Just a few years ago, the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel seemed poised for a revolution. Over the previous decade, signs of increasing integration of Haredim into modern Israeli society were mounting: greater enrollment in universities, participation in the workforce, and service in the army, as well as the creation of a moderate Haredi party called Tov. People were talking about the rise of the “new Haredim.”
Such a revolution would be a big deal in a country where, due to high birthrates, Haredim constitute an ever-increasing proportion of the Israeli population. In 2015, about 1 in 9 Israelis was Haredi; by 2059, that number is expected to be more than 1 in 4. If Haredi society transforms, so does Israel as a whole.
But the trend of greater integration of Haredim seems to have stalled. Employment and military-service rates among Haredim have plateaued or even declined slightly since 2015, and the Tov party has fared poorly in municipal and national elections. A recent op-ed in Haaretz went as far as referring to Haredi integration as “a marginal phenomenon.” What happened to Israel’s “new Haredim”? And what does the future hold for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community?
Despite concerns about lost momentum, many experts on Haredi society in Israel believe that in the long run, further integration of Haredim into modern Israeli life is not merely possible—it’s inevitable.
Ironically, the plateau in employment and military participation rates in the past couple of years, many experts agree, can be linked to one specific event: the 2015 election, which resulted in a coalition government that included powerful ultra-Orthodox parties. To appease these members of his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu introduced a variety of policy changes and reversals, including more financial support for yeshiva study and less for job-training programs for Haredim, which had helped boost Haredi employment rates in the previous decade.
“There’s no doubt there’s been a hit,” said Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born Haredi who served as a member of Knesset for the Yesh Atid party from 2013 to 2015. Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, agreed: When the government adopts measures to placate Haredi leaders who oppose integration, such as easing requirements on Haredi schools to teach secular subjects and increasing funding for full-time yeshiva study, “it slows down the process” of incorporating Haredim into mainstream Israeli life, he said.
Lipman blames the failure of the moderate Haredi Tov party on the “the Haredi political machine,” which effectively crushed it. As the party started gaining attention on a municipal level, he said, hardliners in the Haredi community tried to intimidate Tov Party members and their supporters, ripping party banners off private property, gluing shut the lock to a campaign office in Beit Shemesh, and even throwing rocks at a party candidate on one occasion.
But Lipman believes hardline Haredi political influence is waning. For one thing, he said, the ultra-Orthodox parties are declining in power, with far fewer seats in Knesset than they used to have. “There’s going to be a point in time … where they will not be the political juggernaut they are now,” he said. When these parties have less political capital, we’ll start to see government policies that are more favorable to Haredi integration, he predicted, such as increased funding for Haredi education and job-training programs.
But perhaps the biggest reason Haredim will continue to integrate, many believe, is that they can’t afford not to. A report co-authored by Malach found that in 2015, 52 percent of Haredim lived below the poverty line (compared with 19 percent of the general population), and a quarter of Haredi families suffered from food insecurity. In 2013-14, the report noted, the average monthly wage for ultra-Orthodox employees was 71 percent of the national average, which the authors attributed to lower hourly wages and fewer work hours.
“People are trying to feed their families,” said Rabbi Nechemia Steinberger, dean and director of the Haredi pre-academic program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, which prepares Haredi students for college. Often that means seeking further education in order to be eligible for higher-paying jobs, he said.
When considering changes in Haredi society in Israel, experts agree it’s important to look at the big picture. Over the years, these changes have been dramatic. Between 2003 and 2015, for example, employment jumped from 36 to 50 percent among males, and from 51 to 73 percent among females, according to the aforementioned report.
Those on the inside have seen these changes firsthand. Just 10 or 15 years ago, “to go out and get an education or work for a big company was very, very rare, and you would be shamed for it,” said Moshe Friedman, founder of Kamatech, a nonprofit that helps Haredim get jobs in the high-tech sector. “Today it’s very different—I know a lot of people going to universities, getting professional training. The trend has changed dramatically.”
The shift in high-tech has been striking, said Friedman, who is Haredi. “When I first started, there were no Haredi entrepreneurs in the country in high-tech,” he said. “No one was like me. I felt like an alien.” In the five years since he started Kamatech, interest in high-tech among Haredim has exploded, he said. A recent program the company launched to train Haredim in high-tech received more than 1,000 applications for just 16 slots, he said.
Yossi Klar, who in 2013 helped run the IDF unit responsible for Haredi integration, noted a similar surge in Haredi military participation. “In the ’90s, barely any Haredim served in the army. Only 20 years later, you have thousands serving,” he said. “That’s a very big change.”
