The Revolution Will Start in Bnei Brak
Sever Plocker • Yedioth Ahronoth (p. C2)
Translation: Didi Remez • Coteret
The young and energetic mayor opens up the maps for me. Here, he says, pointing at empty squares on the map, a technology center will be set up on this virgin territory, and on that area—he moves his finger—an industrial and leisure center will be built. The mayor exudes passion: in the new towers that will be built close to the center of my city, he says, there will be offices of accountants, lawyers, advisers, programmers, bankers, high-tech entrepreneurs. The residents of my city will be able to find gainful and advanced occupation not far from their homes. We have already submitted the master plan for the approval of the national planning institutions, and we will soon start out. Everything will change here.
This sounds like a usual speech for mayors in Israel; many want to turn their cities into centers of research, development and technological production, and improve the quality of life. But this mayor adds the phrase “with God’s help” or “God willing” after every other sentence. His name is Yaakov Asher, he is a bearded Haredi rabbi, and for the past two years he has been serving as mayor of Bnei Brak. His vision for the city’s future, as presented to me, is not much different from the vision of the mayor of Herzliya, for example.
Something unexpected is taking place in Bnei Brak, the second largest Haredi city in Israel, which houses 20% of the entire Haredi population. The population numbers 166,000, there are 60,000 pupils, hundreds of yeshivas, kollels and Torah institutions. The budget is balanced, with God’s help.After an intensive tour and meetings with many of the residents, men and women, I want to share my understanding with the readers: the word “revolution” may be too far-reaching to describe the surprising currents revealed in the city, some of which are still subterranean trickles, in which those are involved and affected by them prefer not to reveal, but the phrase “quiet revolution” is definitely appropriate. If Bnei Brak is the signpost that marks the future of ultra-Orthodox society, then the future is much less dark than we secular are inclined to think. We, who live not far from the Ponevezh Yeshiva, which is ranked third in the list of Haredi yeshivas worldwide (Rabbi Schach headed it until the day he died), but have no idea what is taught there. This is going to end: Bnei Brak, a different planet, is connecting to Israel, if we are only wise enough not to reject its extended hand.
Between religious and secular studiesThe public that defines itself as Haredi constitutes between 8%-10% of Israel’s population, according to the latest social poll of the Central Bureau of Statistics that was published this week. Between 600,000-800,000 men, women and children. Mainly children: half the Haredim are aged 15 or younger. A Haredi woman has close to eight children, while a Jewish non-Haredi woman has about 2.5 children. This is the source of the quick increase: the Haredi community has grown at an average rate of 7% per year, while the non-Haredi community has grown at a rate of about 1.4% per year. According to this trend, the Haredi population will double itself within a decade and its proportion of the Jewish population will reach up to 20%. Every fifth Jew will be Haredi. No longer a marginal minority.
Haredi women work: 55% of the women aged 25 to 64 are employed, mostly in part-time jobs. The employment rates among them are only slightly lower than among non-Haredi women. Haredi men study: according to the statistics processed by the Taub Center, 35% of Haredi men aged 35 to 55 are employed; among non-Haredi Jewish men in the same age group, 85% are employed. This is a huge gap, which is also reflected in salary: a Haredi earns 40% less than a non-Haredi, on the average. He works fewer hours per week, in less lucrative jobs, and suffers from a lack of professional skills.Ultra-Orthodox society is divided into streams and courts. The streams differ in their approaches to the life of study and work, while the courts differ in the authority that heads them. The three main streams are the Lithuanian stream, the Hassidic stream and the Sephardic stream, to which the small Neturei Karta stream can be added. “The Lithuanians,” write Sharon Uzieli and Shimon Yifrah in a study about ultra-Orthodox society sponsored by the Koret Foundation and the Milken Institute, “are known for the institution of the Lithuanian yeshiva, in which Torah study has been promoted and developed, even in conditions of great poverty. The image of the Haredim as Torah students who do not work for a living mainly applies to the Lithuanians.” About 30% of the Haredi public belong to the Lithuanian stream, but the proportion is much higher in Bnei Brak.
