The Israel Air Force's project to enlist the ultra-Orthodox began five years ago with 40 recruits. Today the project has also been taken up by the Navy, Military Intelligence, Technological and Logistics Directorate and the Communications Directorate - and the number of Haredi recruits has reached 1,650.
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The program is called Shahar Kahol, Shahar being an acronym for "service for Haredim," and is part of the Tevet - Fighting Poverty Through Employment initiative, run by the state and American Joint Distribution Committee.
The Haredi participants' motivation to go on for officer's training is the highest of all groups in the Israel Defense Forces - 60%, according to Air Force research.
In the last three years almost 600 participants have finished their service and left the IDF, and the data on their subsequent careers is remarkable: Some 84% remained in the professional army or found jobs with large Israeli employers, including Iscar, Teva, Bank Hapoalim and various high-tech firms. Another 5% continued on to complete their university studies. Only 9% have yet to start working and 2% returned to study in yeshiva.
Prof. Yossi Tamir, who has been Tevet's director for almost seven years and previously was director general of the National Insurance Institute, spoke to TheMarker about integrating Haredim into the workforce, and about the weakening of the relationship between work and escaping poverty.
"The main challenge for the Tevet program is to integrate Haredim into the world of work in society at large, not a [narrow] sectoral world," he said. "Until just 15 years ago, the rate of participation of Haredim in the workforce was higher than today, but a large proportion of them worked in the Haredi-religious sector, for example in teaching religious services. In one of our training programs, Haredim study to be lifeguards and instructors at therapeutic pools. How is that possible? Because today Haredim also go to therapeutic pools. They are integrating into the overall life of the country." Tamir said another of Tevet's challenges is to help Haredim enter the workforce after military service and still remain Haredim.
"In all the programs we have created, the key phrase is: 'We will help you to preserve your Haredi lifestyle,'" said Tamir. "We show them this horizon from the beginning. There are Haredim who come to our programs and say that because of their military service, they have even become closer to the Haredi world. I see that as an advantage: To lead the process we must remove their fear that they will leave the Haredi world."
He says it is impossible to use employment as a means of changing the Haredim's lifestyles, and that at any rate, this is not the program's goal.
"They are undergoing a social change, but the goal is first for them to integrate into the employment market, contribute to economic growth and turn from an economic problem to a solution," he says. "The social change will happen by itself, but that is not our goal. "Yet when they work in the various programs with another population, they learn to know them and they open up," Tamir continued. "The best example is the Shahar program, where we bring them to work with the general population."
He noted that when Haredim are enlisted as a group, they are very insistent on maintaining their customs at work. "On the other hand, when they are in the workplace as individuals, they still do not give up their customs, but they are willing to compromise on things they would not have compromised in a group," says Tamir. "A haredi man in the workplace will work with women in the same place. He won't eat non-kosher food, or won't eat in a place that is not glatt kosher, but he won't care about spending time in a place where a non-religious person is eating non-kosher. That is already a big change."
Tamir said he has gotten cooperation from a large number of Haredi leaders who agree that this is the way for the community to move forward. For example, they allow Tevet to advertise in ultra-Orthodox newspapers. The Haredi sector has become more exposed to the outside world in the last 10 years, but since the public debate over the Tal Law on drafting Haredim began, there has been a drop in the number of Haredim applying to Tevet.
"A few days ago I heard of someone who was attacked because he was joining the Nahal Haredi [IDF infantry battalions for Haredim]," said Tamir. "They set fire to the branch of the [Haredi employment program] office in Beit Shemesh, and they are putting up posters against what they see as an attempt by the Israeli government, in cooperation with others, to take the Haredi yeshiva student out of the world of Torah and put him in the outside world in an inappropriate manner. This is an extreme example [of Haredi reactions]."
But Haredim who have come out against such employment are the same ones who say they can't make ends meet and have no money to support their families, said Tamir, adding: "In the end, the protest posters are good for us. It's like advertising."
Eight months ago, 5,000 Haredim showed up for a job fair in Beit Shemesh, and hundreds have come to other Tevet events - with the support fo their rabbis, said Tamir. Things have changed in the last seven or eight years, he concluded: Once Haredi soldiers took off their uniforms on the bus before coming home; now they walk about their neighborhoods freely in uniform.