A study of the nonemployment crisis

Along with the usual academic challenges, the Charedi College must convince its target population that higher education is important.

311_haredi women at college (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
311_haredi women at college
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
A-three-year-old darts out from behind the men’s side of the mehitza in search of his mother. When he reaches the women’s side, he is momentarily confused by the sea of 45 women wearing identical caps and sashes, modestly dressed in muted colors. Some are pregnant, most have their hair covered with scarves or wigs. As they are called up one by one to receive joint degrees from Bar-Ilan University and the Charedi College, the little boy weaves among the legs of the embracing young women, watching with wide eyes as the smiles and tears flow freely.
“You are doing holy work,” many of the speakers tell the graduates. “You, the graduates, are an effective answer and the correct way to… integrate the haredi community into the workforce,” MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) tells the graduates in his commencement speech. If Tzipi Livni and the other politicians could see this, he tells them, “they wouldn’t be able to call us unproductive.”
“I wouldn’t call it a revolution. That’s too big a word; we’re afraid of that word,” insists Ruth Ben-Hayim, director of the Charedi College in Jerusalem when she talks about the college. “There will be a slow process of change that’s good for the Israeli society.”
Ben-Hayim and the Charedi College have a difficult task: to create an opportunity for haredim to pursue careers, without alienating the community by making the change too dramatic.
The Charedi College, located in the Technology Park in Malha, has just concluded its ninth year, with 1,100 enrolled students, 11 degree programs for women and four degree programs for men. The college was the vision of Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom. The daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, she fought determinedly to create the college despite setbacks and criticism. In 2001, after approval for funding by the Council of Higher Education, 23 women gathered for the inaugural class.
Today, the gleaming rooms in the Technology Park building, rigorously separated for women and men, buzz with students, belying the difficult path the college has overcome. In addition to all the usual challenges of a private college, a haredi college must also slowly convince the haredi community that higher education is important, that husbands should let their wives learn and that parents should be proud of sons who learn a trade in addition to the Talmud.
In past summers, the college staff didn’t know if there would be enough students in the fall to have a class for each degree. “Girls come to me for advice. They’d want to learn, but if the girl is single, her parents say, ‘Come on, get married!’” explains the college counselor Tzipi Glick, who graduated with the first class of educational counseling in 2005. “She has to leave work, which makes it very hard economically [most haredi women are the principal breadwinners in their families]… Yesterday a woman came to me for advice and said, ‘I have three kids. Should I do this or not?’”
Glick says it’s possible, with support from home, good organization and the ability to break up the degree into smaller, more manageable projects rather than getting overwhelmed. She would know. When she graduated, she had five children. Today she has nine.
THE CHAREDI College is well known because of the involvement of Bar-Shalom. Other higher learning institutions for haredim include Bnei Brak Haredi College, The Lustig Program in Bayit Vagan, Machon Lev/Jerusalem College of Technology for men and its Safed branch for women, and the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono. The Council for Higher Education estimates that 2,000 haredi students are enrolled in haredi colleges this year – four times as many as in 2005.
These colleges are not just heartwarming tales of students overcoming economic hardships and parental disapproval to follow their dreams. They are an essential tool for lifting the haredi community out of poverty and for reducing secular-haredi tensions.
“Secular people are very annoyed with us, and they think that we’re like parasites,” says Ben-Hayim. “As soon as the haredi community starts working as well, it will calm down the secular society. They will not feel as if they’re paying for us because we’ll be managing to make our own livelihood.”
“I think that their emphasis on study is something that we secular Jews could learn a lot from. We can only envy their willingness to study so much,” says Prof. Dan Ben-David, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University and the executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy in Israel, an independent research institute.
“That’s one of the things that should help them be able to study the other [secular] topics as well, and not only persevere but thrive. Given the literacy rates in the haredi population, the study habits… we’re not talking about a ghetto population that you have to teach them how to overcome cultural barriers. These guys have it, but they need to study the fields that will help them survive economically on their own.”
In May, the Taub Center released one of the most comprehensive studies of the economic effects of “nonemployment,” people of working age who do not participate in the workforce. Three decades ago, male haredi nonemployment was 21 percent. This was more than double the level of nonemployment among males in other OECD countries. High, but not economically dangerous.
By 2008, nonemployment in haredi communities tripled from 21% to 65%, more than five times the current level of OECD nonemployment.