The ideological and institutional division prevents the appearance of a Haredi Torah authority who is acceptable to everyone and issues Halachic rulings, but it also enables flexibility and openness, on condition that one does not fall in line with the fanatic end of the spectrum.
The PR damage caused by Neturei Karta to the Haredi sector as a whole is inconceivable. They strengthen and fortify the distorted stereotype of the Haredi who hates the state and its institutions, and throws stones at everything that moves. In Bnei Brak, the disapproval towards them is absolute.
Don’t want draft-dodgers
A leading rabbinical figure from the Lithuanian stream met with me upon returning from a prayer and before a Talmud class. Late in the evening, a modest apartment in central Bnei Brak, filled with religious tomes. Yeshiva students huddle around him, thirstily drinking his words. An elderly Jew, lucid, but tired. How is it that his followers, I wonder, have not thought of installing an elevator in his building, and sparing him the need to climb up the narrow stairs? It’s not a luxury, just showing some consideration for his age.
“Whoever wants to go to the army,” the Haredi rabbinical figure begins his answers to my shower of questions, “can go. Whoever doesn’t study Torah—should go to serve. He has no right to refrain from enlisting in the IDF. We don’t want draft-dodgers in our midst. Let him even serve as a quartermaster soldier But whoever studies Torah is safeguarding Israel’s security. Israel’s situation is very dangerous, enemies lie in wait on all sides, and it is only the relationship with God that keeps it safe. Divine supervision safeguards it. The military leaders understand this themselves. They are convinced of it.”
Rabbi, I query, does this constitute permission for yeshiva students to earn a living? “We don’t want parasites in our midst,” the rabbi replies, “let each person do what is suitable for him and what is good for the public. If he is suitable for work and not for religious studies, let him work. He should not be a parasite, God forbid.” And if the people searching for work need to study secular studies for the purpose of earning their livelihood? Let them go and study, the rabbi answers, smiling wryly, and adds: “But they should always bear in mind that the livelihood, the money, are only a means, not an end.”
“No,” a scholar, a prodigy, who fills an administrative post in one of the medium-sized yeshivas that Bnei Brak is filled with, “we certainly don’t choose to live in poverty. We are satisfied with little, in terms of material possessions. We don’t feel poor, because we have a rich spiritual life. We don’t need anything out of the ordinary. The life of the Haredi public is happy. Whoever lives the life of Torah loves others, not only himself. An elderly person in Tel Aviv is neglected and lonely, an elderly person in Bnei Brak is surrounded by people. But there must not be severe poverty, neglect and malnutrition in any home. And one must not depend solely on others.”
The ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel is crossing, or has already crossed, the relative point of no return. The point from which it can no longer afford to be dependent. It must become the master of its own fate, master of its economy. In facing the new reality, the Haredim are reinventing themselves. They are reinventing themselves quietly, step by step, far from the hostile eye—so they believe—of the incited secular public.
“We aren’t fossils”
27% of the Haredim live in Jerusalem, about 20% in Bnei Brak, 6% in the new cities Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and Ramat Beit Shemesh, and the rest are scattered throughout the country. They maintain closed communities.
Six of every ten Haredi families in Bnei Brak live under the poverty line. “The socioeconomic status and future of the Haredi sector,” states Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, former chairman of the National Economics Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, “affects not only this sector, but the economy and society as a whole. The poverty and distress in the Haredi sector are worsening, the burden on the economy is mounting, the walls of cultural separation are becoming higher, and it is becoming clear that there is no hope for the current path.”
