Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva Enrollment Soars, Work Levels Freeze Since 2015

Since Ultra-Orthodox parties rejoined Israel's government, figures show that the number of married, full-time yeshiva students grew by double the growth rate of the Haredi population.

Ultra Orthodox students at the Haredi Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, 2012.
Olivier Fitoussi

Since the ultra-Orthodox parties joined the government two years ago, the number of full-time married yeshiva students has soared while an earlier rise in the ultra-Orthodox employment rate has ground to a halt, government data shows.

Education Ministry figures reveal that the number of married, full-time yeshiva students grew 15 percent over 2015-2016, eight percent the first year and seven percent in 2016. This number is double the growth rate of the ultra-Orthodox population for this period.

At the same time, a steady rise during the previous few years in numbers of ultra-Orthodox men and women finding employment has come to a halt. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of ultra-Orthodox women in the work force remained static at 73 percent in 2016, (compared to 79.5 percent for non-ultra Orthodox women, as measured a few years earlier) while the employment of ultra-Orthodox men rose by a negligible amount, from 51.2 percent in 2015 to 51.7 percent in 2016.

Ultra-Orthodox protest over the Arad synagogue, Bnei Brak, December 20, 2016.
Moti Milrod

On Sunday, the cabinet approved an increase of 50 million shekels ($13.5 million) to the yeshiva budget for 2017, bringing it to an all-time high of 1.224 billion shekels. This is the third time yeshiva funding has broken records since the last Knesset election in 2015.

United Torah Judaism, one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, says this growth was mandated by the government’s coalition agreement.

In recent years, the number of yeshiva students has fluctuated depending on whether the ultra-Orthodox parties belonged to the ruling coalition. Until 2012, for instance, the number of yeshiva students rose at a more or less steady rate of four percent a year, matching the growth rate of the ultra-Orthodox population. But in 2012-3, when UTJ and its fellow ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, were not members of the government and the Yesh Atid party pushed through funding cuts for the ultra-Orthodox community, the number of yeshiva students plummeted by eight percent.

Within a year of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ return to the coalition in 2015, however, that loss had been made up, as Lapid’s cuts were systematically reversed. Government funding for bachelor yeshiva students, and yeshiva students from overseas have also been restored to their former levels.

In addition, the government increased its funding for yeshivas from 564 million shekels in 2014 to 984 million in 2016. The funding has now risen to over 1.2 billion in 2017. The government has also restored income support payments for poor avrechim, or full-time yeshiva students, and canceled conditions attached to other benefits, such as a former rule that men had to have tried to find a job before they could be eligible for subsidized day care for their children.

Hats and jackets belonging to ultra-Orthodox Jews, with photos of rabbis above.
AP

“Doubling state support for avrechim, alongside canceling the criterion of male employment in day-care eligibility, have made it less worthwhile to go to work,” said Dr. Gilad Malach, who heads the Israel Democracy Institute’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program (full disclosure: this reporter is doing a study for IDI).

Yet while the change in government policy has clearly halted the growth of ultra-Orthodox employment, this doesn’t mean the ultra-Orthodox parties actually want to reduce such employment. In fact, Shas and UTJ have pushed for measures to increase ultra-Orthodox employment, including affirmative action in civil service jobs, recognizing yeshiva studies as the equivalent of academic degrees, and government funding for initiatives to encourage such employment.

Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri said about half of UTJ's Knesset members met with a delegation of an American ultra-Orthodox group called Temech when it visited Israel last week, effectively giving a seal of approval to the group's mission of establishing employment hubs for ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem and other towns with large ultra-Orthodox populations.

Nevertheless, not all the lawmakers enthused about the group. “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is currently at a crossroads,” MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) was quoted as saying during the meeting. “Your efforts to increase the number of working women, the scope of their jobs and their salaries pose challenges that aren’t simple.”

Uri Regev, director of the organization Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, lambasted Sunday’s decision to increase yeshiva funding yet again.

“This government unhesitatingly approves increased funding for yeshivas while cutting funding for firefighters and rescue services, demobilized soldiers, local governments and housing grants,” Regev said. “It’s clear this isn’t a government that represents the people, but a government that’s buying ultra-Orthodox votes to stay in power. That’s what all Israeli governments have done ... and the time has come to say, No! We must stop the theft of public money by cynical politicians.”

Moti Bassok contributed reporting.