More optimistic figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics reveal that 53% of haredi males are unemployed.On the women’s side, according to the CBS 55% of haredi women work outside the home, compared to 80% of secular women and 75% of national religious women.
The Taub Center points out that the growth of nonemployment in the haredi community has two causes: the government and the economy. Government programs for the ultra-Orthodox have enabled more and more haredim to choose nonemployment as a viable option. And as Israel grows economically, the demand for skilled workers increases, while the demand for unskilled workers has decreased dramatically. Since many haredi men learn in schools that provide them with no secular education or skills, they are effectively shut out of the labor force unless they make a tremendous lifestyle change to continue their education.
“We have to change the nonwork incentives to work incentives, and we also have to give them the tools to work in a modern society,” explains Ben-David. “One without the other won’t work.”
“THE WAY the haredi education system is set up means that the male haredi can’t work,” says Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information at the Hiddush Center for Religious Freedom and Equality. “It destroys his initiatives, and he has to stay in the haredi community.
This has to change... It is simply ruining their lives.”
Ilan points out that the idea of the majority of the men learning instead of working is a relatively new phenomenon. Today, the government supports more than 100,000 men learning in kollels, while before World War II, there were no more than a few thousand “wise learners” in each country in Eastern Europe, he says. And haredim in the US go to college, he adds.
“It’s hard to think of a better investment for Israel than getting more haredim to enter into the workforce,” says Ilan, since haredim are estimated to grow from 9% of the current population to 20% in the next 20 years. “Right now, haredi colleges are a beautiful beginning,” he says. “If it were up to me, Adina Bar- Shalom would be a Shas leader.”
Hiddush wants to see at least 30,000 haredim per year learning in haredi colleges, a number that would make it comparable to the number of non-haredi students who go to university. The colleges are one tool that will enable haredi society to become less destitute, he says. But one of the most essential changes has to be implemented before students reach college age – in elementary schools, especially for boys.
“Nowhere in the world does the government support education that doesn’t include basic subjects,” says Ilan emphatically. “The time has come for Israel to make a significant decision... You can’t tell parents where to send their child to school, but you can do what every democratic state does: Say, ‘I will not finance this education unless it includes the basic knowledge of math, science, English, citizenship, Hebrew – these are things every child has to learn.’ Any school that doesn’t teach these things won’t receive an agora from the state.”
“A modern society does not allow anyone to use religion to deprive its children of medication they need to live,” says Ben-David. “By the same token, I don’t think a modern society can allow a parent to deprive his children of what they will need in order to work and thrive. There’s no reason why a Jewish country can use Judaism to deprive the children of tools they need to succeed.”
Female students have an easier time, Ben-Hayim says, because most haredi girls’ schools teach English, math and secular subjects in addition to the religious classes. This early education gives them a giant head start compared to their male counterparts, a fact clearly reflected in the numbers at the Charedi College. Currently, 80% of the students are women. They have an astounding graduation rate – about 98% of the women who start a program end with a degree in hand. On the men’s side, only some 50% finish the mechina, or year-long preparation program. Of those who finish the mechina, only 75% receive their degrees.
Ben-Hayim knows that the 350 graduates of the Charedi College over the past nine years are swallowed up by the thousands and thousands of women who have finished seminary in that time. She acknowledges that a higher education will take generations to be built into the haredi community, the way it is expected in the secular and national religious communities. But she remains hopeful: “I see one person, and another person, and another person. The nation of Israel started from a single person, Abraham our patriarch. I believe in a quiet revolution, although I don’t want to use that word,” she says.
“We want to go with the haredi outlook on life; we don’t want to change the girls or make them different. We want to give them a profession so they have a livelihood, so they have a more comfortable life, so they can give their children more clothes and more food and more essential items. We don’t want the haredi community to be a poor society. We want it to be a community that is a functional community and a creative community,” says Ben-Hayim.
‘Honors! Did you hear that, Na’ama? Honors! You wanted to quit so many times, and here you are finishing today – with honors!” Ruth Ben-Hayim exclaims in the midst of an emotional hug as she hands Na’ama Levy her degree.
“I get goose bumps when I tell this story,” Ben- Hayim says later when she speaks of Levy, who graduated at the top of her class with a degree in social sciences. “Seven years I’ve been working here, and I get a high every time I tell these stories. There are so many stories of people who managed to get so far from where they were.”