These changes are largely due to gradual shifts in attitudes among those in the Haredi community, which, taken together, have had a major impact. “One friend leads another,” said Lipman. “It’s a silent, street-level revolution that’s going on.” Steinberger agreed: “It’s not the leaders that create the change,” he said. “The field creates the change and … and as time passes, it becomes legitimate.”
That doesn’t mean Haredi integration has been seamless. One of the biggest challenges for Haredim seeking a university degree is that the yeshiva system leaves them utterly unprepared for higher education, experts say. “A typical Haredi boy doesn’t get any secular education at all,” said Steinberger. Haredim, therefore, suffer from a huge knowledge gap relative to their peers. They also lack the necessary work habits and study skills, he said, as yeshiva students generally aren’t required to do homework or take tests.
“When people go from yeshiva to university, they get a bit of a shock,” said Gershon Halevi Moskovits, a Haredi man who lives in Jerusalem and studies at the Open University of Israel.
In addition to academic challenges, there are also social challenges that come from being in a non-Haredi environment for the first time. For some, the main issue is feeling accepted by their peers. One Haredi woman living near Jerusalem, who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons, started her studies at an all-female college comprising mostly observant but non-Haredi students, but left after a few months because some of her peers, she said, “smirked at and belittled the Haredi women.” With the encouragement of her rabbi, she switched to the Open University, where, she said, “everyone accepts each other, no matter what their religion or background is.”
Another challenge to integration is continued resistance from leaders in the Haredi community, many of whom see participation in modern Israeli life as the first step toward secularization.
But advocates for greater integration believe it’s possible to balance Haredi values with the need to work. “The message isn’t ‘Be secular,’ it’s ‘Study Talmud, but support your family with dignity,’” said Lipkin. As evidence that such a balance is possible, he points to ultra-Orthodox communities in North America, in which people study Torah but also work, as doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, among many other professions. Steinberger agrees: “We want the American Haredi model.”
Modern Haredim like Friedman see themselves as living proof that this model can work in Israel. “What I’m doing is evidence that we can be Haredi and integrate in the world without losing our identity,” he said.
Even some ultra-Orthodox rabbis are starting to come around, at least privately. “They say, ‘We won’t support it publicly, but we won’t fight against it,’” said Friedman, referring to efforts to increase Haredi employment.
Lipkin recalls a Haredi rabbi he met with who went even further, telling him, “Keep doing what you’re doing—you’re saving us from ourselves.”
Haredi leaders are more resolute in their opposition to military participation, Lipkin said. “The army is viewed as the engine of the secular state,” he explained. Even in this area, however, Lipkin has seen signs of greater tolerance. For example, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a leading figure in the Haredi community in Israel who died recently, was quietly supportive of the Nahal Haredi Battalion, a unit of the IDF specifically for Haredi men, as an option for those no longer pursuing full-time yeshiva study, he said.
Those working for greater Haredi integration have a number of goals as they look ahead. One is helping Haredim pursue higher-paying jobs, explained Malach. In a 2016 report, he and his co-authors recommended that the government take steps to increase Haredi employment in fields that offer higher salaries, such as engineering, with the goal of closing the wage gap between Haredim and non-Haredim by 2025. This goal can be achieved, they wrote, through measures such as providing vocational counselors with incentives to direct ultra-Orthodox job-seekers to higher-income jobs, and drafting a covenant, to be signed by Israeli business leaders, committing to hiring more Haredi workers.
Steinberger is working as a special adviser to the Israeli civil service, focusing his efforts on increasing Haredi participation in governmental jobs. He believes that having more Haredim working in government—not as politicians, but as public servants—will not only boost Haredi employment but also improve relations between Haredim and the state. The cabinet recently passed a resolution to guarantee at least 7 percent of civil service employees hired in the next three years will be Haredim.
Most experts agree that in order for these efforts to succeed, it’s important not to impose change from the outside, but to create conditions that allow change to happen naturally. “When you try to pressure [Haredim], you get a backlash,” said Steinberger, citing the outcry among Haredi leaders against the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that exemptions from military service for Haredim are unconstitutional.
Getting Haredi integration right is crucial, insiders say, as the future of not only the Haredi community but the country as a whole hangs in the balance. “I feel that what I’m doing first and foremost is saving the Haredi community,” said Friedman. “But it’s also important for the future of [the country].” Without more Haredim participating in modern Israeli life, he said, “the state of Israel will not be able to continue.”
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Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana.