Ultra-Orthodox Males Are Joining Workforce in Israel at Rapid Pace

Employment rate is 49% for ultra-Orthodox men, up from 33% in 2005; at 74%, the rate for women is nearing that of their non-Haredi counterparts.

Eyal Toueg

The coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the ultra-Orthodox provides for the restoration of income support for Haredi families, but ultra-Orthodox men seem increasingly determined to find work rather than spending their adult years in full-time religious study.

That is what a study issued by the Economy Ministry Monday showed. It said 49% of working-age Haredi men were in the job market in the third quarter of the year, up from 43% in 2013 and 33% in 2005. That is still well below the 63% target set for 2020, but a big increase over the last decade.

The rate for Haredi women, traditionally higher than for men, also rose — to 74%, 11 percentage points above the 2020 target and approaching the 80% rate for non-Haredi Jewish women.

Coaxing Haredim into the workforce is a long-term goal of the government. It fears that between Israel’s aging population and growing Haredi minority, too few Israelis will be working to support retirees and others, reducing economic growth and the standard of living.

The numbers come as United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, readies a private member’s bill to restore state stipends to married male yeshiva students, as scholarships.

Many fear that if the bill is passed, Haredim will stop working.

But Economy Ministry officials say employment growth will continue, with or without allowances.

“Even if the stipends are restored in some form, we’re talking about 10,000 of the poorest Haredi families,” said an official who asked not to be identified. He said the trend seems unrelated to state support, and that the labor rate rose even when stipends were paid.

Since the government set the Haredi employment goal for 2020, the Economy Ministry has spent tens of millions of shekels to help ultra-Orthodox Jews find jobs — a particularly challenging problem because most Haredi men do not get a strong general education in subjects like math, science and English. To assist them, the ministry offers job training and placement, while the Education Ministry and the Council for Higher Education in Israel help with schooling issues.

“Despite the good numbers, Haredim are still earning less than other Israelis even when they are in similar jobs — that’s our next challenge,” said the official.

Among Israeli Arabs, the labor force participation rate for males was 76.4% in the third quarter, close to the 2020 target of 78% and up from 72% five years ago.

But in the Arab community, the government’s goal is chiefly on providing incentives to get more women into the workforce. In the third quarter, the rate was 33%, an increase of 5 percentage points from 2010 and nearly double the rate 20 years ago. Still the rate is far from the 41% goal the government has set for 2020.