About a year ago, Prof. Trajtenberg submitted a document to the outgoing government entitled “From dependence and poverty to empowerment and prosperity: integrating the Haredi sector into employment.” My point of departure, Trajtenberg says to me, is that the existence of a thriving and independent Haredi community is “a vital part of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. The great challenge of Israeli society in the coming years is to encourage large-scale entry of Haredi men into the working world. To connect the Haredi sector to working Israel, without coercion and with respect and maintaining the unique nature of this sector.”
The connection has already started, as is also reported by personnel polls. This is also my impression from the meetings and conversations I held in Bnei Brak. “We are not a fossilized society,” my interlocutors said repeatedly, “but we have a slow dynamic. After all, innovation is forbidden by the Torah, and therefore it creeps and trickles into us bit by bit.” Therefore, the connection, the absorption of Haredim in the Israeli workforce will not be quick, easy or self-evident. Haredi society, and particularly Haredi men, currently lack the tools to become part of the Israeli workplace. This generation of married yeshiva students, aged 22 to 32, is paying the price of the detachment, seclusion and avoidance of secular studies. These were forced upon them by their parents, and by the secular legal arrangements that made non-service in the IDF conditional upon not working. Secular Israeli society, in its stupidity, consented to give an exemption from the IDF only to those who consented to live at its expense. If you don’t contribute to security, the young Haredi who reached age 18 was told, you cannot contribute to the state’s economy. Only the very poor, who dedicate their days and nights to religious studies and receive authorization to this effect from the dean of the yeshiva or kollel, will not be drafted. The result: 50,000 yeshiva students who have deferred their service and are also deferring their work. A fairly lost generation. Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry officials believe that even massive activation of a system of subsidies for employers and professional training will make it possible to add about 2,500 of them at most to the workforce every year. The IDF currently offers convenient solutions to draft deferrers at older ages: military training of about a month is sufficient to receive a permit to work full time.
The leading rabbis, both from the Lithuanian yeshivas and from the Hassidic courts—many of whom are over age 80—understand the magnitude of the problem, and are already willing, as I heard in my conversations, to permit people who do not find their purpose in the eternal religious studies to go to work. They are still not aware, and perhaps do not want to be aware, of the fact that the years that these young people spent on the benches of the cheder, the yeshiva and the kollel, left them devoid of skills for finding a job at a reasonable level of income, above minimum wage, a job that will at least contribute to the family’s welfare and not leave it at the same standard of living due to the loss of benefits and other income.
“We have no opposition to going to work,” states a respected rabbi I interviewed in Bnei Brak, while his students recorded his words with a miniature digital recorder, a new gadget But he too, an esteemed figure who is well familiar with secular life, is convinced that a Torah scholar will be able, without difficulty and within a short time, to make up the lacking general education to take part in the upper range of the work market. “After all, the intellectual development of a yeshiva student is very high,” the rabbi says to me, “all he lacks is knowledge, he only lacks useful information about the world. He will study for a year or two, train himself and make it up.” What do they need, another Haredi figure adds, a bit of English? A bit of arithmetic?
These statements, the likes of which I heard in Bnei Brak and other places, are based on the success stories of yeshiva graduates in [secular] society. Several hundred were absorbed in technical and other units in the Air Force, and several hundred entered a fast career track in high-tech, science and business. These are true stories, but they are few. The exceptions do not solve the severe hardships of the rule. The geniuses at the far end of the distribution do not represent the average yeshiva student in the middle.
The obstacles that a young Haredi yeshiva graduate will encounter in the work market are mainly not the product of deliberate discrimination against Haredim, although there are also many phenomena of this kind—a resume signed by a Haredi moves to the bottom of the stack on the table of a personnel manager in a secular business. The obstacles are the product of ongoing neglect in training, that cannot be overcome with the wave of a hand. Not in a month, not in two months, not in a year or two. The idea of “in retrospect,” according to which a yeshiva student can decide whether to continue his religious studies or to look for work only in retrospect, after 20 years of pure Haredi studies, is not feasible. It is an illusion that the ultra-Orthodox community finds it difficult to shake. […]