Eat, Pray, Work: More and More ultra-Orthodox Jewish Men Dare to Work

As a growing number of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox men are employed, religious leaders are pushing back against the stigma they face

The conference in Jerusalem.
Yossi Rosenbaum

He stood at the podium in his suit and fedora. Behind him on the stage sat more than a dozen senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis; facing him was an audience of over 2,000 men who listened to him eagerly. It was a gathering in the best Haredi tradition, except for one thing: its content.

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“The working man needs the avrekh [full-time yeshiva student] and the avrekh needs the working man — and I’m not talking about from a financial perspective, but from an ethical perspective,” the speaker said decisively to the audience at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma). “There are more than 60,000 working Haredi men. That’s a fact. More than 10,000 study in academia, and that’s also a fact. We can decide to ignore them or we can relate to them.”

The speaker is Rabbi David Leibel. He’s 64, a Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Haredi, who heads 10 kollels (yeshivas for married men) and is the founder of the Achvat Torah organization. The name might make it sound like just another Haredi Torah institution, but that’s not the case. This organization champions not only religious study, but also work — the daily, material kind — and promotes the combination of the two as an ideal. Achvat Torah runs a network of religious study programs for Haredi men who work.

Proportion of ultra-Orthodox men who work

As Leibel said in his address, this change hasn’t come about ex nihilo. In recent years the number of Haredi men working has been increasing steadily and stands at around 80,000 (only a decade ago the number was estimated at 38,000). This phenomenon is no longer a marginal one in this community; it has become mainstream, with more than 50 percent of Haredi men in Israel currently employed.

>> Behind the sudden and surprising decline of ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel | Analysis

Slowly this is becoming more than a reality to be grudgingly accepted, it is also being acknowledged by Haredi rabbinic figures. “This is the first time that someone in the Haredi community has dared to do something like this, to publicly challenge the most important Haredi consensus — Torah study above everything,” a senior figure in the United Torah Judaism party told Haaretz. “There has never been someone who has swept up thousands of people from the central stream [of Haredi society] and gave full legitimacy to going out to work as an agenda, an ideal.” Although this senior politician opposes Leibel’s agenda, he recognizes the changes taking place.

“He revived us; he lifted us into the air,” says E., a working Haredi man from Petah Tikva who was at the Jerusalem event. “It’s the first time that there’s someone who’s come and said to us that we’re equals, that we’re not second-rate.”

Shmuel Drilman, CEO and founder of the digital advertising firm Webetter, with employees.
Olivier Fitoussi

This declaration — that the working man and the full-time yeshiva student are equals — is indeed a revolutionary notion in the Haredi world. “This was truly a seminal event,” said one participant at the Jerusalem gathering. “I felt the revolution in the air. I knew Rabbi Leibel before this, but to say these things in front of thousands of people and in front of the rabbis without flinching — as far as I know this is the first time a Haredi rabbi has said these things.”

But this isn’t just a statement. “Achvat Torah sets out an ideological platform that gives legitimacy to working men out of belief in the justness of this path, out of solid ideology,” says Shmuel Drilman, CEO and founder of the digital advertising firm Webetter, who studies in an Achvat Torah kollel. “Not only that it’s okay, but that it’s the right way. This is a sane voice that hasn’t been heard for years. This legitimacy was so lacking for the working man.”

Second-class Haredim

These developments are not passing under anyone’s radar; that simply isn’t possible — not just because of the phenomenon’s extent, but because Haredi leaders attended the Jerusalem event. Among them were Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the head of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, and Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery.

Cohen listened to what Leibel had to say, but decidedly did not agree. “You have to say, ‘I’m miserable about working,’” he told the audience. “Your son has to hear you say you’re miserable to be working. Someone whose son works is miserable. When a man has a son he must aspire for him to be a Torah giant. If you lead him to think anything else, you’re miserable. Anyone who decides to be like the tribe of Levy, to sit and toil in Torah all day, God will provide him everything he needs.”

These remarks were a disappointment to the working Haredim at the assembly.

“Rabbi Leibel’s words were amazing, they brought us to new heights, and then came [Rabbi Shalom Cohen] and dropped us back onto the ground,” said E. “He reminded us that we are still second-class in Haredi society. On the one hand, he came and honored the event with his presence, but on the other hand, he said what he said.”

Rabbi David Leibel at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center.
Yossi Rosenbaum

But perhaps the emphasis should be not on what Cohen said, but the fact that he came at all. Even though he opposes Leibel’s ideas, he didn’t boycott the event and in some respect may have even given tacit approval to discussing an issue that until recently had been taboo.

In the days that followed the event in Jerusalem, Achvat Torah was a hot topic in the Haredi community. After the event, the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman published an editorial slamming the attempt to equate Haredim who work with those in yeshiva. The editorial said that there’s no problem with work in and of itself, so long as a person retains his Haredi lifestyle and outlook, but making work an ideal is unacceptable. “There are those ... who want to blur the difference and the gap between those who study Torah [full-time] and those who [merely] make time for Torah and to reduce the aspirations of those who work to study day and night.”

That last is an interesting point, since Achvat Torah’s activities include evening yeshiva-style learning frameworks for working Haredim that strengthen the commitment to religion and Torah study among those who left the yeshiva for the workforce and missed the atmosphere they’d left behind.

Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute notes that those who are studying in Achvat Torah frameworks are facilitating the historic change the Haredi community is experiencing. “What makes it even more acceptable is the fact that the working men are also learning; this makes the change easier to swallow,” he said.

Seven years after its founding, Achvat Torah has been growing at a dizzying pace, with some 2,500 men studying in its programs. The Jerusalem event was in many ways a show of its strength.

Still, the hierarchy in Haredi society remains and families headed by working men still pay a price. Some Haredi schools will refuse to accept children whose fathers are working. “Even if theoretically there is superiority to ‘Tribe of Levy’ — those who learn full-time — practically speaking they keep on hearing that they’re better and this gives them legitimacy to discriminate against those who work,” explains Drilman. “That’s why there’s an option not to accept our children, because we are considered inferior.”

What are the chances of this social movement becoming some kind of Haredi political movement? “If Rabbi Leibel starts a political framework, I’ll be the first to join,” says one man who studies in an Achvat Torah program.

Others aren’t so sure. “I don’t see Rabbi Leibel as my [spiritual] leader,” said another participant. “If it turns into something political I will have to consult with the rabbis. I respect Rabbi Leibel very much, he is making an important revolution, he gets tremendous credit. But I will still act only in accordance with the instructions of the public’s leaders.”

Malach thinks that in the end, it doesn’t really matter. “Even if this doesn’t turn into a political party, the Haredi political system won’t be able to ignore them. They will turn into a significant force — working men who are Haredi in every way — and their interests will need to be addressed.”