The Quiet Haredi Revolution

Significant changes are taking place in Haredi society as younger members claim the right to choose how to live their lives and seek to build bridges beyond the community.

With the public storm over the Plesner Committee’s recommendations, it seems that under the surface, the Haredi street is starting to wage an internal battle over its image. On one side is the traditional conservative faction, which wants to keep things as they are and opposes modernization even within permitted boundaries. On the other side is an increasing number of those who advocate involvement in all aspects of life in Israel.

The accomplishments of this group, such as the Haredi Nahal battalion, the Haredi Campus at Ono Academic College and the establishment of six yeshiva high schools, are indications of the changing tides.

Now, the young rebels seek to translate their hitherto suppressed aspirations into political power. The Haredi Tov movement, which advocates the integration of Torah study with work, education and military service, and whose members are described mockingly as “the blue-shirts,” is gathering strength.

For major Haredi elected officials such as Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman, who represent the conservative Haredi establishment, this struggle is much more significant than the silly argument over the Haredi draft. For them, the real danger is the rise of an alternative to the United Torah Judaism faction, which could pull the rug out from under their feet and prove that there is legitimate leadership in the Haredi community besides their own.

In closed talks, the leaders of the anti-establishment Tov movement, the foe of United Torah Judaism, say that in the upcoming municipal elections, they will run their own candidates for mayor of Jerusalem and the Elad city council. They may also run candidates in other Haredi cities. Their appetites have grown since they took the municipalities of Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit by surprise. The old-time Haredi establishment sees these new Haredim as a real threat – not only because they fear losing votes, but mainly because Tov is so popular with young Haredim.

In a certain sense, the popularity of this movement of young Haredim draws its strength from simple human motives. In Haredi society of the 21st century, more and more calls are being made for change and for a deep examination of the community’s priorities vis-à-vis the outside world, which is changing at an extremely rapid pace.

The recognition that there is no one true way, and that there is more than one legitimate path, is slowly trickling into the Haredi world. This means that parents can enroll their sons in Haredi yeshiva high schools where pupils study for the matriculation examinations. If they want to attend yeshiva after graduation, they can. If they want to study at a Haredi college and learn an honorable trade, they can. That, too, is legitimate. If they want to join the army, they will come back as heroes, not as outcasts.

Today, almost no alternative exists for young Haredim who choose anything other than the conventional yeshiva track. In order to create such alternatives, the demand is growing to include secular studies (those subjects that are called “core subjects,” censored to a certain extent in order to prevent conflict with Haredi values) in the curriculum.

Young members of the Haredi sector believe that the horizons of their education can be broadened and a variety of professional options opened to them that will save them and their families from poverty and its accompanying pressures. They also agree that anyone who does not see Torah study as their main purpose in life, or is not capable of staying in yeshiva indefinitely, should be drafted. They know that military service not only gives them opportunities in schooling, higher education and jobs, it also helps them build bridges between the Haredi world and the secular world – bridges that many young Haredi people are interested in building.

In addition, the new movement is trying to establish the legitimate status of the younger age cohort, whose members want to join the work force. They believe that this cohort will grow over the next decade, and that a warm welcome from both sides – the secular community and the public at large – will not only enable them to prosper, but will also change the face of Haredi society.

The major problem they face is that the concept of “independent thought” still causes anxiety in many circles within the Lithuanian Haredi community. For many years, all segments of the community have been governed by uniform thinking, with no “creative initiatives.” In the old world, before World War II, the concept of “collective thinking” was closely tied to the concept of survival. The major goal was to keep themselves separate, be different and put up walls that prevented the entry of alien influences.

The idea of remaining separate took hold in the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem and also in Tiberias, Safed, Hebron and later in the city of Bnei Brak (which will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of its establishment in 2014, believe it or not). But now, the young people understand that this is no longer necessary.

This is why the necessary changes taking place in Haredi society happening at the deepest levels. For the first time, a group of young people is getting up and saying for all to hear: “We will keep studying Torah and observing religious precepts, but at the same time we will make personal decisions that are appropriate for our lifestyle, ourselves and our families. Being drafted into the IDF is not a default choice but instead a worthy act in and of itself. Just give us the right to choose.”

David Zoldan, a Haredi journalist and the author of the book The Yarmulke and the Helmet: The Story of the First Ultra-Orthodox Army Unit, was a member of the first group to serve in the Nahal Haredi battalion.