Haredim - Tomer Appelbaum
Haredim in Jerusalem's Beit Yisrael neighborhood. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The city of Jerusalem recently organized a job fair for Haredim. The organizers probably didn't foresee the response. The morning the fair began, some 2,500 Haredi women thronged the halls of the Israel Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'Uma ), to be followed in the afternoon by about 1,500 Haredi men.

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These numbers are a slap in the face to experts claiming the observant and their leaders haven't changed their attitude regarding work. The numbers prove the opposite: There has been change, as the government wants and had believed. The question is whether we are doing enough to enable a breakthrough in Haredi workforce participation.

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During the last decade, two conflicting explanations have been touted as to why Haredim have difficulty integrating into the workforce. The prevailing opinion, since the government began trying to promote Haredi employment, is that Haredim do not have relevant education or training. But that argument assumes there is no shortage of employers who would offer Haredim jobs that suit their worldview and lifestyle, should the Haredim be qualified.

A second opinion is that the main barrier is the absence of jobs in general, especially the kind that would suit the Haredi lifestyle. This argument recognizes that businesses discriminate against Haredim, or don't give them a fair chance to integrate into the company.

There is no quick fix for this. The argument regarding the supply-side barrier, which stresses appropriate training, is less sensitive to the preferences of Haredim in choosing a workplace. It assumes that Haredim will break down and for want of choice, join nonobservant workplaces that conflict with their worldview.

But that assumption is wrong.

The Jerusalem jobs fair could have served as a laboratory to test which of the barriers is more relevant. The topic of the fair was "Integrating Haredim into the workforce," and 4,000 people showed up. If more such fairs were held around Israel, some 25,000 people apparently would have come. Moreover, the organizers made an effort to rope in employers, who offered some 500 jobs in Jerusalem alone.

In other words, in Jerusalem alone, there were on average eight candidates per job.

The parties involved in integrating Haredim into the workforce must rethink their presumption that training and qualifications are key, and look into creating jobs appropriate for that community. The breakthrough for Haredi employment depends on rethinking the importance of each barrier. The study shouldn't be carried out by economists alone, but by experts from a range of areas including sociology, anthropology and social work. The alternative is to keep failing to understand the barriers.

Benny Pfefferman is head of the Research and Economics Department at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Asaf Malchi advises the ministry on Haredi employment.