Leah S., a young Haredi woman from Ashdod and a married mother of an infant child, works as a junior clerk in a bank. Her salary is low, her job is dull and her prospects for advancement are limited. It's a pity, she says, that all she has is a certificate from the Beit Ya'akov seminar. If only she had studied law, or business administration or economics, she could have advanced in her career and supported herself and her family.
Approximately 4,000 women complete a Haredi seminar every year. In the best case scenarios, 200 find jobs. The rest are left to fend for themselves in a tough job market that is particularly unforgiving to them. For Haredi women living in Betar Ilit, Katzir-Harish and other exclusively ultra-Orthodox enclaves, there is a very limited supply of accessible jobs. As mothers to young children, it is very difficult for them to travel long distances for jobs during rush hour.
Those who do manage to find good jobs in, say, a government ministry, must deal with an entirely different set of problems. Many men feel frustrated (sometimes to the point of violence ) at the fact that their wives are their children's primary breadwinners while they are trapped and all alone in their yeshivas. As a result, the wife views herself as an equal partner in making key decisions affecting the household (which some men attribute to the influence of "secular feminists" that the wives meet in the outside world ). Thus the woman also demands that the husband take a greater part in caring for the children.
There is a wide variety of lifestyles and work routines within Haredi society. One cannot compare the Hassidim, most of whom serve in the army (for an abbreviated service known as "Shlav Bet" ) with the Lithuanians who remain in the kollel, or religious seminaries for married adults. These aforementioned groups should be distinguished from the religious Sephardi Jews who support Shas, those who once knew how to combine tradition with work but have recently been swept in the Lithuanian direction.
The complicated situation is further compounded by the considerable population boom, a worrying development which prompted a number of courageous figures in the Haredi community to deduce that this required a revolution in the manner in which higher education and work are viewed. But this revolution requires at least two sides. Meanwhile, the state, which has declared its wish to see Haredim integrate into the workforce, continues to uphold the principle of studying Torah in lieu of employment, which denies thousands of Haredim the opportunity to gain a higher education and find work.
Businessmen and entrepreneurs primarily focus their investments in the center of the country, not the outlying, poorer areas which are accessible to most Haredim. The state, meanwhile, pours in billions of shekels - either through government ministries or private donors like the Joint Distribution Committee - in building isolated Haredi towns and subsidizing teachers' seminars.
The motivations at play are flawed. The state has handed the entrepreneurs and contractors - individuals who operate according to short-term, profit-driven considerations - the keys to planning the economy. The Haredi donors are not eager for their community members to integrate into society. The new Haredi towns were meant to limit the growth of Israel's Arab community and to move the Green Line further eastward. And the huge budgets for the seminars are the result of enormous pressure applied by the Finance Ministry. The Haredim have no choice but to move into the new towns, where they find themselves unemployed due to the community's Torah study exemption provided by the state, pressure from the rabbis and the dearth of opportunities for women.
Now both sides must decide whether talk of integrating into the economy is merely lip service or a genuine goal. During a conference on Sunday organized in Haifa by the Carmel Academic Center, an institute of higher education that offers special programs for Haredi women, all the speakers repeated the mantra of expanding Haredi study tracks in colleges. There is no doubt that expanding higher education opportunities for Haredi women will initiate profound change, yet nothing will change unless a number of other conditions are fulfilled.
In order for real change to occur, Israeli society must stop its preoccupation with imposing the core curriculum on Haredi schoolchildren. It must be amenable to a real fusion of Haredi men and women within the workforce (and not just high-tech Haredi companies, which politicians just love to swoon over ). The government must make plans for Haredi housing in existing towns, untie the knot of full-time Torah study in lieu of work, and, most importantly, create more opportunities for Haredi women to gain higher education and earn gainful employment in conditions that are suitable to them.
The Torah sages must acknowledge that poverty is not tantamount to happiness, and that the reality is changing. They must allow women to leave the seminar and enroll in college, if they wish to do so. The money is there. It just needs to be allocated toward that goal. This should be done with courage, honesty and wisdom.
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