The new haredim

Technology and economic realities are having a profound impact on the haredi community. Will the resulting changes make it weaker or stronger?

Avigayil Heilbronn-Karlinsky (photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
Avigayil Heilbronn-Karlinsky
(photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
‘The Israeli haredi world is undergoing enormous changes. In 10 years it’ll be something else entirely,” predicts social activist Racheli Ibenbuim.
There is a general consensus among young haredim that we are living through a major transformation in the history of the ultra-Orthodox community.
There is a new generation of haredim who are feeling more and more Israeli, and they are regarding their identity, responsibility and tradition from different angles. The authority of rabbis is slowly, but noticeably, becoming weaker, and what used to be referred to as a rather homogeneous haredi society is disintegrating. One increasingly hears: “There isn’t a haredi society anymore, but haredi societies.”
“Elul,” a short story by Ibenbuim, provides an intimate look into the inner lives of the new haredi Israelis. The story begins before dawn of the first day of the month of Elul. Ibenbuim’s Elul is personified in a figure who roams the pitch-black streets of Jerusalem, knocking on windows to wake up Jews for early morning prayers, navigating his way in the dark alleys of the city using both a lantern and a smartphone. Then the story moves into a couple's bedroom in one of the houses nearby. The woman is already awake, but keeps her eyes shut, contemplating her religiosity, spirituality and everyday life.
The world of the new haredim vividly illustrated in the story is distinctly traditional, yet at the same time colored pale Facebook blue, reflecting everyday Israeli reality. The conflicts the author masterfully expresses are the deliberations of a growing number of young haredim – activists, entrepreneurs, educators, artists, thinkers, businessmen, yeshiva students, working women and more – who are reflecting on a crucial transitional period in their community and are trying to mend what they see as the wounds of their society.
Some of them even task themselves with envisioning what it would mean to be haredi in the next decade of the millennium.
Some link these changes to the proliferation of smartphones and access to the Internet; others, to the desperate need o f youngsters for education and employment outside the community, an experience that broadens their world and blurs the lines of segregation. The most urgent question though, isn’t why this is happening, but rather where the community is heading.
Four youngish haredim coping with some of the most explosive topics in the haredi world – gender equality, political identity, the authority of rabbis – tried to answer at least some of these questions.
FOR MANY decades, a stated purpose of the haredi community was to resurrect the “world of Torah,” including the many yeshivot that were burned in the Holocaust. Today, this aim seems somewhat outdated. At no point in Jewish history was it so easy, economically feasible and safe for Jews who want to study to spend their entire lives deeply immersed in the world of Torah. In other words, this notion begs revision.
Haredi social activist and entrepreneur Yonatan, who insisted on anonymity so as not to jeopardize his work, argues that the haredi community is still “traumatized” by the effects of the Enlightenment period (starting in late 18th-century Europe), when the emancipation of Jews and general secularization tore people from their communities, leading to their attraction to the gentile culture around them.
In fact, for many generations, this narrative defined haredi society. When the spark of Zionism was kindled in Europe, haredi rabbis saw it as another form of danger to their tradition and strongly opposed it, both in exile and in the Land of Israel. Even when things turned from bad to worse in Europe many rabbis ignored the warning bells and advised their communities to stay put.
The Holocaust nearly eradicated European Jewry and, as it turned out, the hated Zionist movement provided the haredim who survived a home. In the Jewish state, the haredim prepared to restore the “world of Torah” destroyed by the Nazis. Today, it’s safe to say that the Zionists’ accomplishments have provided fertile ground for the haredi community that led to an unprecedented blossoming and resurgence of the world of Torah.
“In the same way that Zionism has stalled at a crossroad since it reached its goal – creating a state for Jews – the haredi community, too, is facing fundamental changes since the world of Torah was resurrected,” Yonatan says.
Yonatan was born to a religious Zionist family, which he describes as the epitome of “bourgeoisie.” In high school, he entered the haredi world. He learned in a kollel, then in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and married a good Beis Ya’akov seminary graduate. At 25, he decided to leave the yeshiva.
“I understood that I have a family to provide for, that there is no future or livelihood in stay ing in the yeshiva.”
Yonatan was one of the first people to participate in a special program for haredi men to study in university. He studied psychology and management in the Open University and started working for a group that integrates disabled people in workplaces by training them in electronics. In the past five years he founded and co-directed several social initiatives, including a think tank for rabbinical policy.
“Our first study at the think tank,” he explains, “had to do with the responsibilities and position of the rabbi in our society. Our conclusion was that a rabbi today is halachically qualified, but when it comes to social leadership he is undertrained. The think tank underlines that nowadays haredim are entering offices that affect national policy and they want – and need – to know what the right thing to do is from a haredi perspective.”
Yonatan says that his initial encounter with haredi society was mesmerizing.
“When you decide to move from one sector to another you idealize the one you walk into. There were many things that as an outsider I was shocked to discover.
Slowly, you land back on your feet and see a clearer and fuller picture of the society. For instance, when I started volunteering for a non-profit organization that empowers families by teaching them tools to better manage their household economy, I was the only haredi person volunteering there, so I started working with haredi families.
