Ultra-Orthodox Jews are increasingly joining the Israeli workforce and the IDF.
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DENVER—Advocates for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews in the workplace and the army point out a subtle, yet important distinction between integration and inclusion.
Though more than 50 percent of Israeli Haredim (a common term used for ultra-Orthodox) live in poverty, according to the most recent surveys, the society of male “learners” and female “earners” is experiencing major change, said Chaviva Eisler, director of planning and overseas partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Tevet employment initiative.
The topic of Haredi employment was a focus at several sessions of the recent Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) in Denver.
“Promoting employment is also a way of helping Israeli society become more inclusive,” Eisler said at a session titled “Culture Clash: Engaging the Haredim in the Israeli Mainstream.”
However, inclusion isn’t the same goal as integration, experts noted. Joe Rosenbaum—a Lakewood, NJ-based businessman who opened offices to employ Haredim in Jerusalem, Modi’in and Beitar—cautioned against starting a “revolution” by integrating Haredim into the Israeli mainstream. Rather, Rosenbaum stressed “including” Haredim in the workplace while recognizing “the sensitivities of where they’re coming from,” and not ignoring their religious ideology.
David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People for the UJA Federation of New York, said it’s important to remember how “Israel is not the United States.” In Israel, various groups—secular, Haredi, Zionist, and others—don’t feel the need to mesh, he said.
“Social integration is not part of the Israeli narrative of anybody,” Mallach said. “It is a different view [than the U.S. has] of how communities should interact in terms of creating the whole Israeli polity.”
The View From Jerusalem
Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, said a job fair for the ultra-Orthodox two months ago drew 4,000 people, two-thirds of whom were women.
“Today, the challenge is not how to convince [Haredim] to get a job. The challenge is to create jobs in the city of Jerusalem,” Barkat said a GA session titled “Community Building in Jerusalem.”
David Makovsky, a Washington Institute fellow who moderated the conversation with Barkat, cited recent data that 65 percent of Israeli Haredim are unemployed, and asked the mayor if Jerusalem will “remain a poor city” specifically for that reason. Barkat responded that, “You mustn’t take a snapshot [of current Haredi employment], you have to understand trends.”
“Once you have the first few thousand working, then they are the engine and more and more people will follow,” he added.
Regarding concerns about Haredi-secular relations, Barkat said he “will not allow segregation in the streets.I’s against my belief and the vast majority of the people of Jerusalem.” Haredim, he said, have now accepted the message that “you cannot abuse public space.”
“I can say, proudly, that it’s a healthy, to the point, professional discussion,” Barkat said.
Haredim in the IDF
Mayor Barkat also cited “Nachal Haredim,” units in the army which address ultra-Orthodox soldiers’ specific needs, as a sign of improvement in Haredi-secular relations.
Israel Hofrichter, director of a program called Shahar Chadash that addresses the needs of Haredim in the IDF, said the army “made the calculation that in 15 years, the Haredi sector is going to be half the Jews” in Israel, and accordingly, needs more Haredim to serve. Instead of striving for an integrative “melting pot of Israeli society,” Hofrichter said, the army now aims to be more about inclusion—a place where anyone can serve and keep up his own way of life.
The Shahar program, starting at age 22, is meant for Haredi men who don’t want to continue studying in yeshiva. Working with the IDF, Shahar offers them a vocational program, glatt kosher food, and one hour of Torah study per day.
Hofrichter said the program started with 30-40 young men in 2007 and has grown to nearly 2,000. The rate of employment for Haredim is 90 percent after they complete Shahar, he said. But the “main value” of the initiative, according to Hofrichter, is “bringing together people from the general sector with Haredim.”
The Joint Distribution Committee’s Eisler said JDC staff works to help IDF soldiers “in all echelons” develop cultural sensitivity for Haredim. When Shahar was initially designed for men who couldn’t find their place in yeshiva system, Eisler said recruiting “was like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Now, however, Eisler is surprised to see a large number of Haredi men from “mainstream families”—not just yeshiva dropouts—taking advantage of Shahar.
The ‘Value Proposition’ of Hiring Haredim
Rosenbaum, founder of Madison Commercial Real Estate Services, explained how it bothered him that a few thousand families here in the Haredi hub of Lakewood (home to Beth Medrash Govoha, North America’s largest yeshiva) were able to sustain themselves with men learning Torah and women working, yet a similar model wasn’t successful in Israel.
In 2003, Rosenbaum went Israel to see if his firm could start a pilot project for Haredi employment. He asked his cab driver where the nearest Haredi town was, and the journey took him to Kiryat Sefer. There, Rosenbaum met the mayor, who helped him conduct a feasibility analysis and open a small office.
Rosenbaum’s team collected resumes, sent out a job advertisement, and found a computer school going out of business willing to host an open house. Three hundred women showed up at the event, he said, and many even brought their husbands along. Rosenbaum said his Haredi employees exemplify dedication and honesty; some send emails asking for forgiveness when they feel they haven’t worked enough.
“There’s a tremendous value proposition in hiring Haredim,” Rosenbaum said.
The Haredi Narrative
The Haredi community in Israel “is always viewed from the prism of the media,” Eisler said, with a focus on its conflict and culture clash with the secular community. She explained the Haredi narrative, of rebuilding the culture of Torah study that was destroyed during Holocaust-era Europe.
Haredi men believe that studying Torah full-time is their major contribution to the welfare of the Jewish people, Eisler said, while women support their families as the primary breadwinners.
Though most Haredim “dress in black and white,” the community is not as simplistic as outsiders make it seem, according to Eisler. Each Haredi sector, including Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Litvish, Hassidic, and others, “has a very nuanced look both on employment and how they want to live their life,” she said.
UJA’s Mallach said Israeli society “mainly considers a Haredi ‘the other.’” The UJA Federation of New York partnered with the Shahar program, he said, specifically because the program encouraged Haredim to serve in IDF and to enter the mainstream Israeli workforce.
If there was a different program that simply brought 150 Haredi women to work exclusively with one another, for example, Mallach said UJA wouldn’t be on board. UJA wanted to work with Shahar in order to help alleviate the social fissures of Israeli society, which Mallach called “a global Jewish responsibility.”
“If you believe, as we like to say, kol yisrael avrevim ze la’ze (all of Israel are responsible for each other’s actions), then we have to act accordingly,” Mallach said.
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.