Israel's haredi Jews deserve better leaders - opinion

We are no longer willing to live in poverty and to accept unnecessary limitations in our lives in unquestioning obedience to the Rabbis.

 ULTRA-ORTHODOX children push a desk in a hallway of a school in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX children push a desk in a hallway of a school in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Israel woke up today to a likely coalition between Likud and the Haredi parties. Election campaigns are unpleasant for sensitive people like me, who don’t enjoy hearing dirty personal attacks by politicians against one another. Today, as the results are analyzed and the coalition talks begin, we hope and pray that we will not have to face a sixth round of elections any time soon.

There is much to be said about the quality of political leadership in our generation, not just in Israel but around the world. The French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once said, “In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve.” My response is that we, the people, need to work on deserving and finding better leaders.

Before the elections, I avoided commenting on the deal that Benjamin Netanyahu made with United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and other Haredi political parties, and on statements made by their leaders. In order to prevent a split between the Hassidic and Litvish factions over the issue of secular studies in Haredi schools, Netanyahu offered them all unconditional funding. Until now, school funding has been predicated on how much time each school dedicates to learning the core curriculum subjects of math, English, science, technology and civics. If Netanyahu delivers on his promise, the Haredi community will have secured unconditional support for keeping their students ignorant.

In recent years, I have built a network of schools in Israel where Hassidic and Litvish students come to learn core curriculum subjects and graduate with full matriculation diplomas. Our post-high school programs equip Haredi men and women to enter university and train for professional careers. Every year, the demand for places in our Netzach schools increases. We also have more than 18,000 Haredi teenagers enrolled in our Eshkolot Virtual School. They are dedicating their precious free time and Yeshiva vacations to learning math, English and science online, in order to catch up with their secular peers.

In a recent survey of Haredi parents, it was revealed that 60% of parents want their children to learn core curriculum subjects. The Admor of the Belz Hassidic community, Rav Yissachar Dov Rokeach, announced earlier this year that he wanted to introduce math and English lessons into his network of Hassidic schools. This was a pragmatic decision, not an ideological one. He wants the next generation of his Hassidim to be able to support themselves and enjoy a better future. Unfortunately, political forces within the Haredi world prevented Belz from implementing his plan, resulting in this unfortunate compromise deal with Netanyahu and throwing thousands of Haredi children under the bus.

 Head of the Likud party MK Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Qiryat Shemona, October 24, 2022.  (credit: MICHAL GILADI/FLASH90) Head of the Likud party MK Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Qiryat Shemona, October 24, 2022. (credit: MICHAL GILADI/FLASH90)

Haredi ideology hasn't changed, but haredim are more pragmatic

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that the Haredi community has changed its ideology and I would not want them to do so but they are becoming more pragmatic. They are voting with their feet and signing up their children for after-school English programs in local community centers and looking for online learning options that accord with their worldview. That’s why we created Eshkolot with clean education content that does not conflict with the ethical values and world view of even the most conservative Haredi families.

That’s why Netzach is receiving increasing numbers of requests from parents and teenagers to join our network. They appreciate that our schools are staffed by professional teachers who are in touch with the needs of their students and open to inspection by the Ministry of Education. Building on the success of our schools in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, we are planning to open more schools in the center of the country and to build high schools for our growing elementary school students.

ISRAELI POLITICIANS are beginning to recognize that the exponential growth of the Haredi community presents many challenges for the future of the state. As 13% of the population, we are the fastest-growing sector and by 2050 we will comprise over 40% of Israel’s population. With 60% of Haredim under the age of 20, our young people are becoming an influential voting bloc. My main concern about yesterday’s election was that these young voters should not become radicalized. I believe that the Haredi voters who are abandoning their traditional political parties in favor of charismatic right-wing figures like Itamar Ben Gvir are venting their frustration with their own leadership. This is a huge problem in a community that is entirely built on respect for parents and teachers.

Events during the past few years, like the tragedy in Meron, and the terror attacks in Elad and Bnai Brak have made many Haredim feel more connected to Israeli society. They realize that they must take responsibility for their own future and play their part in their own security. We can see this in the growth of volunteer organizations like Hatzolah, Zaka and the Yedidim roadside assistance organization. We no longer feel like a beleaguered minority with grievances against the government and we are less receptive to the us-and-them narrative of the Haredi parties. We are no longer willing to live in poverty and to accept unnecessary limitations in our lives in unquestioning obedience to the Rabbis.

As more Haredim move into the workforce, we are discovering new media and ideas. We are encouraged to question previously accepted principles, such as the role of women in society, and many of us find ourselves in mixed social environments for the first time in our lives. Israeli society has become more inclusive, diverse and respectful of Haredi colleagues and their culture. You will often see groups of secular colleagues enjoying meals in kosher restaurants for the comfort of their religious co-workers.

At the same time, the IDF has become more willing to accommodate the needs of Haredi soldiers. I served in the Israeli Army and every year I fulfil my Miluim (reserve duty) obligation by participating in workshops for IDF officers from every division on the importance of integrating Haredim into Israeli society. I find that they are interested in our traditions and respectful of our requests.

My son is currently serving in an IDF unit and I am confident that he will benefit from his exposure to the diversity of Israeli society and from the role models he will meet there. What concerns me more is the lack of role models he will meet in his own community.

In recent weeks, Israel’s Haredi leadership has demonstrated that they are out of step with the wishes of young Haredim and their parents. They are not offering them positive role models or realistic hopes of a better future. This is extremely dangerous. We need to find new leaders for our community who are open to our concerns and connected to the world, rooted in authentic halacha and positive about our future and the future of Israel.