The ultra-Orthodox Can't All Study All the Time

The ultra-Orthodox community is starting to grasp that some of them have to work. Donors giving scholarships are proving key to change.

It is difficult to isolate the cause of historic processes; but in this case, it may have all started with a single three-page fax letter, sent from Israel in 2004 to the Haredi businessman, Albert Dov Friedberg, of Toronto. Friedberg owns the Friedberg Mercantile Group, and had already donated considerable amounts of money to Jewish projects and Haredi yeshivas. But that fax opened his eyes to a new target - Haredim who want academic education.

Haredi men with computers- Alex Levac
Alex Levac

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The fax had come from a young resident of Jerusalem, Bezalel Cohen, whose raison d'etre was to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into academia and the workforce. Cohen had headed previously a project by the Joint, to get Haredi to work.

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"I was a little naive. I thought he'd answer me," Cohen admits. "I wanted his help to set up a Haredi journal that would discuss issues that were not being spoken about at the time."

Friedberg didn't respond - at least, not for some six months. But then the plot took a turn. "I arrived home one day and my wife told me that somebody called Friedberg had been looking for me," Cohen says.

The two arranged to meet at the David Citadel Hotel, where Cohen told him about the journal he had in mind. Nothing came of it at the time; Friedberg wanted other donors on board. Evidently, however, he didn't forget the Jerusalemite idealist.

"One day, Professor Amiram Gonen of the Geography Faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told me he was visiting his son in Toronto," Cohen says. "I asked him to meet with Friedberg and remind him of the project."

Gonen, for his part, had gone to no small effort in the past to integrate Haredim into Hebrew University. He made some calls and was rewarded with a 15-minute meeting with Friedberg, between an international call and the mincha prayer.

During those 15 minutes, Gonen tried to win Friedberg over to another project entirely - scholarships for Haredi students. Although Gonen hadn't thought the idea through, his plea worked. Friedberg, himself a product of Jewish and academic studies, having graduated from a yeshiva and in possession of a doctorate too, donated $30,000.

They can't all study

Gonen took the money to the Open University ("no need for psychometric testing" ), which added $30,000 of its own. Thus, in 2005, some 120 Haredi yeshiva students found themselves walking through the door to the world of Israeli academia.

So why is this achievement so astonishing?

To recap history, decades ago, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion set a precedent that kept Haredi men who chose to continue religious studies out of the labor market. Nor did Haredi schools teach the basic skills, such as English and mathematics, that one needs in the modern workforce. This state of affairs was bad for the Haredi community, today the poorest in Israel; and it was bad for Israeli productivity.

Theoretically, the Haredi men have to pay for their religious schooling. But if they don't have the wherewithal, the state provides support, anywhere from NIS 800 to NIS 2,000 a month, explains Reuven Gal, head of a project to integrate Haredim at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Beyond that state support, the yeshivas generally have their own resources to provide the young men with financial assistance.

Yet bit by bit, even in the Haredi community, the understanding crept in that the system of everybody studying and nobody working was unsustainable.

The first sign was the The Haredi Center for Technological Studies in Israel, located in Bnei Brak, and founded in 1996 by the late Rabbi Avraham Fuss. It trained the ultra-Orthodox in non-academic professions. (The organization defines its mission as "to create a professional framework to allow those men in the Haredi community that want to learn a trade, to do so in a fitting atmosphere whilst at the same time maintaining their Talmudic studies." ) The center holds courses for women in the morning and for men in the afternoon.

"It came first," says Bezalel Cohen.

In the 2000s, the center received accreditation to grant academic certificates, as did the Haredi College of Jerusalem, founded by Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and catering at the time only to women. The government helped finance the establishment and operation of these projects but did not fund scholarships. Later, the Ono Academic College set up a campus for Haredim, with hundreds of students at the time.

Those years also featured heavy cuts to child allowances, which hit the Haredi households hard, causing them to seek alternative sources of sustenance. Yet it cannot be said that the Haredim sought education in their thousands.

"The ones who did go study in those years were mainly the well-to-do who could afford it," says Gonen. Ordinary Haredim didn't have the wherewithal for tuition. "Like the other poor in Israel, the Haredim couldn't get into university because they couldn't afford it," he says.

Haredi philanthropists in Israel came to the rescue. They understood that to make a 180-degree turn and devote three or four years to studying a profession to make a living in dignity, yeshiva students who had relied on others for their livelihood would need incentives, Friedberg was the first to address the issue, but others followed his lead.

