At 27, after earning a degree in engineering, industry and management and settling into a good job, Michal Talor finally feels she’s ready to raise a family. Nothing unusual about that, except for the fact that Talor is an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
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“I started dating only at 22,” she tells Haaretz. “I was a student, and getting married didn’t feel urgent. For another two years it wasn’t at the top of my list, but it’s different now.”
It’s different now, but Talor is still single and searching for the right man, yet not collapsing under the ultra-Orthodox community’s well-known pressure to marry, and to do so as quickly as possible.
Talor is not an anomaly: According to figures obtained by Haaretz from the upcoming statistical report on ultra-Orthodox society for 2017 (published jointly by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies), the Haredi community has undergone a dramatic shift in marriage patterns over the last decade.
While in 2003 and 2004 around 61 percent of Haredim from 20 to 25 were married, in 2015 and 2016 that number fell to 44 percent.
The rise in marriage ages coincides with an increase in the number of Haredim studying in colleges and universities and entering the workforce, as well as with a rise in internet access.
“It used to be that a young ultra-Orthodox person didn’t have the option of [secular] higher education, so the path was clear – marrying young,” says Gilad Malach, the director of IDI’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program. “Today, when there are many possibilities, a fair number choose to earn a degree and find a good job first and only afterward to marry,” Malach adds.
The trend toward marrying later doesn’t stop at 25. Whereas in the period from 2004 to 2006 only 22.6 percent of Haredim aged 20 to 30 were unmarried, a decade later this number has climbed to 31.1 percent.
“Today I see young Haredim who want their bank accounts to be in good shape before they marry,” says a matchmaker in the community who asked to remain anonymous. “People today are much more self-aware and better prepared for married life,” she adds.
It’s the women in the community who are leading the change. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, in the 2014-16 period 32.4 percent of ultra-Orthodox women from 20 to 30 were single, compared to 18.9 percent a decade earlier. The figures for their male counterparts were 30.4 and 27.8 percent, respectively.
The matchmaker says she sees the trend in her own business. “Just this week I tried offering matches to two girls – one of them a Hasid, both of them studying for a certificate in practical engineering. Their mothers told me firmly that there’s no point discussing it until they complete their first year of studies. They’re still young, but it’s clear there’s no matchmaking until they complete their education. In the past, this wasn’t even a consideration.”
Malach says community leaders seem not to have noticed the trend, “because each one is only aware of his own surroundings and people don’t notice it’s a broader phenomenon.”
How broad? While religious study is the main concern of the mainstream Haredi community, in other – perhaps more modern – streams, attention is also being paid to academic and vocational studies and to work. Over 70 percent of Haredi women now work outside the home – up from 50 percent in 2003.
Malach attributes this trend, and the growing focus on education, to the high cost of living in Israel and the fact that women are still expected to be the main breadwinners once they marry.
A 32-year-old, male ultra-Orthodox lawyer who asked to remain anonymous acknowledges that the trend has its positive aspects.
“If I were married, I probably wouldn’t have a degree or the kind of job I have today,” he says. “Higher education, which has gained legitimacy, is bringing out the young people, opening their eyes.”
He says most young ultra-Orthodox men who are not yeshiva students don’t live with their parents and don’t feel much social pressure to marry young. “I want to marry now, but I’m not in any hurry,” he adds.
The authors of the report note that the trend toward marrying later, together with the rise in workforce participation and the pursuit of higher education, is likely to continue and to lead to a decline in fertility in the ultra-Orthodox community.
“It will of necessity lead to a slowing in the population growth rate,” says Maya Choshen, a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research and a co-author of the report. “If a woman marries at 20 and has an average of seven children, she completes her childbearing in her mid-30s, and at 40 she is already marrying off the next generation. But if she marries at 27, she finishes giving birth only at 40 and is in her mid-50s when she starts marrying off her children,” says Choshen.
Both she and Malach note that these changes are part of a prolonged process. “If current trends continue, we will see the results only years from now,” says Choshen.
“For now, the Haredi community is adapting itself to the modern world, but not assimilating into it,” Malach says, adding, “That is to say, the changes the Haredi community is experiencing are not yet changing the essence of most of it.”