Home in Ramat Shlomo was a “nightmare,” explains Levy. She and her siblings were emotionally abused and often totally neglected. “I would wake up in the morning and there would be nothing to eat. There was almost nothing in the refrigerator.”
She is the fourth of seven children. When she was born, her mother started going deaf and suffering from severe social anxiety. Her brothers and sisters always blamed her for taking away their mother, she says. Her mother couldn’t work, and her father brought home NIS 3,000 a month to support the entire family.
“When my teachers yelled at me for coming to school late, I used to look at them with big round eyes,” she recalls. “What could I tell them – that my mother didn’t get up in the morning? That no one was around to wake me up? That I had no idea where my skirt and blouse were? I was eight!” Levy struggled in school and stopped going to class in seventh grade. “When I was 12, I understood that the world was divided in two: people who life was good to, and people who life was terrible to and who would always be sad,” Levy says.
“And I understood that I was in the second group and life would be bad and I would always be sad.”
She started cleaning houses and working as a mother’s assistant, attending classes sporadically. In high school, she developed a severe eating disorder, starving herself until she eventually weighed 30 kg. Doctors were worried about her, but it didn’t break her out of her depression.
And then, at age 16, something pushed her back to reality. Her older sister started mechina, a precollege preparation year, at the Charedi College and then went on to study social work at a school in Bnei Brak. “One day I just understood that I wouldn’t have anything unless I went to learn and did the matriculation exams. Suddenly I understood, that’s it, I would be left with nothing,” says Levy. “So one day I went to school and I just sat there, and I started to learn. I started getting there at 8 a.m.”
But the uphill battle to complete the matriculation exams and the psychometric exams took Levy three years, repeating 12th grade twice at two different schools. Even after she completed 42 matriculation exams, the Education Ministry refused to issue her a certificate because her exams were so disorganized and from so many different places. Despite her working hours upon hours cleaning houses to pay for private tutors, her psychometric score was so low that she couldn’t get into the degree program she hoped to study, social work.
Instead, the Charedi College accepted her into social sciences on probation, with no matriculation certificate.
“The first year I knew that I could go home at any point, that I would have studied an entire year, all the money and time, for nothing,” Levy says. “And I didn’t have any money. My father wanted me to help him at home. ‘Bring home money!’ he told me, ‘Don’t go and study! Who goes and studies in days like these?! What did I bring you into the world for? Go and start bringing us money!’”
Levy found herself faced with mounting debts. She had started psychiatric care to deal with her depression and anorexia, but she couldn’t afford to pay for care, classes and helping out her family. The college offered her a scholarship of NIS 3,000, then NIS 6,000, then NIS 10,000. “They said, ‘Na’ama, take this and just finish your studies,’” Levy recounts.
“I can say that Ruti gave me the biggest present that I got in the world, this degree,” says Levy. “I’m still sad today because I really wanted social work. Now I’m enrolled in a master’s degree [at the Charedi College] in counseling, and I feel like I need something deeper.”
Levy dreams of becoming a clinical social worker, believing that her own experiences can help her give so much to others. But her low psychometric scores and lack of English are standing in the way of her being accepted into the program. She’s hoping that after her first year of the master’s program, she can switch from counseling to social work.
“When I started this degree, I stood up a little straighter,” she says. “I started to understand I could help my younger siblings in more than just giving them food – they started being able to rely on me.”
And it wasn’t just personal growth. “My house went through a huge change,” says Levy. “My dad is proud of me and my sister, he tells everyone at work and all the cousins – my daughters have degrees! Now he understands the importance… Now I’m in a better place with my parents, I know they did what they could, I’m not angry with them.”
Levy is beginning to look forward to the rest of her life. While she acknowledges that at 24 she’s considered a “poor old single woman,” she’s not yet ready to go out on shidduchim, or arranged dates. She feels she needs to become stronger before she’s ready to get married. She doesn’t know yet if she wants a husband who learns in yeshiva all day or goes out to work.
“Okay, so I’m here today [at my graduation] alone,” Levy says, tears streaming down her face. “I’m really, really alone. My mother didn’t come, my father didn’t come. Every time when I look at myself, I tell myself OK, there are people in the world that it’s supposed to be better for them. But whenever I look at myself, I think that I can start being better. It’s good for me, however hard it is for me today. I have friends who love me, I built a solid base for myself, and I’m healthy. I have a gift, not just a degree, but I’m healthy. I’m alive, I can smile, I can laugh. I have something to give.”
