Politicians, lay leaders and experts have various theories as to how to integrate haredim (ultra-Orthodox) into broader Israeli society. It’s a subject of conversation that often makes headlines, especially during waves of demonstrations against the country’s military conscription.
Some argue for a “tough love” approach to the haredi community, including revoking government benefits such as child care subsidies and privileges like exemption from military service.
But there’s a better way forward: using the vehicle of higher education to integrate haredim into society, offering them opportunities to enter the job market while also enabling them to continue their devotion to Torah.
This is a realistic solution. At the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), we don’t demand that haredim compromise their identity in order to achieve socioeconomic advancement.
By offering a dual curriculum featuring comprehensive higher education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects alongside Torah studies, JCT manages to accomplish two important objectives: bring haredim into the fold so they no longer need to rely on government subsidies in order to provide for their families, and narrow the educational gap between haredim and the rest of Israeli society.
Haredim are very much like other members of Israeli society. They love their families. They have dreams and aspirations. They want shalom bayit (domestic harmony) not only in their homes, but in their country. Removing state benefits assumes that haredim will only integrate into society in the face of punitive measures and that they will not respond to positive incentives.
Another common misconception is that haredi students largely do not study a core curriculum of secular subjects. JCT students not only study math and science, but they embrace it and all the opportunities that come along with such studies. Yes, they typically start without the prerequisite knowledge needed for higher education, but our college preparatory (mechina) course enables them to catch up.
Does the environment at JCT reflect the majority of Israel’s haredi population? No. But our haredi enrollment numbers – which rose from 200 in 2011 to 2,000 in 2020 – show a growing demand for STEM in that sector.
Our haredi students attain an 89% employment rate once they graduate, and they also shatter gender stereotypes. Some 53% of our computer science students are women, which is 18% more than any other Israeli academic institution.
The different lifestyles of the haredi and secular worlds add to the challenge of understanding one another. That is another reason why coming to the table, exploring options and providing helpful solutions is a more effective alternative than threats.
Haredim need opportunities and incentives to integrate. Educators and their institutions have the responsibility to provide every citizen in Israel with the chance and the tools to pursue higher education – whether they choose to seize that opportunity is up to them.
When given the chance, many haredim have demonstrated curiosity, engagement and even the desire to embrace higher education, and to enter the job market, all while maintaining their devotion to Torah.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, haredim are on track to comprise one-third of the Israeli population by 2065. Let’s embrace that reality rather than continuing to see demographic doom and gloom. Let’s pave a path for haredim that includes a rich, bountiful life alongside a commitment to Torah. Let’s approach haredi students as adults who are eager to move forward and to be the best they can be.
Let’s favor the carrot over the stick.
The writer is the vice president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.