Why Have Haredi Men Stopped Entering the Israeli Job Market? Experts Explain

Has Haredi society reached its limits for employment or is there still a 'reservoir' of individuals who are willing to work?

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Kivun employment center for Haredim in Jerusalem, August 27, 2019.
Kivun employment center for Haredim in Jerusalem, August 27, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Far-reaching economic, social and cultural changes have been taking place in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community for years. Haredi men have joined the job market in increasing numbers, while Haredi women have gone on to pursue higher education. But in recent years something seems to have changed – and that feeling is confirmed by the 2019 Yearbook of Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel, published by the Israel Democracy Institute. Indeed, it says, the trend toward integration has stopped.

It should be noted that among Haredi women, increased participation in the work force continues apace, rising from 71 percent in 2015 to 76 percent in 2018. But among men the situation is different: Between 2015 and 2017, the proportion of them who are employed has remained stable at around 52 percent, with a small 1-percent dip in 2018.

The percentage of Haredim pursuing advanced academic studies has also declined. At the start of the previous decade, the number of students increased by 20 percent a year, on average; from 2016 to 2018 there was about a 5 percent uptick – coupled by a substantial decline in recruitment to the Israel Defense Forces and participation in the alternative National Service scheme.

For his part, Dr. Gilad Malach, who co-edited the new yearbook with Dr. Lee Cahaner, is not surprised by the data. He explains that when it comes to the underlying cultural/religious ideal of the community in question – the precedence of Torah study – there are three ways to create change: via legislation, mainly relating to military service; positive financial inducements; and negative incentives.

“When there was a combination of all those elements, change could be brought about. When some of them were cancelled, that created a reverse change,” says Malach. “When a negative income tax was approved for those going out to work, that enabled Haredi men to go to work while others decided not to report on the work they hadn’t declared, because it was financially worthwhile for them. When they created a negative economic policy, such as cutting child allowances in 2003 or [then Finance Minister] Yair Lapid’s cut in yeshiva budgets in 2014, the kollels (yeshivas for married men) were unable to pay salaries to their students for months on end. When a man had to work in order to receive a discount in day-care fees, that created pressure that led to change."

When the Haredi parties returned to the coalition in 2015, after two years in the opposition desert, all the “Lapid edicts” were revoked, including that relating to the day-care discount. Only the positive work incentives remained, and the budget for yeshivas was also restored: Thus, if in 2014 a kollel student received about 440 shekels ($127) a month from the government, in 2015 that sum grew to 860 shekels. Currently, however, in the absence of a state budget, a 40-percent decline is anticipated.

Says Neri Horowitz, a researcher of Haredi society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “It’s impossible to attribute the changes only to the entry of Haredi parties into the coalition.” He maintains that the considerations for going to work are far more complex than receipt of a few extra hundred shekels: Such beliefs "arouse the most objectionable myths about the Haredim – that they only care about their pocketbooks. That’s a misunderstanding of the pain experienced by a yeshiva student who has to leave the yeshiva and join the job market.”

Dr. Horowitz is referring to the fact that in Haredi society, those who devote their lives to Torah study are considered to be among the elite, whereas a heavy social price is paid by anyone who goes out to work.

But there are those who believe that the latest data about Haredi men in the job market are not so dramatic.

“I don’t see a significant change in recent years,” says Yehiel Amoyal, director of Kivun, an employment center for Haredim in Jerusalem. “The significant jumps in the proportion of Haredi men in the job market came mainly during the government that included Lapid and [then-Economy Minister] Naftali Bennett, when thousands of yeshiva students were exempted from army service and the age of exemption was also lowered. That made Haredim join the job market, but quite a number were already employed and the exemption enabled them to declare that.”

The statistics reinforce that assessment: The greatest increases in Haredi men's participation in the job market came in 2011, with a jump from 40 to 45 percent and then again in 2014, from 45 to 49 percent, when the age of exemption from service in the Israel Defense Forces was lowered. Amoyal says that the regulation of Haredi institutions by then-Education Minister Shai Piron had a similar effect: Educators began to receive a salary slip instead of working illegally, which led to an uptick in the employment figures.

A Haredi man walks by the Jerusalem military draft office, December 2, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Horowitz thinks that the reason for the present trend among working Haredi men is the attempt to bring about change too quickly. "In the past 15 years the government instituted some basic services that created changes in their community and in their integration into the workforce and academia," he says. "But those who are joining the academic world and the job market realize that the jobs and the studies aren’t of high quality. The level of studies offered is low, many drop out, and the salaries are low as well."

Amoyal agrees that there is insufficient motivation for these men to seek employment at present. Moreover, he adds, there are daunting challenges facing those who already have jobs. Instead of becoming agents of change, they seem to be creating a chilling effect on their fellow Haredim.

“When they return home they don’t embody a narrative of success, of learning a profession and earning a lot of money," he observes. "They suddenly realize it’s hard. At best they earn minimum wage because they lack an employment background and experience. Haredi men are also impatient. If they don’t succeed quickly, they give up.”

Rabbis' dictates

Y., who works in a toy store, describes a similar picture and touches on a central problem: the fact that Haredi youngsters do not learn a core curriculum. “I earn slightly more than minimum wage," he says, "and in order to survive I work extra hours. It’s very hard but I don’t have much choice. In the Hasidic elementary school, they didn’t teach us anything, so I can’t get a serious job.”

Adds M.: “I’m between jobs all the time. I worked for a few months installing electrical appliances in homes, afterward I was unemployed, then I worked as a delivery person. I’m still trying to find myself. I can’t get a respectable job because I didn’t study anything.”

“There’s no question that the core curriculum is a big part of the problem,” says Amoyal. “When a Haredi doesn’t acquire a profession, but works in a supermarket or a bakery, it’s much easier for him to give up and decide to return to the kollel. On the other hand, if he has a profession he’ll have much more stable employment, with a possibility of advancement and a higher salary, and that keeps him in the job market.”

A Haredi boy performs ritual hand-washing in a makeshift ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem in 2005.Credit: Emil Salman

Current employment trends are also a result of processes within Haredi society itself. Extremist groups, which became stronger during the Netanyahu-Lapid government, often dictate the tone.

“I can’t place ads about vocational training courses and jobs in certain Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem because there are rabbis from a local sect who don’t allow it,” Amoyal explains. “The newspapers are also afraid of them and won’t advertise.”

The question now is whether Haredi society has reached its limits regarding employment and those remaining in the yeshivas won’t leave them – or whether there is still a “reservoir” of individuals who are willing to join the job market. After breaking the 50-percent ceiling, everyone knows that the next stage will be much harder. It will demand reaching out to the hard core of this community, to the yeshiva and kollel students who aren’t exposed to mainstream news sites or stations, but rather mainly to the Haredi press, which harbors mainly negative attitudes toward integration into greater Israeli society.

Everyone involved agrees on one thing: The government must initiate a “roundtable” with the participation of all the relevant parties, and create a system of incentives, legislation and activity in the field to promote continued integration of this community.

Amoyal, for one, is still optimistic. “What's needed is one body that will coordinate among the relevant entities and will know how best to get Haredim to enter the workforce. There’s hope that things will improve," he says. "The government can do much more than it’s now doing.”

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