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The Plight of Those Who Leave the ultra-Orthodox Fold

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Haredim studying high-tech at the company Ravtech in December 2013. Credit: Eyal Toueg

In this column last week (“Counting slices of bread,” Oct. 18), I wrote about the cruelty of government ministries, whose actions harm a group they should in fact be promoting and glorifying. I call this group “those opting for freedom,” namely, some 1,200 young people who leave the Haredi fold every year. I recounted the poverty from which they suffer; the abuse they endure at the hands of the Economy and Industry Ministry, the indifference of the Finance Ministry that does not help them; and the story of a mother who counts slices of bread every morning so she will have enough to feed her son during the day.

The Israel Defense Forces are acting improperly too. If you are ultra-Orthodox and willing to serve, the army will give you the entire world. Out of three years of compulsory service (in special units and programs such as the Haredi Nahal battalion and others), you will serve only two years, and one year will be devoted to professional training and education at the army’s expense. That is wonderful. It is a great investment, but why do only Haredim deserve it? Why not those opting for freedom?

A person opting for freedom who wants to enlist in the military will face a cold shoulder and alienation. They will be drafted into regular service for three years, in the simplest positions, without the possibility of becoming an officer. After all, they received a low score on the entrance tests, because they did not learn anything for 18 years. In comparison, their Haredi friend will enlist in the Haredi Nahal battalion or the Shahar program (in which they learn technological skills) without any need for the entrance exams. As a result, they can also become officers. Once again we witness the double discrimination directed at those who opt for freedom. The system does not allow them to advance within the army, and also deprives them of the possibility of a year of education and training enjoyed by Haredim who enlist.

Recently, the IDF’s Manpower Directorate has begun to recognize the remarkable potential present in those opting for freedom, and has begun to think about how to provide encouragement and support. But the military has a department for “integrating Haredim,” which places sticks in the spokes of every such attempt. The result: Nothing changes.

Similar discrimination exists in the area of education as well. Today, Haredim who want to obtain a college education receive it almost for free. The government even gives them a monthly “subsistence allowance.” In comparison, those opting for freedom do not receive anything. They even need to pay for their studies themselves and work at the same time, in order to subsist.

The Council for Higher Education claims that it grants special budgets for institutions that accept students who studied in a Haredi high school, irrespective of whether or not they remained ultra-Orthodox. That’s nice in theory, but in reality it doesn’t mean much. That’s because the institutions that have opened such programs are Haredi and their programs are intended exclusively for Haredim. The first such course for those opting for freedom, given by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, opened its doors just a year— and two more colleges have since followed suit. But this is just a drop in the bucket, given the great demand.

In addition, the Finance Ministry subsidizes the cost of Haredi pre-military academies, but not the cost of pre-military academies intended for those opting for freedom. What chutzpah!

The treasury does not support the three nonprofit organizations that help those opting for freedom either. In short, the treasury acts only when it is under political pressure, but those opting for freedom have no lobby and no party, so the Finance Ministry discriminates against them.

Why do new immigrants receive a handsome absorption basket of benefits, while those opting for freedom do not? After all, theirs is an internal migration that is even more difficult than making aliyah to Israel.

What’s more, the government caused this injustice in the first place by not requiring the core curriculum to be taught in Haredi schools. Therefore, the government must fix what it broke by giving those opting for freedom free preparatory programs for free degrees, free tutoring sessions, free student dorms and monthly living allowances.

Yes, this is the best investment there is. Everyone opting for freedom will become a productive citizen, raising a generation of working individuals, who will in turn boost economic production. So it is hard to understand why Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his staff are not bothering to scoop up this incredible resource, the equivalent of stacks of gold bullion, piled on the floor right there in front of them. Wake up already!

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