Jobless haredim weigh on economy

In 20 years, ultra-Orthodox will make up 17% of Israel’s workforce. According to some analysts, economy will suffer enormously if things don’t change. ‘They are a real danger to Israel’

Reuters, YNET

Meir Gross is a Jewish ultra-Orthodox father of five who does not work. Despite warnings that Israel’s economy may be threatened by his fast growing, often unemployed, community, he does not want a job.

Gross advocates a pious existence geared to study. He spends nearly his entire day learning Torah (Jewish law), which he says is the most important edict bestowed on the Jewish man, and it cannot be combined with a job.

Overcoming Barriers?
Haredim study more, work less
/ Mickey Peled, Calcalist
Bank of Israel survey reveals number of ultra-Orthodox students in study programs designed for haredi sector has gone up from 2,000 in 2005 to 6,000 in 2010. Haredi participation rate in workforce stands at 40%, compared to 80% among non-haredi Jewish public

“Torah study demands utter and complete devotion. We’re not interested in making money or in material luxury. We are content with very little and our true joy, and highest duty, is learning,” Gross said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or “haredim”, are a devout tight-knit community who make up 8-10% of Israel’s 7.7 million population, with eight children per family on average. Many are supported by the State and live well below the poverty line.

A Bank of Israel report in March said about 60% of haredi men don’t work.

But in 20 years the haredim will make up 17% of the work force and many analysts say Israel’s economy will suffer enormously if things do not change.

“They are a real danger to Israel,” said Omer Moav, economics professor at the University of London and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If we go bankrupt it’s the end of the story for us. Our strong army rests on a strong economy.”

The haredim traditionally keep to their own towns or neighborhoods, where men walk the streets in traditional black garb and broad hats while women wear long dark dresses and cover their hair with hats, scarves or wigs.


While some haredim choose not to work, others say they would like to earn their keep, but face too many cultural hurdles searching for jobs among Israel’s secular majority.

Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker and head of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, says the government must do more.

“The haredi man is always the last candidate to get the job. Employers are sure they’re bad workers. What we need is affirmative action,” he said.

Analysts say haredi education is a key factor keeping the men back. Haredi schools limit non-religious studies. Math, English, science and technology are sometimes cut out entirely, leaving pupils ill-equipped for a modern labour market.

But haredi women are exempt from the demands of religious studies imposed on men, and the Bank of Israel says the past decade has seen “a significant increase” in the employment rate among ultra-Orthodox women, now at almost 60%.

One sector taking on more and more haredi women is Israel’s booming technology industry, where demand for workers is big.

Matrix Global, a division of the Matrix subsidiary of Israeli IT firm Formula Systems, is based in Modiin Illit, a West Bank settlement dubbed the “future haredi city”.

Matrix Global started hiring ultra-Orthodox women in 2004 and now employs 750, many with degrees in computer science or engineering, as software developers and testers.

Religious conventions such as not shaking a man’s hand or sitting alone in a room with him, not driving and keeping strict Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), can make it difficult for a haredi woman to fit in, and Matrix tries to accommodate.

The company’s Chief Operating Officer Libby Affen, a haredi woman herself, lists flexible work hours, proximity to the home, bus shuttles, close mentoring and guidance of a rabbi who explains religious rules to the customers “on the outside”.

“We’re not trying to change the women or their beliefs, but to understand both cultures and bridge between them,” she said.

Project manager Sarit, 35, a haredi mother of five, said she could not have developed a career anywhere else.

“There should be more places like this in more sectors. There’s no shortage of haredi women who want work,” said Sarit, who declined to give a surname.

Dramatic change

But economist Omer Moav said such trends were not enough.

“As long as the government won’t make a dramatic change, things will get worse. One cannot reach an agreed upon solution, it has to be forced upon the haredim,” he said.

Successive Israeli coalition governments have relied for their survival on the support of ultra-religious parties who in turn have exacted a price for their backing, most often in the form of state benefits for their community.

