Where Will 2 Million ultra-Orthodox Live?

Beyond ghettos: Within 20 years, the number of ultra-Orthodox is expected to double.

Pogrow lives in Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. Below, three ultra-orthodox men walk in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Olivier Fitoussi

Nearly a million ultra-Orthodox Jews are thought to live in Israel. On average, ultra-Orthodox households have six or seven children, making them the fastest growing segment of the country’s population. Within the next 20 years the number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis is expected to approach 2 million – which prompts the question as to where they will all live.

It turns out, however, that this conundrum hasn’t really bothered the Israeli government in recent years. Somehow the sense has taken root among the country’s leadership that the Haredim will manage on their own, whether it means crowding into individual apartments in Jerusalem or the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, or by moving into existing non-Haredi poor neighborhoods elsewhere.

But either option is problematic. Bnei Brak is already poor and existing population densities there verge on threatening the residents’ safety. The option of moving into poor, non-Haredi neighborhoods is an elegant way of describing a phenomenon that has already occurred, for example in parts of Beit Shemesh, and in the process existing residents have left. The result is power struggles and cultural clashes that do no one any good and simply exacerbate the existing divide in this country between secular and Haredi citizens.

But just recently, the Construction Ministry has woken up to the problem and begun exploring options. Under Construction Minister Yoav Galant, a team was convened with the participation of a group of mayors from ultra-Orthodox cities and the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs. The goal was to survey the housing needs of the country’s ultra-Orthodox and develop the outlines of possible solutions addressing the needs.

The team, headed by Haim Zicherman, a specialist on Haredi society (and a candidate for the next cabinet secretary), found that there is already a shortage of about 10,000 housing units in the ultra-Orthodox community. They projected that over the next 20 years, about 190,000 additional housing units will be required for Haredi households.

The team also found that ultra-Orthodox housing needs differ from that of other Israelis, for example some extremely ultra-Orthodox residents will not live in high-rise buildings. That is because, in addition to not using electrical equipment on the Sabbath, they will also not use Sabbath elevators, which less fervently observant Jews will use on the Shabbat and stop automatically on every floor.

Haredi families may generally require large apartments, but many don’t feel the need for luxurious accommodations or for parking. Ultra-Orthodox families, of course, do require institutions in keeping with their traditions, including separate school facilities for boys and girls, synagogues and ritual baths (mikvaot).

And few Haredim are prepared to live in secular neighborhoods, which also limits the possible housing stock available to them. That means that addressing future housing needs of ultra-Orthodox Israelis will require either the construction of separate Haredi cities or Haredi neighborhoods in cities with a mixed population.

There is a wide difference between the two approaches. In the 1990s, it was government policy to build separate Haredi towns. It began with the West Bank settlement of Immanuel and was followed by the settlements of Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit and the town of Elad, which is within the Green Line. The approach peaked in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which effectively doubled the size of Beit Shemesh. These towns provided housing meeting Haredi needs at reasonable prices, particularly in the West Bank settlements. In practice, the government subsidized Haredi housing through massive construction in the West Bank.

Haredim avoided the housing crisis

A study conducted by economist Eitan Regev of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies found that the country’s Haredim generally managed to avoid the steep rise in housing prices that affected the population as a whole in recent years. While housing prices in general rose by 34% over the past decade, Haredi housing prices climbed by just 6%. Moving to West Bank settlements allowed some to continue to purchase housing cheaply, and it was new housing in new communities. But it carried a steep price.

First of all, to a large extent, it played itself out. Now that the massive construction in ultra-Orthodox settlements is coming to a halt, there is no further prospect of tens of thousands of additional units being made available in the future at such prices. Secondly, all the new Haredi towns, without exception, have become cultural and employment ghettos.

Regev’s study found, for example, that the rate of employment in Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit is particularly low. In Betar Ilit just 24% of adult males without a higher education are employed, compared to 34% of comparable Haredi males in Israel in general. (The situation in Elad is better). Even among those with a Bachelor’s degree, just 55% of Haredi males in Beitar Ilit are employed, compared to 71% among Haredi males in general.

“It was a colossal mistake on the part of the government,” says a senior official who is involved in ultra-Orthodox housing. “In practice, the government put the Haredim in ghettos. The result is a major disaster for everyone, because it created pockets of poverty, giant islands of unemployment, and it also very much exacerbated the alienation between Haredim and secular people. A person who grew up his entire life inside a closed greenhouse in which he sees only people like himself will not stray from the norm. He will never aspire to be anything else and in this way, as a practical matter, we have helped the Haredim to be isolated from general society and from the labor market.”

