As Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews Go Online, Coronavirus Could Offer Opportunity to Boost Employment

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An ultra-Orthodox man in Bnei Brak, April 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man in Bnei Brak, April 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

When the coronavirus shutdown began, rabbis permitted girls who study at the ultra-Orthodox community’s three most prominent seminars to continue their studies from home. This was made possible through special “sticks,” which enabled them to connect only to websites necessary for their studies. While this may seem like a minor turn, it is actually a ground-breaking change, say sources – even the ultra-Orthodox community itself understands that there’s no choice but to go online.

The ultra-Orthodox community was exceptionally hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. A report by the Finance Ministry’s chief economist states that the closure in ultra-Orthodox communities was 30% more stringent than for non-Haredi Jewish communities. The effect of lost income on the ultra-Orthodox community is much more significant, given that 42% of all ultra-Orthodox families were living in poverty as of 2018.

And yet, this community is not receiving funding to address the employment crisis spurred by the pandemic. Furthermore, the law for encouraging employment doesn’t even address the ultra-Orthodox. Sources say the funding for this was pulled even before the pandemic struck.

“The government succeeded in building good fundamentals for handling the labor market, but we need more aggressive measures,” says Yulia Eitan, head of Employment Administration for Special Populations at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services. “The political crisis and the fact that the minister has just taken the job and there’s no budget puts us into a waiting mode, but reality isn’t waiting.”

The results of a Bezeq survey of internet use among the ultra-Orthodox community in April 2020Credit: Bezeq

“People were pushed out of their jobs because they’re weak and they don’t have an academic degree. The way to return them to the workforce quickly is career training,” says attorney Avraham Yustman,vice president of the Kemach Foundation, which seeks to advance ultra-Orthodox employment. Career training wasn’t happening even before the crisis, he says, “The question is they’ll now offer a half-year budget because the year is half over, or whether they’ll double the budget because we’re facing a crisis.”

Eitan says the crisis has created an opportunity to integrate the ultra-Orthodox community into the workforce. “We’re seeing a willingness for change within the ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “More people are seeing that joining the workforce doesn’t mean giving up on the world of the Torah. You can combine them.”

Waiting to go to work

The coronavirus crisis has the potential to bring changes that would improve the economic wellbeing of the ultra-Orthodox community, according to a policy paper drafted by Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, and Ruben Gorbatt, director of programs for ultra-Orthodox and older workers at JDC-Israel Tevet.

The two cite a survey conducted by the IDI stating that 42% of ultra-Orthodox respondents said they’d enter the workforce or work more following the crisis. Some 20% of respondents said that they or their spouse planned to start working, while 26% said they or their spouse intended to work longer hours.

“The long stay at home showed them the advantages in using the internet for work or for remote learning,” state Malach and Gorbatt. “Likewise news consumption, online shopping and family entertainment. The jump in the number of households connected to the internet isn’t temporary, and we may see an additional increase over the next few months.”

The two cite an April internet survey conducted by Kantar Media, which found that some 12% of web users were using the internet for work purposes for the first time. They also cite statistics from Bezeq Telecommunications indicating that 8% of new customers were ultra-Orthodox, three times the usual figure.

“I think the feeling of urgency and an uncertain world is filtering through,” says Yustman. “It will be less difficult to get new people working, and training and consultations will be digital,” he says. This is an opportunity to expand the tools people use for job training. “We’re upending worlds in order to create online courses in English and to figure out how to do it correctly,” he says.

“This is a financial crisis, but it can foment the desire to join the workforce,” adds Malach. “A married yeshiva student who is considering working knows that going to a physical employment center is a drastic step. On the other hand, if he has internet it’s less dramatic. The same for English lessons. You just get sucked in in your free time.””

The obstacle: Poor education

“The ultra-Orthodox issue was urgent even before the coronavirus crisis. The community is growing, and in 2065 it will comprise one-third of Israel’s population,” states Nitsa Kaliner Kasir, vice chairwoman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs. Changes within the ultra-Orthodox community were beginning even before the crisis. “They recognize that changes are needed, primarily for women,” she says. The crisis is an opportunity, she says. “There’s more understanding that they can’t just rely on handouts. This happened in 2002 and it’s happening again.”

However, many sources say that those who want to join the workforce will find it particularly challenging. “The unemployment rate is impacted by the number of people joining the workforce,” says Kasir. “It takes ultra-Orthodox individuals longer to find a job than the average for non-Haredi Jews, and the difference is explained primarily due to the quality of their education.”

Over the short term, new participants in the workforce will have trouble finding jobs because there are fewer positions available and more people looking, including some people with significant experience and skills, says Kasir. But she’s optimistic about the long-term potential: “There may be more workforce participation, as happened following the crisis at the turn of the millennium.”

Eitan says that integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce is necessary for the country to flourish, and that the incoming minister, Itzik Shmuli, is dedicated to the task.

The Finance Ministry stated in response that integrating communities into the workforce is at the top of its priorities, but that budgeting for training programs has been lacking.

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