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COVID Was Bad for Israel’s Haredim; post-COVID Will Be Worse

Israel’s digitized post-pandemic job market will be inhospitable for people without education and computer skills

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Birkat Hakohanim at the Western Wall, March 29, 2021
Birkat Hakohanim at the Western Wall, March 2021Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The coronavirus exacted a heavy toll on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Even after discounting the crowded conditions they tend to live in and other factors that made them more prone to get the virus, the rate of confirmed COVID cases among the ultra-Orthodox was 4.6 times that of non-Haredi Jews.

The pandemic’s economic toll, at least for the Haredim who hold jobs, was also severe. In the first COVID wave last spring, the rate of Haredi employment fell 34%, compared with 19% for other Jews, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. During the second COVID wave, Haredi employment declined 22% versus 12% for other Israelis. The survey didn’t cover the third wave.

It’s too early for anybody to assume the pandemic is over. Israel’s high rates of vaccination and plunging rates of death and disease make us a global outlier. But worldwide, the number of confirmed COVID cases is still rising fast and the pandemic may yet resurge in Israel.

Yet, however the pandemic plays out – whether it is vanquished, comes roaring back via new variants or something in between – the Israeli and global economies are going to look very different. For Israel’s Haredim, it means their COVID sufferings are going to continue, not as a health crisis but as an economic crisis.

It’s become a cliché that the process of digitization that was already well underway before the pandemic has accelerated. But that doesn’t make it any less true. People, businesses, schools, doctors and governments all got used to doing things online and even when face-to-face activity resumes, it will likely be less than before.

That will have pronounced effects on the job market. More shopping trips by internet means fewer salespeople in stores. Fewer people working in office buildings because they’re working at home means fewer janitors and security guards. The jobs that are most likely to disappear are the ones involving low skills; the jobs being created will require a higher education and facility with computers.

Israel is Startup Nation, but no more than 10% of the workforce actually is employed in high-tech. The real story of Israel’s employment miracle in the years before COVID, when the jobless rate fell to record lows even as the percentage of Israelis holding jobs rose, was the creation of low-skill, low-productivity jobs.

The Haredim rode that wave – the rate of men working grew from 37% to 51% among adults and for women from 51% to 76%. They had no choice but to find work because of cuts in government allowances. The proof is that when the allowances were restored in 2015, the go-to-work movement in the ultra-Orthodox world stalled.

Very few of those who do work are in the professions or other high-skilled jobs, much less work in tech, for the simple reason that they don’t have the education and training. Yet that’s where the jobs are going to be in the coming years.

For a while, it looked like things might be changing. More girls have been taking the bagrut (high school matriculation exam), and Haredi enrolment at colleges and universities more than doubled in the decade to the 2018-19 academic year. But enrolments have more recently stagnated at very low levels, while enrolment at yeshivas and kollels for adult males continue to grow. The percentage of Haredi boys taking the bagrut has actually fallen and the dropout rate has soared.

The bottom line is that while the economy and job market will be requiring more skills, education and a facility with computers than ever, the Haredi world is moving in the opposite direction.

It’s true that internet use among Haredim has been rising, which presumably means that computer skills are rising, too. In theory, this could be an opening for many of them to join the remote economy, except for the snag that Haredim tend to live in extraordinarily crowded conditions. Small apartments and lots of children doesn’t exactly make for a productive work environment.

Some observers see signs that the ultra-Orthodox world is adapting itself to economic reality by acknowledging that full-time Torah study for men and sealing themselves off from the outside world no longer works. Individual Haredim are starting to think more for themselves and are looking out for their own interests, even joining the middle class. But the signs are pretty faint.

It seems the overwhelming view is that the Haredi Society of Learners can somehow survive on government largesse and women working at low-paid jobs. The rabbis, who enforce these values, seem as powerful as ever: In the midst of the COVID crisis last fall, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 90% of the ultra-Orthodox polled remained confident in their rabbinic leadership. Nearly two thirds said they trusted their rabbis to evaluate the health crisis more than medical experts (22%) or even God (4.5%).

COVID sent a powerful message to the ultra-Orthodox world. But for now it seems it’s being ignored.

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