Studies and Career, Then Kids: Israeli ultra-Orthodox Women Launch a Revolution

A trend toward having children at a later age than was once deemed acceptable should ultimately slow the Haredi community’s rapid growth rate, experts say

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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An ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, January 2019.
An ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, January 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

About two months ago R., who is 30, became a mother. That’s an unusual occurrence for her age; she’s a member of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

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“At first my husband and I wanted to wait a little bit more to strengthen our relationship, but in the end we decided to have a child now, mostly for medical reasons,” she told Haaretz.

R.’s story may be considered an exception in Haredi society, but it symbolizes a new trend. In recent years, more and more Haredi women are choosing to have their first child at a much later age than was deemed acceptable in the past. This is clear in figures from the Israel Democracy Institute, based on data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

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The Haredi birthrate has remained stable and is still 7.1 children per family, but that may change considering the new trend. For example, in 2004, ultra-Orthodox women between 20 and 25 had 1.7 children on average, while in recent years this number has been only 1.

At the same time, the number of births among Haredi women 40 to 45, which was only 0.4 on average from 2008 through 2012, is now at about 0.9.

The main cause of the change is the rise in the marriage age in Haredi society, says Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute. Haredi women are getting married later because they want to finish their studies and professional training first, he says.

In 2003 and 2004, about 39 percent of Haredim between 20 and 25 were single, while in 2015 and 2016 this number was 56 percent, with the greater increase coming among women, Haaretz reported a year ago.

“I got married two years ago when I was 28,” R. says. “When I was 19, I went out on dates and thought about getting married, I guess out of innocence. I didn’t know then what marriage was at all. When I reached 23, I decided that I wanted to focus on my career, and only when I hit 27, I decided that I wanted to get married.”

WhatsApp support group

The differences between R., who is considered modern Haredi, and her friends from the mainstream Haredi seminary where she studied, are especially great.

“Most of my friends married between 18 and 22,” she says. “Out of a class of 36 girls, only four married after 22. Most already have between five and seven children.”

The choice to postpone marriage is only part of the story. Change is also being led by married women preferring to have their first child a few years after the wedding.

“I’ve been married for a year already and don’t plan on having children in the next year or two,” says A., a 24-year-old Haredi woman from Jerusalem. “At first we decided to postpone it to establish our relationship. Today I prefer to wait because I’m in the middle of my studies, but my husband really wants children.”

A. says a number of her friends feel the same way. “For everyone it comes from a different source,” she says. “Once we had a WhatsApp group of girls who didn’t want to get pregnant immediately after the wedding. It was kind of a support group; we gave tips to each other.”

This support is especially important in Haredi society, where pressure to have children early and often is very strong.

“We totally feel the social and family pressure,” A. says. “In social encounters they immediately tell me: ‘With God’s help, a son this year,’ and ask if everything is okay with me and if I’m healthy.”

So many people around her are pushing for parenthood.

“The rabbis push women to have children at the beginning of the marriage. If the women want to take a break after that it’s possible, but there’s an urgency to have children immediately,” A. says.

“Many women usually hide it. They won’t talk about choosing to use contraception, and prefer for people to think the reason for the postponement is a medical problem, not a choice.”

'Modern' means fewer children

“The rise in the age of parenthood is related to the rise in the age of marriage, which is occurring as a result of education and the big changes happening in Haredi society,” says Dr. Lee Cahaner, head of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department at the Oranim Academic College of Education and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“The women make up for it at an older age because the social structure that demands having children still exists, and so the reproductive rate remains similar. This is also true among women in general society.”

A study Cahaner conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute shows important differences on the number of children per family between Haredim who identify with the mainstream community and those considered more modern. The average number of children for women over 40 among the more conservative group is 8.16.

Among the more classic Haredi families, the figure is 7.13, and among Haredim with modern leanings as the study put it, the average is 5.6. For “modern Haredi” families the number is 4.7.

“In the end, all these changes will result in the growth rate of Haredi society decreasing a bit,” Malach says, adding that the differences between the Haredi community and the general population will still be very large.

“It’s hard to assess at this stage if the changes are happening among the Haredi community with a more modern tendency or in the general Haredi community, but a survey of the Haredi community notes that the more the lifestyle of Haredim is modern, the fewer children the family has,” he says.

“It can be assumed that the choice of academic studies and career development, among both men and women, will also influence reproductive trends and Haredi family size in the coming years.”

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