Jerusalem Is Not Becoming an ultra-Orthodox Town, Expert Says

Statistics fail to tell the whole story, says Dr. Maya Choshen, the highest authority on trends in Israel's capital, and predicts that the birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox will drop and that many Haredi families will leave Jerusalem.

Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The editor of the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem is convinced that secular residents’ fear of the capital becoming ultra-Orthodox is groundless. She predicts that the birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox will drop, that numerous Haredi families will leave Jerusalem and that ageing neighborhoods like Rehavia will get new life.

“Some people like to live near similar people, but some believe it’s important for the population around them to be varied,” says Dr. Maya Choshen, who has edited the yearbook, issued by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, for the past 28 years. “Those who don’t like different people around them aren’t suitable to live here,” she says.

The thick volume’s publication has become one of the rituals of Jerusalem Day, in which the media and politicians mostly focus on the emigration rate from the capital and the size of its secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.

In the first yearbooks Choshen edited, at the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, only 20 percent of the capital’s Jews classified themselves as ultra-Orthodox. This year the ultra-Orthodox residents made up 34 percent of the capital’s population.

On the face of it this corresponds to Jerusalem’s image as a city in the process of becoming ultra-Orthodox. But Choshen says the figures don’t necessarily reflect reality accurately. She recalls, for instance, that when she would leave the office to go home in the first years of work, no café in the Rehavia neighborhood was open.

Today there are five cafes and restaurants along the way. One of them, Gaza 40 (named for the street on which it is situated) is open on Saturdays as well. The café near it, Carousela, boasts an alternative kashrut certificate, while another, Joshua Cafe, has shrimp on the menu. There’s also a high-end bakery and two boutique green grocers.

“I remember when after 8 P.M. there wasn’t a soul out on the street. Today it’s all lit up, there are youngsters and students around,” says Choshen.

She refuses to mourn for the future of the city, an attitude held by many secular and liberal residents — and paints a complex, perhaps even optimistic picture.

The doomsayers among Jerusalem’s secular residents mostly cite the education system to depict Jerusalem’s future. Indeed, since 1999 ultra-Orthodox students have comprised more than half the Jewish school students in Jerusalem. Since then the gap has increased and today there are more than 100,000 ultra-Orthodox students and only 63,000 secular and national religious pupils. Despite this, the increase in Haredim is relatively moderate, mainly due to the considerable emigration of ultra-Orthodox people out of Jerusalem, Choshen says.

In the first years the statistics raised demographic questions mainly about Jews and Arabs, while the ultra-Orthodox issue almost didn’t come up, says Choshen.

“In the ‘90s they started talking about the flight of secular people. At a study day of senior municipal officials, I said the ultra-Orthodox population is increasing and will ultimately move out of Jerusalem,” she says.

“Meir Porush, who was deputy mayor, responded harshly. You don’t know what you’re talking about, he said. The ultra-Orthodox aren’t budging. I said it was only a matter of time before they moved to the surrounding communities,” she says.

Choshen was proved right as over the years young ultra-Orthodox people relocated from Jerusalem to Modi’in Illit, Beitar Ilit and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Now ultra-Orthodox families from Jerusalem are setting up communities further away from the capital, in Kiryat Gat, Ashdod, Harish and Kasif.

But the secular Jerusalemites’ main concern is the large number of ultra-Orthodox people moving into secular neighborhoods and turning them ultra-Orthodox. “This is not always a pleasant encounter, but the attitude that the ultra-Orthodox people are coming to take over is wrong. They’re looking for an answer to their needs,” Choshen says.

Hoshen is convinced the rapid increase in ultra-Orthodox residents of the past few decades is about to change.

“These processes are consistent worldwide. When women go to work, become more educated and are exposed to other communities, the birth rate drops. This is bound to happen, the only question is when,” she says.

Jerusalem’s population is usually broken down into secular Jews, Haredim and Arabs, while the growing community of religious people who aren’t Haredim is ignored.

“Jerusalem appeals strongly to religious people and there’s a larger concentration of them here than anywhere else. Many youngsters come here looking for partners and the (religious) education system is very developed,” she says.

Despite the increase of Haredim in Jerusalem, they are far from becoming the majority, she says. No ultra-Orthodox mayor will be elected without the religious residents’ support. In the last two elections Mayor Nir Barkat was elected due to the alliance he forged between the secular and religious communities. This alliance, if it lasts, will continue to determine who Jerusalem’s mayor will be, providing the secular voters don’t stay home on election day.

Choshen cites the goings on in her own building in Rehavia as a case in point. Her 25-year-old son was the last to be born in the building, until two years ago. Since then, however, four children were born to families in the building.

“They always say Rehavia’s gotten old, but in the end even old neighborhoods get younger,” she says

In her building – which she sees as a micro cosmos of Jerusalem’s population – there’s an ultra-Orthodox family, religious students, Choshen and her husband, who are secular, and an Arab family.

Since 1967 the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem has grown from 25-37 percent. However, in the last decade the birth rate in the Palestinian community has dropped sharply and today Palestinian women have an average of 3.3 children. Jewish women have an average of 4.3 children and this year the Jewish community’s natural growth has exceeded the Palestinians’ for the first time.

Educated Haredim and Arabs with a high income move into middle class neighborhoods in Jerusalem, she says.

“Some secular people see someone in a café with a kippa and recoil. For me it’s great to be in a café with religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab people as well as tattooed youngsters. I think the population around me should be varied,” she says.