“I faced, for the very first time, the ugly outcome of the avrechut world [where men only study Torah and don’t work]. You meet 35-year-olds that urgently need money to support their eight children and do not have any training for jobs. Their only option is to work in a supermarket where they will be paid the same as for sitting in the yeshiva. The crisis is deep. I met many people that are shut down, depressed, because they weren’t suited to this framework yet got stuck in this system.”
Asked if there is negligence in the haredi world, Yonatan says that he’s “not pointing fingers. The haredi public is post-traumatic. The memory of what happened in the Enlightenment is still strong, and people with PTSD cannot actualize their full potential,” he says.
“I understand the trauma. The Torah is important, critical, and when you see people lose touch with Torah, you panic. At the same time, the situation is that there is always more and more interaction with Israeli society, the modern world and everyday life. It’s risky. Outside, there is a flood. A spiritual flood. A guy in the yeshiva is sheltered from the storm outside.
“This is a metaphor every haredi lives with, but we have been living in Noah’s Ark for too long. It creates a lot of problems and impotence when dealing with the outside world – inability to work, to study, to fulfill one’s potential, to cope with mental health problems, to have good connections with the government and so forth.”
I ask Yonatan if haredi society is healing from the trauma of the Enlightenment.
“Yes. It’s slowly healing. The interaction of the people with the outside world widens and deepens. People are exposed to more information. The Internet is a disaster to the ‘Noah’s Ark,’ but it is impossible to fight it. Notice how smartphones entered our society: in the beginning, we had kosher cellphones that didn’t have text messages, then came kosher smartphones with WhatsApp, and today you can find a kosher version of most basic apps. Just to compare, in years past, the struggle was about listening to the radio…”
INDEED, ACCESS to smartphones transformed ultra-Orthodox society. Avigdor Rabinovic, a 25-year-old social activist, says, “Almost half of the haredim are on the Internet, some also on Facebook.”
There are many Facebook groups that are discussing questions like “Are we haredi? Are we haredi-Israeli? What does it mean to be haredi?” I met the smartly dressed young haredi near the Mahaneh Yehuda market at a center for artists and social activists that work under the umbrella of a Jerusalem NGO called New Winds. He comes here a few times a week for meetings and to work on his various cultural projects. Rabinovic, who is an MA student in politics at the Open University, was raised in a segregated community in Ofakim. He defines his family as, “mainstream haredi.”
He left Ofakim for Or Elhanan yeshiva when he was 18, but three years later he opted out. It was an unusual decision.
“The common path,” he says, “is to get married, study in the kolel and only at 30 start looking for a job.” He, on the other hand, started working for the telecom company Orange and found many more haredim like him that want to study at university and work.
“When I left my work at Orange I wanted to do something meaningful for my community. I understood that people like me don’t have a place you can go out to but isn’t a bar. I opened such a spot, on a rooftop downtown, exclusively for men, where you can watch sports games. On Thursdays we have Torah classes, cholent… It started small but quickly thousands of people came and I understood there is a thirst for something.”
Rabinovic’s social initiatives have to do with integrating haredim into the Israeli job market; today he runs an English-language learning program for haredim that engages hundreds of students and is still growing.
“This scene becomes something you cannot ignore. The only question is where it will lead. How will our generation look in a decade? What kind of education will we give our children? Do I want to be a part of this thing? Some think we are becoming more like the religious- Zionist sector and there is always the issue of secularization in the air, but we want to be haredim, in the way we want to be haredim.”
THE FACEBOOK group “Torah Hub” is one of the main domains for discussion about the conflicts and contemplations that Rabinovic describes. The conversations and heated arguments at the site range from feminism to theology, parenthood and American politics. One of the most vocal voices in this group is that of Avigayil Heilbronn-Karlinsky.
Heilbronn-Karlinsky, 28, is a mother of two, and now, after several years of providing for her family, the roles in her family have changed. Her husband left the yeshiva and is working for a tech company, so now it’s her turn to study at university.
About a year ago, when Jerusalem haredi neighborhoods were suffering from a wave of stabbing attacks by terrorists from east Jerusalem, Heilbronn- Karlinsky published a provocative Facebook post comparing rapists to stabbers. She wrote in that post that in the past few weeks people had been anxiously looking around crossing the streets, afraid that a stabber is lurking behind the corner, but that women are afraid of rapists every single day of the week yet no one wants to talk about it.
“The most hideous war in our country,” she wrote, “is going on under the radar. It’s the bloodiest most silenced war, and nine out of 10 times the victim doesn’t even fight back. She is too devastated, broken. She is dealing with recovery and survival.”
Her post was an impulsive expression of frustration, but many read it as an invitation for a conversation. Shortly after publishing it, her wall became a debating stage on sexual harassment in the haredi community. People shared her post and argued fiercely for and against her central statement, that haredi leadership and media neglect the protection of women entirely. When she started receiving private messages she discovered that it’s not only women who suffer from the negligence in treating sex crimes. In fact, half the messages she received were from men who needed help.