The girls are in the midst of receiving their degrees when one of them steps up to the microphone, tears in her eyes, and pours out her gratitude to her fellow students and teachers.
“If they didn’t believe in me, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she tells the audience, barely holding back tears. “I want to tell you it wasn’t easy, but Ruti, Miri, all of the staff at the college, all of the girls, supported me and helped me and I want to say to do them thank you with all my heart.”
The Pua Azulai of today is almost unrecognizable compared to the woman she was five years ago, when she arrived in Israel as a young Ukrainian law student on holiday. She had a bright future ahead: a loving family in Ukraine, a half-finished law degree at a university in Kishinev in Moldova, an uncle who had set up a business for her in Canada where she could work after her studies, and a dynamic social life as a semi-professional ballroom dancer.
On a trip to Israel with some friends, Azulai remembers seeing a man dressed in a long black coat, high white socks and a strange fur hat in the hot Ashdod sun. “Who are these people?!” she asked.
Intrigued, she kept asking more and more questions, eventually deciding to stay and study Judaism in Ashdod. After a lot of internal debate, she decided to leave her studies and her family, convert to Judaism, become religious and live in Israel. “My whole life, I was searching for myself, searching for the truth,” Azulai says. “It was so clear to me. I always knew what I didn’t want but didn’t know what I did want. Here, I felt like this was the direction.”
A few months after her Orthodox conversion, Azulai discovered that both her grandmothers were Jewish, and she hadn’t needed to go through the conversion at all.
Azulai moved to Jerusalem in 2005 with a backpack and NIS 50 in her pocket. After studying at Midrasha Neveh Yerushalayim in Har Nof, she decided she wanted to go back to school. The director of students gave her an ultimatum: start college within one year or forfeit the scholarship from the absorption basket. Azulai showed up at Ruth Ben- Hayim’s desk, asking about the Charedi College.
“Ruti said to me, ‘You can’t really write in Hebrew,’ and I said, ‘Right.’ And she said, ‘You can’t speak that well, either,’ and I said ‘Right.’ And she said, ‘And you don’t even have English!’ And I said ‘Right, but I really want to!’” Azulai recounts. “I know six other languages [Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Latin and French]; I absorb languages really quickly.’ Ruti smiled and said, ‘Let’s see what we can do with you.’” Three years later, Azulai was one of the first students in her social sciences class to find a job, as the coordinator for the International Network on the War on Drugs and Alcohol in Kiryat Gat, where she lives with her new husband, a full-time yeshiva student.
While Azulai’s story is by no means common, it sheds light on two essential characteristics of the Charedi College that make it so successful: individualized attention and an emphasis on employable graduates.
Over and over Azulai thanks Ruti, director of students Miri Lifshitz, Rabbanit Adina Ben-Shalom and the entire staff. “They believed in me and supported me and simply opened up my life,” she says. Without the Charedi College, Azulai would have been forced to choose between becoming haredi or having a career and being financially stable. With the college, she was able to do both.
Without the extra attention, personal phone calls and additional financial help provided by the college, very few students would succeed, Azulai says. When she was homeless for weeks at a time, Ben-Hayim and Lifshitz invited her to their homes. When she had trouble paying her tuition when she was unemployed, Bar-Shalom wrote her a personal check.
Funding the haredi education is always a challenge, Ben-Hayim acknowledges. Funds from the college come from Avi Chai, private foundations, the Joint Distribution Committee and donations from Jews abroad. The college partners with Hadassah Academic College, Ben-Gurion University and Bar-Ilan University for each degree, so graduates of the Charedi College are also graduates of those universities. The tuition is the same: NIS 9,600 plus NIS 5,000 for English classes.
Almost all the students receive some type of scholarship, with many receiving a full scholarship plus expenses.
The college also focuses on offering majors with employment potential, such as medical laboratory sciences, education administration, educational counseling, social work and psychology.
“The college is a tool for a livelihood, a tool to support a family,” says Ben-Hayim. “So we have practical professions, where they definitely have work.”
Haredim with professional degrees are so much in demand that many, like Azulai, find a job even before they graduate.
