Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel Gradually Warm to Secular Job Market

With limited educational options, ultra-Orthodox students are crowding into fields with dim job prospects.

Willing to work and no longer ready to accept a life of poverty, young Haredim are gradually warming up to the modern Orthodox and even secular segments of society - but carefully and on their own terms.

But most of those seeking a profession that provides a good living are turning to general studies like law or business administration rather than technology. General study programs are more accessible, popular and adapted for people working their way through school or attending yeshiva.

Of 2,000 Haredi male students supported by the Kemach Foundation, which promotes Haredi employment, one in every three is studying law, according to new figures from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. This compares with 11.5% of all students in the general population, as cited by the Council for Higher Education.

Other popular fields among Haredi men are business administration and teaching - 18% and 17%, respectively, compared with 8.8% and 12.8% in the general student population.

By comparison, only 10% of all male Haredi students are studying technology subjects on an academic level and a mere 3% each are studying either psychology or social work. Some 18.6% of the general student population is studying engineering.

Attorney glut

Why are so many driven toward legal studies when long-term jobs are likely to be poor in the face of a growing glut of lawyers in the marketplace?

The answer is because it's acceptable and convenient: Requiring a framework tailored to their needs, their options are quite limited compared to secular and modern Orthodox students.

While several institutions offer a suitable environment for studying computer science, the only academic institution offering an undergraduate degree in engineering that's geared to the ultra-Orthodox is Jerusalem College of Technology's Machon Lev. A Haredi youth who lives elsewhere and is enamored with high tech could find himself out of luck.

"If I were secular I would study engineering," says Eliyahu Shirian, 29, a native of Bnei Brak studying business administration at the Haredi campus of the Ono Academic College. "Many of my friends would prefer to learn engineering or property appraisal but chose something else as a default."

"There are some who attend regular universities, and perhaps I might have done the same, but it's much less acceptable and could have hurt my marriage prospects," explains a graduate of computer studies at Machon Lev who asked that his name not be used. "A [university] student could be considered as someone who's fallen by the wayside."

Branch in center

If demand for scientific studies among Haredim is so strong, why doesn't Machon Lev open another branch in the center of the country?

Its director, Shai Gilboa, says he would like to but that the Council of Higher Education is limiting any expansion there for Haredim to additional places at Bar-Ilan University and the Holon Institute of Technology.

"Bar-Ilan is erecting a separate building by the engineering school, but this will raise problems because there are stigmas associated with mixed institutions and it won't work," warns Gilboa.

The council says 12 study frameworks for Haredim will open in the 2013-2014 academic year for a variety of fields, including technology, in various universities and colleges.

Hanoch Rogozinski, 28, is completing his law studies at the Haredi campus of the Ono Academic College and will shortly start interning with a non-religious woman lawyer. He predicts that many of the students will soon be out of work in their chosen profession if the flood of students isn't stanched. "It's a serious problem in the field of law," he says. "If varied courses of study aren't opened to Haredim we will be inundated by unemployment."

So why did you choose law?

Rogozinski: "I saw myself as a lawyer from a young age. But many Haredim studying with me weren't suited for the course - most of them in fact. If a guy can't express himself well, he won't succeed as a lawyer."

Why are so many turning to law and business administration?

"Due to lack of knowledge. Ask a 20-year-old yeshiva student what a psychometric exam or matriculation is. He doesn't know. He hasn't studied math or English. What he does know is that he already has a child or two and can't make ends meet. So he quickly checks what options are open to him, is told 'law or business,' and follows the recommendation blindly. These are also fields he can learn with the knowledge he's gained."

So the problem is lack of knowledge?

"Yes, lack of education is a problem. Until the age of 18 the [Haredi] leadership doesn't allow any secular studies in the classroom, something I criticize."

Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, the director of the ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College, sees an advantage in fields like law and business.

"A doctor can only be a doctor and a computer expert only a computer expert," he explains. "But anyone having learned law or business administration has acquired a profession that opens up a range of possibilities. A lawyer can also be a mayor, Knesset member or prime minister."

So all Haredim should be lawyers?

Fogel: "Not necessarily. Things develop. With regard to high tech there's a problem: These are fields that require four intensive years of study with a high level of math and physics, and after all that there is no assurance that graduates will find work. How can I draw people to these professions without promising them work? On the other hand, this year we opened a new program for health care, speech therapy and occupational therapy."

The serious shortage of therapeutic professionals in the Haredi sector is well known and needs to be addressed immediately. Adina Bar-Shalom, the founder and head of the Haredi College of Jerusalem, says there is a lack of professionals, including psychologists, speech therapists and social workers.

"In Israel there are three or four Haredi psychologists who studied abroad," she says. "They're so busy that they can't find time to eat."

Emil Salman
David Bachar