Resentment in the Jewish state toward haredim over their state benefits, seen as discriminatory and funded by the tax money of Israel’s working majority, is often overshadowed in public debate by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Professor Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel-Aviv University and head of the Taub Centre for Social Policy Research, has been studying for years the extent of Haredi benefits, such as child allowances, housing subsidies and scholarships.

“The true amount is concealed, veiled in misleading budget definitions. We are shocked each time we get an inkling of its magnitude, but it has to be huge if it allows one of the highest unemployment rates in the Western world,” Ben-David said.

A spokeswoman for Israel’s Finance Ministry said finding such data was “problematic”, adding that the government in 2010 spent over NIS 350 million ($88 million) on projects aimed at getting haredim into the labor market.

Success for such projects would have a great impact, said Ben-David. “If we were to increase employment to American rates, then we would add NIS 85 billion ($25 billion) to the economy.”

But Meir Gross sees his lack of a job in a different light. “My answer is not in facts and figures. We believe the world will end if it is left with no Torah study, even for a moment.”

April 21, 2011 | 7 Comments »

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  1. I thank everyone here for your comments. You’ve helped me see this complicated picture in more depth. In the US, we also have groups, such as the Amish (and years ago, the Quakers and Mormons) who have been looked down upon and harrassed because of their unique religious stance. What irks me the most about the “religious party” situation in Israel, is not the parties themselves, but the system that allows minorities such as them to so dominate the political scene. In my opinion, Israel strongly needs reforms that will bring it more into a two-party system, answerable to geographically-determined constituents. Many Israelis have called for this sort of thing, but self-interested groups (which I think includes the religious parties but is certainly not limited to them) seem to have been able so far to keep the matter from getting addressed.

  2. Davide Shalome says: so before anyone criticizes Hareidim for not working verify ALL the facts first!

    You list all of the excuses and rational why they don’t work but the real reason is fear of having Hareidim mix closely with non Hareidim. They are afraid of losing their cultish obedience to their rabbis,especially in the IDF. Somebody shuld remind those oh so religious Jews that it is forbidden for an Jew to be a burden on his society. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, Genesis 3:19

    “The Torah makes clear that serving to protect and defend the people of Israel is equated with loyalty to G-d. For example, when the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe wanted to settle east of the Jordan river, Moshe rebukes them because he thinks they are trying to avoid military service:

    Moshe answered the descendants of Gad and Reuven saying: shall your brothers go to war while you remain here? (Numbers 32:6).

    He goes on to equate the possible avoidance of military service with turning against G-d. He accuses them of being no better than the spies who forced the people to wander for 40 years in the desert:

    Now behold you have risen up in the place of your fathers, a brood of transgressors, to bring even more of God’s wrath upon Israel. If you turn away from Him, He will leave us in the wilderness and you will have destroyed this whole people (Numbers 32: 15)

    Moshe is not satisfied until he extracts a promise from the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe that they will serve in war against Israel’s enemies.

    Unfortunately, many of our current scholars have remembered the lesson that Israel needs scholars, and have forgotten the lesson that failing to defend our nation is equal to the sin of the spies.”

  3. One more factor was left out, in our little Banana Republic which is afraid of the goyim and uses the IDF to destroy Jewish homes and allows arab squatters to enter our cities so that they can spy on us and plan attacks, in our little Banana Republic which bows to the big eared long legged mack daddy mongrel Barry Soetoro whose real parents are unknown to the world and probably to himself who has taken more vacations in his 2 years in office than Dubya Bush took in 8 years, who mocks us with his mock seder and his insincere greetings to the Jews at holiday time, and freezes housing for Jews while ignoring illegal building by the Arab squatters, in our little Banana Republic we have a catch 22 which prevents Hareidim from working. The catch 22 is IF you do NOT serve in the IDF which does not provide food acceptable to Hareidim or allow time for prayer and whose commanders ORDER Hareidim to take a jeep on SHABBOS to buy them cigarettes or other trivial activities which are not vital to saving lives; then one may NOT work. So is it a wonder why Hareidim don’t have jobs? and one other deep little dirty secret! Employers discriminate against Hareidim and won’t hire them.
    The Maarach Party AKA Labor preferred cheap arab labor over Jewish labor thus eliminating Jews from many trades
    Many Hareidim DO work but under the table because of the restrictions placed on them by the government, so before anyone criticizes Hareidim for not working verify ALL the facts first!