Azulai is grateful for the way the Charedi College enabled her to be so successful after such a sudden life change. “I came alone to Israel and I had to earn my own livelihood, and it wasn’t easy,” she says. “There were periods when my things were stolen and I was left with nothing. Before and after my wedding, they gave me a lot of scholarships.”
She checks off her list of successes – an Israeli husband who learns all day, a home filled with Torah, a job she loves, fluency in Hebrew, a family in Ukraine that is slowly accepting her life choices and, in just a week or two, the birth of her first child. It would not have been possible, she says, without the help of God and the Charedi College.
“The Charedi College supported me,” she says, beaming. “I feel like they are really my family. I felt protected here. They gave me a ticket to life.” – M.L.
Since the the Charedi College was established, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef encouraged his daughter Ruth Ben-Hayim to open up separate majors for men. But Ben-Hayim says that the challenges in starting the boys’ classes were even greater.
“It’s harder with men,” says Ben-Hayim. “Girls know what it is to learn secular studies, but the boys are coming from yeshiva.”
The women face cultural pressure by choosing a path that is different from that of their friends. But for men, the wrenching decision to learn not only thrusts them on a completely foreign course, but it comes at the expense of learning Torah full time, the ultimate achievement for haredi men.
“Some of them still manage to learn a few hours in the morning, but many don’t; they leave yeshiva and come here,” Ben-Hayim explains. “It’s very difficult. That’s a big change, and the rabbis agree with it less.”
“I’m haredi but a bit different,” says Netanel Cohen a 29-year-old Har Nof resident in his second year of a degree program in logistics and economics. It takes him a while to figure out what separates him from the regular haredi community besides choosing to study academically. Finally, he narrows it down to the way he dresses – in a cream shirt instead of the traditional white.
Cohen was born in the Katamonim and moved to Har Nof as a child. Like every young haredi boy, he learned in a succession of yeshivas – Succat David , Kol Torah, then Yeshivat Hebron in Givat Mordechai. One day at Yeshivat Hebron, Cohen was invited to be part of the inaugural class of a new yeshiva starting in London.
“I loved it in London,” says Cohen. “It was the first time I was abroad. I discovered a new world there.”
While in London, Cohen decided to leave the yeshiva and pursue a different life.
“When I was in yeshiva at certain periods of time, I thought I’d only learn in Torah environments,” says Cohen. “But I always had an inner desire to learn secular studies. Since I was a child, I think. I didn’t express it until I left the yeshiva.”
Cohen studied part time in a kollel and held a series of jobs. He worked at the Western Wall tunnels as a general staff member and later as a special education teacher for teenagers with autism for two years.
When Cohen speaks, he chooses his words carefully. He constantly says, “in my eyes” and “the way I see it,” making sure it’s clear that he doesn’t represent the entire community. The term “haredi” encompasses many different streams of observant Jews, he stresses, some of which are more open to the idea of academic options for boys, and some of which will never accept it.
“Naturally, it’s expected from the boys to go and learn at yeshiva, to carry on learning there,” he explains. “That’s why it needs more courage, a change in perceptions. It’s not as easy as it is for girls,” he says. “My parents would prefer for me to learn at yeshiva, I think,” he continues. “But after the decision, they accepted me.It wasn’t very easy for them. It took a while before they could digest it, but after I started they respected me a lot. They accept me as I am; they’ve learned to understand.”
The third of seven children, Cohen has a younger sister who has a law degree and a younger sister who started a practical engineering degree. His only brother is secular.
“After I left yeshiva, they didn’t know what I would do,” he says. “Then my parents understood that the fact that I left yeshiva didn’t mean that I was going to become secular. One has nothing to do with the other. They got used to it.”
Ben-Hayim says this is one of the most common family situations – that the parents are hesitant at first but learn to accept the decision and, after some time has passed, are fiercely proud of their children.
“Everyone comes [to the Charedi College] for their own reasons,” Cohen says. “But we all have something in common – the change in perception. At yeshiva we were taught that learning Torah was the only thing. All the people here have a change in perception because they decide that the yeshiva and kollel aren’t necessarily most suitable for them. I’ve seen people in computer sciences that are really… if I would have seen them on the street I would say to myself, ‘They definitely go to kollel,’” says Cohen.
“But they learn here, and in my eyes, that’s something very beautiful and successful.”