This conclusion is also a recurring theme in the conclusions of the Construction Ministry team. The team may have refrained from totally ruling out the building of additional separate Haredi towns – plans for one such town, Kasif in the Negev, have been pending with planning authorities for many years – because there are Haredim who refuse to live anywhere other than in separate towns.

But the clear recommendation is that to the extent possible, the continued construction of separate ultra-Orthodox ghettos should be avoided, particularly as it relates to Kasif, which was described as “distant from any Haredi cultural center as well as from any source of employment, projecting a sense of being in a forlorn outlying area, a mistake of lasting consequences.”

The preferred solution therefore involves expanding construction as much as possible in existing ultra-Orthodox population centers, as well as building Haredi neighborhoods in cities with heterogeneous populations. Experience shows that such neighborhoods in mixed cities are an important means of encouraging closer contact between Haredim and secular Israelis, ultimately also serving to integrate ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the labor force.

A prime example of this is the Beit Ya’akov network of girls’ training schools. At the more isolated Beit Ya’akov schools in Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit, the students’ curriculum does not prepare them to take the matriculation exams that are a prerequisite for higher education. But at the Beit Ya’akov schools in the Hadar Ganim neighborhood of the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva and in Haredi neighborhoods of Haifa, they do, as is also true in Ashdod.

When the Haredi community is settled within a heterogeneous city, it has a positive impact on employment, sources involved in the subject say. Those who are exposed to the outside world, where people seek employment, are attracted to do so themselves.

There are three major obstacles to such an approach, however. There is the legal issue involved in marketing a neighborhood solely to Haredi buyers, which raises the specter of discrimination. The release of the Construction Ministry’s report has been delayed for months over legal sensitivities, but apparently a solution has been found.

The solution involves marketing efforts that are adapted to Haredi needs but still provide the opportunity to secular buyers to purchase in the neighborhood if they wish. Secular Israelis generally shy away from living as a minority in an ultra-Orthodox community, but it does happen.

In the north, efforts to market the new town of Harish as an ultra-Orthodox community failed after less fervently religious and secular Israelis submitted bids and competed with Haredi bidders for the opportunity to live there. Ultimately Harish has become a heterogeneous community and of the small number of Haredim who managed to buy there, many are now seeking to leave. Another problem with building ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in mixed cities is that the Haredim themselves do not always find the approach acceptable, particularly among the most fervent of them.

And finally, there is the fact that many secular Israelis also don’t welcome the approach. Mayors of secular towns have objected vehemently to the introduction of ultra-Orthodox populations in their cities, for two reasons. An impression has developed of ultra-Orthodox residents taking over neighborhoods and imposing their lifestyles on the remaining secular residents. Haredim are also frequently perceived as being poor, therefore contributing little to a city’s economy (and paying reduced municipal tax rates if they indeed are poor). On the other hand, they are seen as requiring cities to spend a lot on educating and providing other public services for them.

The Construction Ministry is counselling overcoming such resistance, even by force. If a mayor were to say that he was unwilling to accept Ethiopian residents in his city, he would be decried as a racist, members of the team say, but similar resistance to Haredim is considered legitimate due to public attitudes. Haredim should live all over Israel, members of the team say, in accordance with their 15% share of the population. If Ashkelon, for example, is planning the construction of 30,000 housing units, why shouldn’t a few thousand of them be set aside for ultra-Orthodox residents, the team members ask, to be built in neighborhoods of their own?

Integration rather than seclusion

The goal, say those involved in the issue, is to bring the ultra-Orthodox population into the country’s social contract, and that requires getting them out of their own ghettos so they can develop connections with secular Israelis. Much of this will happen in outlying parts of the country, where housing is cheaper and there are larger tracts of available land, but the experts say ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the center of the country that would accommodate more well-to-do residents are also a possibility.

What is now required, say those involved, is a change that will bring about integration between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis rather than their isolation from one another. What began as an effort to address city planning requirements when it comes to housing could become something bigger, involving the social integration of segments of the Israeli population, which in turn could encourage a greater willingness in the Haredi community to enter the labor force.

A major question is whether the Haredim are ready for such a shift, and an even bigger one is if secular Israelis also are.