Today, the picture is completely different. A recent Bank of Israel report discloses that the number of Haredi students, male and female, rose from 2,000 in 2005 to 6,000 in 2010. Most of the increase was among men, who comprise 42% of ultra-Orthodox students. That is a drop in the sea compared with the number of Haredim who do not seek training and elect to continue Torah studies their entire lives: 60,000 obtained army deferments because of religious studies. But there is the scent of change in the air.

No more schnorring

In 2007, the Kemach Foundation ("Promoting Haredi Employment" ) was founded. Its purpose is to help Haredi students sustain themselves in dignity. Behind Kemach stands philanthropist Leo Noe, owner of British company Reit Asset Management. He also invests in Israeli real estate, and earlier this year sold the controlling interest in his company, British Israel, to the Ofer family company, Melisron. Noe was asked by the Open University to help finance a project to integrate Haredi students. But he decided to take on the issue more massively and established the foundation of his own.

Other Haredi donors joined forces with him, including Zev Wolfson, founder of the software house, Ness Technologies. They added heavily to the Kemach Foundation resources (all this beyond the NIS 12 million donation the Wolfson Foundation gave to fund Haredi scholarships at the Ono Academic College, not through Kemach ). They were also joined by Brazilian billionaire Elie Horn.

The Kemach Foundation has given about 4,500 scholarships to Haredi students so far, most of whom study law, business management and accounting. Some choose engineering.

The idea behind the fund is to help people who want to work, explains Yossi Deitch, chairman of the fund and deputy mayor of Jerusalem. "We want people to integrate into the workforce and earn the most pay they can, not be schnorrers. Most of the people who took jobs without training earn low pay, and continued to be needy. They couldn't keep their families afloat, but, on the other hand, they stopped receiving their various discounts and benefits, such as in city tax and daycare."

Deitch is confident that the philanthropists are the ones who caused the change. "If it had to come from the government, we'd have been waiting another 20 years," he says. "There are things the government can't do, because it takes time for it to drive processes."

It's important that the drive originates within the Haredi community, he says. "These are processes that could only be implemented by insiders who understand the heart of the Haredi yeshiva students, and not by all sorts of experts and professors coming from the outside who want to lead changes in the Haredi community," he says.

Some estimate that the Kemach Foundation's activity has reached some $20 million. Most of the financing comes from Noe, who has donated about $7 million. The rest comes from Wolfson and Horn ($2 million to $3 million each ). The government and Joint help with specific projects.

Meanwhile, Friedberg continues his own project independently, focusing on scholarships for students who choose non-religious establishments of learning. He's funded about 500 students so far.

Eitan Wertheimer, an Israeli businessman, also has a program for Haredi students called Halamish, an acronym for "Haredim studying applicable professions". These scholarships are for engineering and the sciences.

There is good reason most of the drive, however, comes from foreign donors. There, unlike in Israel, most young Haredi men don't continue to study Torah. They gain an education and go to work.

"These donors went to university and set up global businesses," Gonen says. "They think that the Israeli model of studying Torah is overdone. Sure, some students will turn into the intellectual infrastructure of the Haredi world; but all of them? That's unlikely," he concludes.

"The donations by the Kemach Foundation and Yedidut Toronto are categorically what changed the map," says Gal. "Without them, we wouldn't have 6,000 Haredi students and 7,000 next year. It simply wouldn't have happened. The Haredi yeshiva students couldn't have paid the tuition."

The impact of the philanthropic donations was palpable last month, in a lecture hall at the Haredi campus of the Ono Academic College in Or Yehuda. Hundreds of Haredi students awaited a special guest, President Shimon Peres, who came as a show of support for the program. "Integration of the Haredi men and women into the labor force is a social strategic goal for the State of Israel," Peres told them.

The Haredi students at the event related that their decision to study was made only after the means were found. "If I hadn't received a scholarship, obviously I wouldn't be here today," said Israel, a first-year law student who attended the meeting with Peres. "People here know they couldn't finance the studies alone. Without the scholarships they'd have continued on as usual, and would have had even more difficulty making a living."

Yitzhak, a former student at one of Israel's more famous yeshivas, showed even more candor. "I don't feel comfortable gaining an academic degree," he shares. "It's very opposed to everything I was brought up to believe. But at the end of the day, that's how to make a living in the future. I went for it only because my studies are paid for in full by a scholarship."