Funds for ultra-Orthodox Trying to Leave Fold Going to Those Trying to Keep Them There

Young people keep leaving the Haredi fold, but a lack of government funds is limiting activities run by nonprofits that help them.

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An ultra-Orthodox man looks at the Western Wall and the wooden ramp leading up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, December 12, 2011.
An ultra-Orthodox man looks at the Western Wall and the wooden ramp leading up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, December 12, 2011.Credit: Ronen Zvulun, Reuters
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Social Affairs Ministry describes in similar ways the various organizations that help young people who have left – or are intending to leave – the ultra-Orthodox world. Some of the institutions involved, says the ministry, help teens and others “who are cut off from their families, the community and society”; others serve “young ‘dropouts’ who have left their families and the communal and other circles in which they lived.”

The first description is of an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, framework that deals with such young people; the second refers to a facility affiliated with Hillel, a secular Israeli nonprofit that helps former Haredim (not affiliated with the U.S.-based campus organization). But this is where the similarity ends. While the Haredi organizations involved in this process receive annual funding of about 30.5 million shekels ($7.9 million), Hillel receives only about 2 million shekels a year. Moreover, beyond the discrepancy in funds, the way in which the Social Affairs Ministry draws up its budget means that Hillel is essentially prevented from expanding its activities, despite a growing need.

A few weeks ago, the ministry signed a uniform agreement with 21 Haredi nonprofit associations who help such young people. The agreement states that the individuals helped by these groups “have left normative Haredi educational frameworks and Haredi frameworks for 'dropouts,'” and experience “varying levels of disconnection.” The tender drawn up by the ministry states that groups that apply in future for funding must set as their primary goal “preserving, fostering and raising Torah-observant people who will continue to live in the Haredi community.” According to one ministry official, it was not by chance that the goal was stated as keeping disaffected young people within the fold.

It emerges that under the new accord, the ministry provides 5,026 shekels for every young person placed in a Haredi framework of this type; records show that it funds 510 individuals at present. And a good many of these facilities also receive money from the Education Ministry as part of its funding of ultra-Orthodox institutions.

A room in one of the Hillel facilities serving former Haredim, in Ramat Gan, Nov. 24, 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

However, the ministry’s agreement with Hillel, which it began funding about two years ago, is much more modest. This nonprofit provides an emergency shelter, transition apartments and a counselling center to former Haredim, and is currently serving 35 young people. The Social Affairs Ministry underwrites about half of the cost of the organization’s operations, just under 2 million shekels, and Hillel has to raise the rest. The 12-bed emergency shelter in Jerusalem costs an estimated 1 million shekels a year to operate. The ministry thus spends 3,750 shekels on each of Hillel’s "clients" – 25 percent less than those in the Haredi frameworks receive.

Scholarship debacle

But there is another difference, perhaps even more significant: In addition to the approximately 2 million shekels it receives from the Social Affairs Ministry, if Hillel manages to raise half of its total budget, it is eligible to receive an additional 1.5 million shekels from the Finance Ministry. However, despite its efforts, the nonprofit has not been able to reach the threshold and has not been able to receive the matching funds. The result: The treasury keeps the 1.5 million shekels and Hillel can’t develop its programs any further.

And such expansion is needed. According to a report from Out for Change, an association that helps ex-Haredim obtain their rights, there seems to be a rising demand for the services Hillel provides. The report is based on a survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics and covering 2007-2012, in which respondents were asked to define their religious affiliation both at the time of the poll and in the past. The figures showed that over the past few years, about 10 percent of young people in their early 20s have left the ultra-Orthodox fold – some 1,300 people.

Statistics from Hillel show the same trend: a consistent rise in the number of people it helps in recent years, from 258 in 2011 to 1,057 this year. This uptick is even more significant considering that, as opposed to Haredi frameworks for so-called dropouts within the 14- to 22-year-old age group, the secular nonprofit only assists individuals who are 18 and older, and then only when they approach Hillel directly. The organization not only helps in times of emergency, but also in supporting ex-Haredi soldiers and finding employment for them.

Hillel also helps young people finance their academic studies: Last year, it awarded 200 scholarships, almost four times the number offered five years ago. About 90 percent of the recipients are not supported by any of the programs the Council for Higher Education provides, with the aim to integrate Haredi students in colleges and universities. The vital need for such scholarships results from the fact that many of the ex-Haredim emerge from an education system where core subjects are not taught and thus cannot begin their academic careers without preparatory courses.

Out for Change is helping some 50 ex-Haredim with the lawsuit they brought against the state in the Jerusalem District Court for allowing ultra-Orthodox institutions not to teach the core subjects. Six months ago, in an unusual move, the State Prosecutor’s Office announced that if the state lost the suit, it would in turn sue the parents of these young people and the yeshivas they had attended. This week, the yeshivas issued their response to the court: “This brutish conduct constitutes absolute extortion.”

Hillel director Yair Hess says his nonprofit approached the Social Affairs Ministry in 2014 and it approved the request for the matching-funds format to assist ex-Haredim.

“But meanwhile," he notes, "applications for assistance from our association have grown at a dizzying rate. Now, after the initiative has proven itself, our expectation is that the state will take full responsibility for our activities – without [the need for] dependence on donations.”

The Social Affairs Ministry responded that its matching-funds arrangement with Hillel is not unique to that organization, and it is also the policy for two Haredi NGOs as well. The ministry added that because its agreement with Hillel runs out at the end of 2017, “the ministry cannot fully fund” the organization in the meantime (though the chance of that in any case is very slim). Moreover, it noted that Hillel “is interested in continuing in the joint format and being a partner in providing solutions.”

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