Haredi rally in support of man who refused to join IDF, Jerusalem, March 2014
Haredi demonstrators in March rallying in Jerusalem after an ultra-Orthodox man who refused to join the IDF is released from prison. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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After years of increasing integration into the workplace and the classroom, the ultra-Orthodox are showing signs of a reversal, to the point that the Council for Higher Education is calling the pace of Haredi registration for the coming academic year a “catastrophe.”

There has been a 20% drop in the number of new students registered in Haredi programs this academic year, compared with last year, said Manuel Trajtenberg, the education council chairman.

“We’re going in reverse,” he said. But he remained hopeful that this was just a blip indicating ultra-Orthodox displeasure with new military service requirements.

“I’m certain it’s temporary,” said Trajtenberg. “It’s the withdrawal of Haredi society as a protest against the Equal Burden Law, but it’s completely clear that this is a drop that will only lead to a rise. The law will allow 20,000 Haredim from the age of 22 to get out of yeshiva study, and a significant portion of them will seek employment and education.”

But Gilad Malach, who researches the ultra-Orthodox at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the drop in the rate of enrollment might just reflect the fact that the education council expected them to keep going up — mistakenly, perhaps.

To the extent that Haredi participation rates are down, said Malach, the primary effect will be on their rate of involvement in the army, not in the academic world. “The focus of the opposition in the Haredi community is against the military and civilian [national] service,” he said.

The first indications of the drop in Haredi interest in higher education came a few weeks ago, when the numbers of ultra-Orthodox men registering for preparatory programs for college degrees fell sharply, said an official in the higher education council.

About 60 students had signed up for the preparatory program at the Haredi College of Jerusalem last year, but not a single class has been opened for next year. At the Strauss campus of Hadassah College in Jerusalem, the largest center for academic study for ultra-Orthodox Israelis, 120 students took part in its preparatory program this year, but only 40 have signed up so far for next year.

Other institutions around the country are facing similar difficulty getting ultra-Orthodox students to register, the education council said.

Though the rate of registration for new students in the Haredi programs is heading downhill, the actual number of students in those programs is still rising — just beneath the projected level.

The education council had predicted that 4,855 students would register for the Haredi programs this year, but that projection fell short by 255.

All the same, there were 700 more students — whether new or continuing — in those programs this year than last year.

The Kemach Foundation for promoting Haredi employment, which also provides scholarships, said it has seen a noticeable drop in the number of Haredi students requesting scholarships.

“What is absurd is that while the government invests significant sums in making academia accessible, it also creates a public atmosphere that causes Haredim to avoid using its initiatives and to recoil from them, which necessarily leads to the drop in the number of those registering, despite the growth in benefits and supply,” said Mordechai Feldstaine, Kemach’s director general.

This trend is also reflected in the number of Haredim enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.

In a session held two weeks ago in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said there has been a 50% drop in the number of Haredi recruits in recent months.

Just under 900 ultra-Orthodox men joined the Israel Defense Forces in 2010, rising to 1,860 in 2013. This year, the IDF is worried about the significant drop in recent months in ultra-Orthodox men enlisting in the Haredi Nahal infantry battalion, though it says it will still meet its enlistment targets.

Employment rising

Though the rate of ultra-Orthodox involvement in higher education and military service appears to be dropping, for now at least, employment figures for Haredi men improved steadily in 2012 and 2013, reaching 45.4% last year.

Moreover, that figure is expected to climb to about 50% of the Haredi population this year, though the better employment figures are partly due to changes in the way this population group is measured.

On Sunday a seven-justice panel of the High Court of Justice ruled that the government must stop providing subsidies for yeshiva students as of January. The court said the payments violate the principle of equality, since students at other kinds of schools don’t receive them.

The drop in the number of Haredi men signing up for college programs comes despite a broad plan to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into academia, partly by providing scholarships and student loans.

Some blame Finance Minister Yair Lapid for the downturn. The political discourse over the past year has turned much more harshly against the Haredim, which helped prompt an enormous rally in Jerusalem to protest the Haredi draft, and the ultra-Orthodox community has become increasingly withdrawn.

Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, who heads the ultra-Orthodox campus of Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, said Haredim who come to register for classes increasingly see themselves as requiring approval from their rabbis to study, he said.

“The change in Haredi society in the wake of Yair Lapid’s discourse is certainly palpable,” said Fogel.

Lior Dattel and Meirav Arlosoroff contributed to this report.