With Return of Funding, Israel Sees Increase in Full-time Torah Students

The number of ultra-Orthodox men not working but dedicating themselves to religious studies climbs as Israeli government restores funding that was cut.

Yeshiva students in Bnei Brak, February 15, 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

The number of full-time yeshiva students in Israel significantly rose in 2015, after the number of ultra-Orthodox men dedicating themselves to Torah studies dropped in the previous years, most likely due to funding.

Figures released this week show that in addition to religious and cultural factors, government funding also affects the fluctuations in the number of Israeli men who study the Torah professionally. In wake of ultra-Orthodox parties’ success in rolling back the so-called “Lapid decrees,” a series of reforms made in 2013 by then-finance minister Yair Lapid that saw the Haredi community lose financial concessions, there has been a notable rise in the number of yeshiva students.

The latest figures from the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies and the Israel Democracy Institute, included in their Statistical Yearbook of Haredi Society, show that the number of yeshiva students in 2015 was 108,390, 67 percent of them married. This marks an 8 percent increase over the previous year — twice the natural growth rate of 4 percent. The change comes after a consistent decline from 2012 to 2014, when the number of ultra-Orthodox men studying Torah full-time decreased by 8 percent. This three-year decline was completely reversed in a single year.

From 2012 to 2014, the state cut its support for yeshiva students who didn’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces by about 50 percent. There was an even more drastic reduction — 89 percent — in the number of foreign students from studying in Haredi institutions in Israel, due to the near total elimination of their government funding. The drop can also be attributed to the complete exemption from military service granted to 20,000 men as part of the previous government’s draft law: Many younger, unmarried students enrolled in yeshivas only to avoid being drafted. With the exemption, they could leave the yeshiva, where they didn't want to be in the first place.

The trend that took shape under the Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett government was reversed with the arrival of the current government in 2015, in which the ultra-Orthodox parties returned to the coalition. The state increased the yeshivas’ budget from 564 million shekels in 2014 to 984 million shekels in early 2016. Their budget was increased again in June, reaching an all-time high of 1.1 billion shekels, not including guaranteed income for avrehim, full-time yeshiva students who are married — an issue which came up for discussion at the end of the Knesset’s summer session.

The Statistical Yearbook of Haredi Society, published for the first time this year, paints a portrait of the largest minority group of Jewish citizens in Israel, based on a vast database of figures from sources such as the Central Bureau of Statistics, the National Insurance Institute, the IDF and other organizations.

The 212-page volume contains chapters on demography, education, economics, welfare and lifestyle, and there are plans to update and expand it in coming years.

The project was overseen by Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute, who says, “There are so many people that need this information — researchers, journalists, government workers, politicians, and this is the first time that all of this information on Haredim can be found in one place.” Demographic data in the yearbook indicates that the Haredim number over 900,000, making up 11 percent of the general population and 18 percent of the population under 19 years of age. Haredi women have an average of 6.9 children, compared to 2.1 children among the secular population.

Meanwhile, other figures show that some significant changes have been occurring in the Haredi way of life. A growing number of ultra-Orthodox men are openly joining the work force, and their labor participation rate has exceeded 50 percent for the first time in many years (compared to 91 percent of non-Haredim), as Haaretz reported in February. 19 percent of ultra-Orthodox men and women over the age of 20 have studied or are currently studying toward an academic degree — a number that has grown from year to year, as has the ratio of Haredim who use the Internet (now at 41 percent).

Dr. Malach notes that with all the changes shown by the data, the Haredi communal framework has not been broken. “People go do academic studies or enlist in the army, and they still remain, out of choice, in the Haredi community. And the community doesn’t push them out,” he said.