  4. From prior to the establishment of the State of Israel till today there has been a brutal and violent campaign to destroy Torah Jews by the unJews who established the State. In order to protect themselves and insure the future of the Jewish people, Torah Jews separated themselves from their oppressors and created self contained and self supporting communities in Israel.

    As part of the self preservation efforts, certain people became involved in the politics of the State of Israel. As part of the political process, they were entitled to part of the budget. They have used their part to aid their communities. Just as the other politician have used their share of the budget to aid their constituents. This is normal politics.

    The haters of Torah have constantly accused the Torah politicians of sacrificing the “national” interest to promote their narrow agenda. However when these haters explain what they consider to be the “national” agenda, it is always narrow items that financially benefit them or their constituents. How hypocritical. They also never stop harping on the “fact” that Torah Jews are parasites living off the public treasury and refuse to work for a living. Yet the existence of tens of thousands of useless and treasonous university professors, actors, artists, musicians and other cultural parasites living off the public treasury never seems to be noticed by them. Exactly why is a neo-Nazi supporter of Arab murders who is a “professor” worthy of support by the public but a ROSH YESHIVA running a Yeshiva a parasite? Why is a graduate student involved in the study of French/English/Chines literature/anthropology/history considered vital to the Jewish people and must be supported by public money, no matter what, but an AVRECH studying Jewish texts and Jewish traditions and Jewish history is a useless parasite?

  5. BlandOatmeal,

    Most Israelis requesting combat roles in the IDF are ‘religious.’ There is a strong, growing Torah-observant, Zionist community in Israel not to be confused with the anti-Zionist hare dim.

  6. Meir Weiss of the current article knows well that Rashi was a wine merchant, Maimonides was a doctor, Shmuel was a scientist, Rav was a government keeper of weights and measures. Meir Weiss also knows that times change, because learning Torah teaches that systems evolve. Meir Weiss will indeed go to work when he sees his children in need. Meir Weiss will also find that his children will be different from him – both more and less observant, smarter and less smart, sensitive to the pressures of a life dependent upon others and insensitive to those same pressures. Every Jew knows people who have moved left and right.

    I am aware of a program at the Jerusalem College of Technology in which Hareidi men are being trained to do exceedingly technical work. Their very intense learning of Torah and Talmud produces a mind susceptible to instruction. Mr. Moav would not be so definitive in his opinion that “they must be forced” if he were not ideologically driven himself. Time will bring everyone to respect the contingencies expressed by the environment – political, economic and military. The place of Hareidim in the military is increasing as we write and respond to each other. We should not be impatient. Demands elicit irrational reactions. Natural consequences will yield the best results, if not in this generation, then is the next.

  7. “Successive Israeli coalition governments have relied for their survival on the support of ultra-religious parties who in turn have exacted a price for their backing, most often in the form of state benefits for their community.”

    No kidding. Maybe this is why BlandOatmeal has been saying for years, that the religious camp is NOT part of “The Right” or “The Nationalist Camp”. The religious have no stake in “Land of Israel” issues, and they will readily negotiate with the Arabs if the price is right.

    Israel is in a strange situation. In “Green Line” Israel, Arabs are only about 20% of the population; and even including Judea, Samaria and Gaza, Jews constitute a clear majority. Yet even in “Green Line” Israel, the Arabs have their way because the Jews are so fragmented by self interest: and the “keystone” of self-interest in Israeli politics is the Religious. They could easily tip the scales in favor of the Jews’ historic right to the Land; but at every critical juncture, they have sided with Israel’s enemies. Why? So they could continue to get the funding to support their “World of Torah” — which has become synonymous with the “World of the Free Lunch”. With that in mind, ask me why I mock religious Jews — and the “World of Torah”.

    I don’t mind pious Jews wanting to be monks. But when they’re willing to sell out Torah in the name of preserving it, they smell like dead fish.