Israeli ultra-Orthodox Men Must Be Helped, Not Forced, Into the Job Market

A preparatory course at the Technion technology institute is just the ticket, but more is needed.

A., a 30-year-old ultra-Orthodox man with a wife and three children, began his studies at the Technion six years ago in a special program for Haredim. The average age of the 60 or so men in the program was 28, and all them were breadwinners.

At one class, the teacher wrote an equation on the board using the variables X and Y. The students watched, confused. “We understand numbers,” one said, “but what are those strange symbols you wrote next to them?”

Six years later, Technion officials realize that Haredi students have a third-grade knowledge of math and don't know English at all. “They come to us with no knowledge,” said Muli Dotan, the head of the Technion’s pre-academic department, which runs the special program.

This lack of knowledge presents a tremendous obstacle. A. recalls his grade on his first fractions test: 10 out of 100. He was having such a tough time he wanted to quit, “but then the teacher threatened that if I quit, he’d show up and scream at me through the window of my home until I came back.” The threat worked, and A. got through the crisis.

Lack of knowledge isn’t the students’ only problem. Yes, the program is funded by billionaire Eitan Wertheimer; the students receive free tuition, housing and a stipend of $600 per month. But they still have a tough time supporting their families.

As a result, most don't last long in the program. Of the 60 students in A.’s class, only 15 were eventually accepted to the Technion. Most completed the course with mediocre grades.

“I’m working full time while I go to the Technion, and accordingly my average grade is 74," A. said. "Who’s going to take a 30-year-old Haredi man with grades like that?”

Dotan, for his part, is happy to note that A.’s pessimism is unfounded. “Employers realize that a Haredi man who overcomes all the obstacles and completes his studies at the Technion is extraordinarily motivated,” he said. “That’s an employee they want to hire.”

Apparently, A.’s entire class found jobs. Encouraged by this success, the Technion has opened a preparatory academy in the largely Haredi city of Bnei Brak. And soon there will be a Haredi campus in Haifa that offers preparatory studies for the Technion; this is expected to increase the number of people who complete the program.

While A. shows extraordinary motivation and ability, even he had a hard time in the exhausting preparatory course. To some extent, his travails illustrate what Haredim eyeing the job market must deal with. If Haredim are thrown into the workforce sink or swim, they'll sink.

A policy that only cuts Haredi budgets and forces them to join the army will be a complete failure. Such a policy must accompany massive assistance to the ultra-Orthodox such as education, professional training, help in finding a job and enforcement of labor laws. But the state has done little of this.

The only benefit for encouraging people to work is the negative income tax for low-income workers, which is outrageously low. The maximum a family can receive is NIS 480 per month, and that's only for families with three or more children. (A single-parent family is eligible for more.) Even for low-income workers, the additional sum is insulting.

Meanwhile, those eligible for the benefit must wade through red tape, so only 47 percent of eligible low-income workers receive it. A study by Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy found that the allowance only raises 12 percent of low-income workers from poverty. The state spent only NIS 0.5 billion on the benefit in 2011.

The stinginess of the negative income tax typifies the state’s attitude toward the poor. Israel’s spending on welfare-to-work policies was 0.27 percent of gross domestic product, compared with an average of 0.6 percent in OECD countries, even though the problem is at its worst in Israel. In addition, the Wisconsin welfare-to-work plan was scuttled by the Knesset, so basically there's no agency to coordinate policy.

Meanwhile, the state continues to encourage the Haredim to remain uneducated by funding a separate school system that doesn't prepare them for the job market. While the Haredim's study habits are excellent, this can't compensate for the lack of proper schooling.

Therefore, if the state wants to integrate Haredim into the job market, it has to help them, not just force them. The quasi-illiterate Haredi education system has to be dealt with to keep future generations from ignorance and integrate the current generation into the workforce.

Eitan Hochster