Smartphone Culture Rapidly Luring Israel's ultra-Orthodox Into the Workplace

Smartphones are seen as the antithesis of the terrible poverty into which the community sank over the past decade and a half.

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“In light of the importance the government sees in encouraging employment and increasing the integration of the ultra-Orthodox sector in the labor market, an office for the encouragement of ultra-Orthodox employment will be set up at the Economy Ministry that will work on the integration of the ultra-Orthodox population in full and quality employment.”

This sentence appears in the coalition agreements that the two Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, signed in advance of the formation of the current government in May, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The statement immediately follows one committing the government to act to encourage public-sector employment of new ultra-Orthodox workers, in part through legislation.

If you ask the staff of the Israel Democracy Institute who study the Haredim – Yedidia Stern, Doron Cohen, Gilad Malach and Haim Zicherman – these two sentences are nothing short of earth-shattering. That’s not because of how they are worded, but because it was the Haredi parties themselves who sought the wording.

“The Haredi parties are demanding the government provide quality employment for the ultra-Orthodox?” Stern mused. “That is definitely a precedent.”

IDI has directed its attention in recent years to the integration of the Haredi population. There’s no dispute over the fact that the Haredim’s lack of integration has done major damage to Israeli society.

A few weeks ago, a long-term forecast by the chief economist at the Finance Ministry showed that if current labor patterns continue among the Haredim and Israeli Arabs, Israel will reach a state of fiscal collapse.

This historic warning by the ministry appears especially bleak against the backdrop of other provisions in the coalition agreements, in which Netanyahu backtracked on all the accomplishments of his last government to apply pressure on ultra-Orthodox Jews to enter the workforce.

These included a law drafting of Haredi men; cuts in government support for yeshivas, income assistance, child support and ultra-Orthodox education. Subsidies for preschool services were to be conditioned on the father being employed, and teaching of core subjects such as English and math would be required at Haredi schools.

Leadership vacuum

The IDI doesn’t dispute the problematic nature of the government’s surrender to the Haredi parties’ coalition demands, but it puts an optimistic spin on the agreements. This optimism is based on those same two coalition agreement statements, and what could be portrayed as a historic opportunity to achieve a breakthrough in integrating Haredim into the workforce.

Ironically, one of the opportunities is due to Netanyahu’s surrender to the Haredi demands to let ultra-Orthodox men remain at yeshivas.

“In the last government, anyone who entered the workforce was seen in Haredi society as a traitor,” explains Zicherman, himself from a respected ultra-Orthodox family. “In the current atmosphere, it’s no longer treason and it’s possible to discuss the possibility of a preference for work over study in a more levelheaded way.”

Such discourse is taking place within the Haredi community, the institute’s researchers say. Ultra-Orthodox society is integrating into the workforce at an accelerated pace. In the course of a decade, female employment jumped from 51% to 71%, even surpassing the government’s 63% target. Ultra-Orthodox women tend to work part-time and almost only in education for very low pay, so the IDI suggests focusing on enhancing the range of employment offered to Haredi women, which would improve their salaries.

Among men, the labor force participation rate has grown more slowly from 36% to 45% over the decade, below the government’s 63% target and substantially lower than the 82% rate for non-Haredi Jewish men. But the IDI is optimistic, saying changes in Haredi society could soon bring about a jump.

The changes stem from growing openness by Haredim to the world around them.

The first major change is in their leadership. With the death of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and several leading Ashkenazi rabbis, Haredi society has been left without rabbinical figures whose authority everyone deferred to.

The leaders of the last generation subscribed to a policy of community seclusion; as long as they were alive, no one in ultra-Orthodox society dared flout their authority. Now, individualism is rearing its head.

“Not only are they beginning to go out to work,” says Stern, “but a work-oriented culture is seeping down. All of a sudden, there is a consumer culture, vacations and even the Internet. Forty percent of Haredi society, based on the estimates, already uses the Internet.”

The Internet is permeating the ultra-Orthodox world as a result of smartphones. “A large proportion of the men have kosher phones,” says Zicherman, “meaning a simple cellphone that they come to the yeshiva with, but, hidden away, they have another device, a nonkosher smartphone on which they access the Internet.”

Smartphones are part of the new discourse over more permissiveness in Haredi society, and the antithesis of the terrible poverty into which the community sank over the past decade and a half.

“Size is killing them,” says Stern, who notes that the Haredi community has grown to 11% of the population, a figure that may reach 18% by 2034. “Half of them are under the age of 14, and there are no longer those who will fund them in the yeshivas. They understand this is not sustainable.”

The pressures to escape from poverty dovetail with the understanding among the Haredi leadership that this society of scholars is backfiring. Ultimately, it is not sustainable to have an entire society engaged in study. The way of life of religious scholars is not appropriate for the vast majority of the Haredi public.

“If we let things take their course, Haredi society will be one-third scholars and two-thirds employed,” Zicherman explains. “There’s no society that is more than a third [highly] educated, and even among the ultra-Orthodox it’s no different. People are biding their time at the yeshivas. Better that they go to work.”

These changes find expression with the expansion of the margins of the ultra-Orthodox community. What until recently was an unusual phenomenon of Haredi yeshiva high schools – where the curriculum in preparation for the matriculation exams is taught – has become a status symbol.

“There are six now,” says Zicherman, “and they target the Haredi elite – good families that send their sons to study core [secular] subjects and take the matriculation exam. The problem is that the cost of these yeshivas is crazy: 3,500 shekels [$920] a month, because it includes dormitory accommodations and only wealthy Haredim can allow themselves this. It’s stupidity on the government’s part not to take these yeshivas under its auspices.”

Faltering education program

The truth is that the previous government intended to take these yeshivas under its wing, integrating them into a new state-Haredi school system. The creation of the new track is faltering, however, and in light of the current coalition agreements, it’s not certain it will proceed.

This is a clear sign of the backtracking caused by the coalition agreements, but this retreat also comes at a time of increased government willingness to invest in Haredi workplace integration.

The Economy Ministry has 500 million shekels earmarked for this, while the army is training more and more recruits in army programs designed for Haredim – and that’s in addition to civilian national service programs.

All of this is happening along with the biggest opportunity of them all: The last government exempted 30,000 ultra-Orthodox men as part of its plan to gradually require Haredi men to be drafted. That means there are huge reserves of ultra-Orthodox men available to join the labor force. The IDI says this is an opportunity that must not be missed.

In its recommendations on a report on ultra-Orthodox employment, the institute makes reference to “Haredim breaking the glass ceiling of quality employment,” and says this will serve as an example to the broader ultra-Orthodox population. The mirror image of this is Haredim who have tried to break into the labor market and failed, whether because their employers don’t want them or because they were offered very low-paying jobs. In either case, it serves to drag the process backward.

“Let’s not wreck this,” warns Stern. “Someone who goes out to work pays a steep social price. If he also doesn’t manage to make a living, because they pay him low wages, the entire process could come to a halt. We need to look after Haredi employment, particularly quality employment at high wages, so the process of going outside the walls gains momentum.”