PART OF her activity is in helping sexual harassment survivors communicate with the police. The process isn’t simple because there is a high wall between the police and the haredi “Noah’s Ark.” Uncovering some sex offenders also ruptures the fabric of society.
“It challenges people’s myths about rabbis. They see that an esteemed rabbi can do things like this. Some deny it, but slowly they won’t be able to. It’s still very hard for women to speak up. Many of the calls we get are from people who don’t want to take a step forward and file a complaint to the police. We have information on powerful people in the community, but we cannot do anything with this as long as the victims do not dare to act. It’s very scary, especially if you are still searching for a husband. I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to do such a thing,” she says.
Asked if this puts her in a moral dilemma, knowing that she has information about a person who might ruin someone else’s life, she says it does indeed.
“Every day there might be another person hurt, and I need to live with the horrible truth that no matter what, it will never end. I’m not speaking only about haredi society, but generally, it’s also true for secular society. I try to change from within. I’m saying that according to our own morality and Torah we are not okay. I’m telling them, ‘you dare condemn the gay pride but say nothing when a rabbi sexually assaults another man?’” Heilbronn-Karlinsky praises her husband as a supportive partner.
“In the Litvak community there is real partnership in the house. The men partake in everything and if you go to a neighborhood of young haredim today you’ll see that in the morning the men take the children to school while the women are already at work.”
It wasn’t easy for Heilbronn-Karlinsky to accept that her husband wanted to leave the yeshiva and work instead. He was a promising student.
Despite this, she says, the head of the yeshiva was understanding, but for her it a was a different story: “For me, on the other hand, it was difficult to accept. It was a disappointment. All your life you are told that a husband studying in the yeshiva is the greatest thing in the world, and now you are telling me I cannot get what I wanted? “Also socially, I was worried that people would disregard me because my husband isn’t in the yeshiva.”
Her parents were supportive, but in some cases social pressure holds people back in a life they didn’t choose.
“Some men don’t leave because their wives don’t want to hear about it, or that the wife’s father will threaten to take away the apartment he gave them as a present.”
RACHELI IBENBOIM, the social activist who authored the story “Elul,” is a 31-year-old Gur hassid. At 18 she married the first man she was introduced to; they met once before the huppa for only 20 minutes. After they had their first child they understood they should find a way to support the family. Ibenboim hated her first job.
“I died inside. I figured out that if I want to work in something else I should study first, which is a huge risk.”
She studied advertising, found a job at a haredi PR company and ended up loving the business.
“I worked for an NGO that address nutritional insecurity in the community and shortly after became the CEO. Every day I came back home happy, feeling talented, meaningful, bringing in a paycheck. “But there were troubles, too. The haredi society didn’t understand what I was doing. One of my friends once asked me, ‘What are you going to tell your daughter when she asks you why she didn’t have you as a mother? So you could buy shoes for NIS 300 shekels, not NIS 70?’”
She developed what she refers to as “two identities. One was Racheli the career woman who studied communications and sociology, works with the government, and the greater secular world. The second Racheli was the haredi one, who sits with the family, talks about food, recipes and laundry. There was almost no connection between these two lives. I didn’t have a way to describe what I do to the people around me, and I lived peacefully with this until one moment that unsettled me. A friend of mine was over for Shabbat. She has 16 children and it emphasized my feelings of guilt for not being the Yiddishe mama I should be. But then she told me, ‘You know, even though I know you turned into a bad apple, when I look at you and your kids and mine I’m not that sure you made a bad choice.’ “This shook my world. I didn’t believe that she could see my choice as a good thing. I asked her what brought her to this thought and she said, ‘When my kids come to eat chicken once a week I don’t have money to give them for the bus ride back. When I lie in bed I tell myself it will be all right. But I search for that good 5% and cannot see it. My kids only study Torah. They have no tools to escape poverty.’” Ibenboim felt that the conversation was “a slap in the face. How could I neglect my own community? Suddenly, after feeling alienation from my community I noticed that I actually have a role in it.”
That was four years ago, and the first thing that she did was read everything she could find that discussed the subject of haredim. She had a large box full of academic papers and she read for several months. It was clear to her that she lacked the knowledge to do what she wanted to do. She found out that the vast majority of literature on the haredi world is about men.
“I needed to gather more information, so I asked my neighbor what was missing from her life. In reply she asked me how the cake recipe she recommended turned out. My sister had more patience, but after I hung up the phone she called my husband to ask if I was all right in the head.”
Today, Ibenboim is leading two different programs for empowerment of haredi women and is energetically involved in supporting other projects of like-minded activists. She, as well as her colleagues, sees that the transformations in the ultra-Orthodox community – that have to do with core education, integration in the job market, gender equality and even religious belief – are unavoidable. They favor some changes, they see that haredi society can benefit from some things from the outside world, but at the same time worry about the consequences.
“Today,” says Ibenboim, “it’s a little bit like a truck speeding downhill without brakes. There is no management of the situation, no conversation; there are no thought leaders. We simply don’t know what effect it will have on our lives. When the Mizrahi aliya [Jews who originated from Arab countries] came here, they didn’t keep their culture and tradition and I’m afraid it will happen to the haredi community as well.”