is still higher than that among non-Haredi Jewish women today (2.4). Some 82% of ultra-Orthodox over age 20 are married (63% among non-Haredi Jews).
Some 58% of Haredim are aged 19 or younger (30% in the overall Jewish population). In terms of high school matriculation among girls in Haredi schools, the overall percentage matriculating rose from 31% in 2005 to 51% in 2015. But among boys, it dropped from 16% in 2009 to 13% in 2015.
Today’s ultra-Orthodox model clearly has the women as the breadwinners, so the men can study, and they largely appear happy to do so. So the women are leading the charge. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, between 2014-2016, 32.4% of ultra-Orthodox women aged 20-30 were single, compared to 18.9% a decade earlier. For ultra-Orthodox men, the percentages were 30.4% and 27.8%, respectively. The women are marrying later so they can get an education and earn a livelihood.
Between 2003-2004, about 61% of Haredim aged 20-25 were married. From 20152016, that number fell to 44%.
Ultra-Orthodox men may soon follow the women’s lead in gaining secular education. Writing in Ha’aretz, Tzvia Greenfield describes a “miracle in Betar Illit,” a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of 51,000 in Gush Etzion, near Jerusalem. There, a Hasidic boys’ high school includes secular studies and has its graduates take the matriculation exams in English, math and science. The school’s founder is Menachem Bombach.
“Only Haredim will be able to really appreciate the daring and spiritual greatness being demonstrated by the students of the high school and mainly the principal,” Greenfield concluded.
The ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and in the US are at once similar and different. Writing in the monthly magazine “Commentary,” Jack Wertheimer observed that “rather than constitute a single monolithic body, these [ultra-Orthodox] Jews demonstrate that there are at least 50 shades of black.
“In Lakewood, NJ,” he wrote, “4,000 children were born last year into a Haredi population of 10,000-12,000 families.”
The fertility rate of the Jewish population of Lakewood is nearly four times that of the residents of Jersey City and Newark.
“Within the Haredi world, the Satmar and Lubavitchers retain men for a year or two of post-high school Torah study and then encourage them to begin earning a livelihood. In other Hasidic groups, Bobover and Skvarer, men linger for more years… sometimes their entire lives. None of this would be economically feasible were it not for the remarkable social safety net constructed by Haredi communities to support their own. There are hundreds of aid programs, gemachs, an acronym for gemilut hasadim, the giving of loving-kindness,” wrote Wertheimer.
Secular Jews have much to learn from the phenomenal Haredi economic ecosystem. Transportation, education, medical care, cabs, ambulances, the disabled, fertility treatments, support groups, help for the bereaved, and an endless list of services all exist within the community itself. While conventional measures of poverty are based on income, these gemach services make the poverty far more bearable. Haredi incomes are low, but many of the goods and services they consume are cheap or free.
But the Haredi ecosystem has a price: The community demands a high degree of social conformity in return for its hesed.
The ultra-Orthodox work the system, legally, in the US. They enjoy food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 rent assistance and other subsidies. In return, they claim, their private schools educate 150,000 students, and so save the public coffers a small fortune had their children gone to public schools. The ultra-Orthodox work the system in Israel, too. This is enabled by the fact that politically, the ultra-Orthodox political parties form the balance of power.
A new poll by the Geo Cartographic Institute shows that if elections were to be held tomorrow, Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party) would elect four Knesset Members and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), seven, for a total of 11 Haredi MKs out of 120. They form the perpetual balance of power between the secular Right and Left. And they leverage that power with stubborn persistence and skill to gain huge chunks of the government budget.
In January, the Knesset Finance Committee, chaired by Moshe Gafni (UTJ), approved an additional 278 million shekels for Haredim in addition to 1.368 billion shekels this year allocated to the independent Haredi educational system and 800m. shekels for Ma’ayan Hahinuch, the independent Shas school system.
As this story was being written, a fierce all-night battle raged in the Knesset over the proposed “Minimarket Law” that would give Interior Minister Arye Deri authority to order certain stores to close on the Sabbath. The law is regarded as primarily ultra- Orthodox and brought bitter opposition. It barely passed, 58 for, 57 against.
The Haredi MKs promise they are not done. Their next battle will be to annul the Conscription Law, which calls for drafting all Haredim for military service.
So once again, war has broken out between the secular and religious. The head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Nadav Argaman, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in late December, in a rare appearance, that along with Palestinian terrorism, he believes internal dissension of ranks are among the greatest threats to Israel’s well-being, ahead of Iran.
Among the ultra-Orthodox, change does occur, but it is gradual, like the slow movement of the tectonic plates beneath our feet. From time to time, there are earthquakes, as an impatient secular society tries to rush or force change.
It is incumbent on the non-ultra-Orthodox to reach out to the Haredim with wisdom, understanding and patience to gently encourage integrating their young people into modern life, without threatening their core values. And this is entirely possible.
If the ultra-Orthodox are on their way to becoming a third of Israel’s population, neither they nor the rest of the population have any other choice.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com