Haredim Are Leaving the Fold, but the Community Is Growing

A high birthrate means the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews will keep rising, and that’s bad news for the economy

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn during the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, in Jerusalem October 7, 2013.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn during the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, in Jerusalem October 7, 2013.Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Public debate about the role of a woman’s womb – how many offspring she has or does not have – is awkward and disturbing. Yet it has figured prominently in newspaper columns because of the huge impact birthrates have on the country’s economy.

At first the discussion about birthrates focused on the demographic demon, that is ensuring a Jewish majority would prevail over the Arab minority in the state of Israel. But times have changed. Arab women have come to believe that less is more. Their birthrates have plummeted as the Israeli Arab middle class has grown and as Arab women in Israel have become better educated. So now the Arab birthrate, which is similar to the overall Jewish birthrate in Israel, has no demographic significance.

Instead, the focus has shifted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, Haredi population, as it is known in Hebrew, where the average fertility rate is 7.1 children per woman. That’s more than triple the 2.2 average fertility rate for secular Jewish Israeli women and also far higher than the 2.7 fertility rate of Jewish Israeli women who are deemed “traditional” and still higher than the rate for religious women (meaning Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox) which is 4 children.

Haaretz Weekly

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Seven children per woman

In addition, in contrast to the turn towards modernity in Israeli Arab society and the drop in fertility rates among the Arab population, the Haredi birthrate has remained stable since the late 1980s, at around 7 children. It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t always that way. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Haredi women here had an average of three children.

The high ultra-Orthodox birthrate will have major implications for Israel’s future. Haredim currently constitute about 12% of the country’s population, the Central Bureau of Statistics says, but the statistics agency projects that by 2065, they will be 32% of the population. Israel’s future is therefore closely tied to the future of Israeli Haredim, for better or worse. Unfortunately, if the current trend persists, it would be mostly for the worse. That’s because of the highly destructive phenomenon in which most ultra-Orthodox Israeli men don’t study core academic subjects, don’t serve in the army and are not part of the modern workforce, instead devoting their time to religious study.

And any economist with an eye on the future has to lose sleep over the prospect that a third of the country’s population would be ultra-Orthodox in another 40 years. It would destroy the Israeli economy. An economic pyramid in which two-thirds of the population, which is employed and pays taxes might have to support the remaining third, which doesn’t pay taxes and barely contributes to the country’s gross domestic product, would collapse upon itself.

In such a scenario, Israel would be expected to sink into Third World status that would also tend to drive away its more well-to-do and educated population. Under such circumstances, Israel would also clearly be unable to maintain a modern army to defend itself.

Will this actually happen? In an attempt to answer that question, Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution examined another facet of this issue, namely the extent to which Jews in Israel shift their religious observance – becoming either more observant or abandoning religious observance entirely. That encompasses those who were secular and become religious, although not necessarily ultra-Orthodox, and more importantly, those who abandon an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and become less observant.

This second question is a more critical one from a socioeconomic perspective. The aim is not to make the Haredi population of this country secular and not to encourage them to abandon their faith. After all, Israel is a pluralistic democracy and everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs.

The relevant economic question, however, is how many Haredim shift their religious observance in such as way as to engage in secular studies and enter the job market. Ben-David based his analysis on Israeli polling data from 2016 from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, which found major shifts in the “traditional” and “religious” communities in Israel but much less so on the margins of the spectrum.

Just 10% of secular Israelis abandon their secular lifestyle (to become traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox) and only 6% of ultra-Orthodox Israelis become “religious,” meaning Orthodox, or traditional or secular, according to the findings. From this Ben-David concludes that concern over this demographic issue is justified, because the number of ultra-Orthodox who leave the community is relatively small and is more than offset by the community’s higher birthrate.

But apparently Ben-David’s figures aren’t accurate. The data from other more extensive surveys show things more clearly. Recently the Central Bureau of Statistics revisited the issue of Israelis’ religious observance and compared it to that of the households in which they grew up. It had been several years since the CBS asked that question.

Young people leaving

The CBS found a steady increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis who were abandoning the Haredi lifestyle (not necessarily to become secular, but to become less fervently observant). The data also show that younger Haredim (between the ages of 20 and 24) are much more likely to leave the fold than are older Haredim. Among this younger age bracket, the rate is already 12%.

Moshe Shenfeld, a former head of the group Out for Change, which provides support services to people leaving the ultra-Orthodox community and who took the step himself, found that this is not a fleeting change. In other words, those who leave the fold don’t ultimately return to the Haredi community.

But even the CBS data are based on a relatively small sampling of several hundred Haredim who responded to the survey. The numbers also may be skewed by the fact that at times the responses that pollsters receive don’t reflect the reality on the ground. As a result, Eitan Regev, an economist and research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, is now in the middle of a survey aimed at getting a better handle on the extent of the shifts, and providing a more accurate projection of what Israel will look like in 2065.

For the moment, Regev’s research is based on limited data that include, for example, the enrollment of students in ultra-Orthodox, religious and secular schools. The initial data show a clearer picture than that provided by the CBS polling results.

Sephardi dropouts

Regev’s preliminary figures distinguish between the non-Hasidic so-called Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community and Sephardi Haredim. They show that, when all of the age groups are included, the dropout rate in the Hasidic community is 5%; compared to 13% among Lithuanian Haredim; and 30% among Sephardim. Regev attributed the high Sephardi dropout rate to the shift towards ultra-Orthodoxy among Sephardim about two decades ago. Now there is a tendency among the subsequent generation to return to what would be defined as a “traditional” but non-Orthodox lifestyle.

When the three segments of the ultra-Orthodox population are combined, the data indicate an overall 15% to 18% dropout rate among Haredim. Since Regev has not finished his research, however, he doesn’t have a demographic projection that would take into account both the shifts to and from ultra-Orthodoxy, along with forecasts of Haredi birthrates.

But as Ben-David noted, the data already point to a continuing increase in the ultra-Orthodox population. Even if there is a 20% dropout rate from the ultra-Orthodox community, that would mean that of the average 7.1 children per Haredi woman, 5.7 children would remain within the fold. That rate is still much higher than that oof other segments of the Jewish Israeli population. So even if Haredim aren’t 32% of the population by 2065, they are on their way to becoming a much larger presence in Israel. And the issue of their integration into the labor market remains equally urgent.

“The key question,” said Neri Horowitz, one of the country’s leading experts on the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community, “is not how many Haredim there will be in 2065, but what kind of Haredim they will be. If in 2065, a third of those belonging to the community are modern Haredim – who study and work, as they do abroad – then we have won. If we remain with the current figure of 10% modern Haredim, the state of Israel has a problem. [The situation] depends only on us and the policy that we apply.”

The problem is that the policy that was intensively applied over the past decade to integrate the Haredim into the army, higher education and employment has failed on nearly every front. We need to rethink the approach.

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