Analysis from Israel

Reading the Israeli headlines lately, one can see why many American Jews are convinced that ultra-Orthodox extremism is getting worse. On Monday, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties got the coalition to pass legislation barring non-Orthodox converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions; earlier this month, the Haredi-dominated rabbinical courts refused to recognize conversions by an esteemed American Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein; and for months now, the Haredi parties have blocked implementation of Natan Sharansky’s sensible compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall. Yet to look only at these headlines is to miss a crucial part of the story: Younger Haredim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.

Let’s start with work. Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time. But the proportion of Haredi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year, it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent, and the government hopes to raise it to 63 percent by 2020.

As for Haredi women, anyone who thinks they’re confined to the kitchen is way behind the times. Last year, 73.1 percent of Haredi women worked, up from 61.5 percent just five years earlier; that’s already far above the government’s target of 63 percent by 2020. And since the Haredi community can’t provide enough jobs for all these women, they are increasingly integrated into the broader economy, including high-tech. This obviously entails more contact with non-Haredim.

New attitudes toward work are also influencing a new generation of Haredi politicians. Today’s Haaretz has a fascinating profile of Yisrael Porush, the 36-year-old mayor of the Haredi city of Elad, whose father and grandfather were prominent Knesset members and deputy ministers. The elder Porushes focused on traditional Haredi concerns. But the young mayor has a different goal: In the words of reporter Meirav Arlosoroff, it’s “for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work.” To this end, he has not only brought business ventures like a software development center into town, but has negotiated agreements with two neighboring local governments–a secular Jewish one and an Arab one–to create joint industrial parks.

On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of Haredim in college jump by 83 percent, to 11,000, from 2011-2015, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing.

You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the older generation of politicians: On Sunday, at the Haredi parties’ behest, the coalition agreed to repeal a law imposing financial penalties on Haredi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum.

But the next day, the Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Haredi girls’ schools already do. Another 10 percent would consider this option. Moreover, the article noted, the number of Haredi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.

The survey also lends credence to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s claim that coercive legislation isn’t necessary to solve the secular studies problem. Helping other such schools get started, instead of putting obstacles in their way, might be equally if not more effective.

On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 Haredim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all Haredi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher: In Porush’s Elad, about 40 percent of men do army service.

Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling. As Rachel Levmore, a member of the government panel that appoints rabbinical court judges, noted recently, until this month, Israel’s highest rabbinical court had never included a judge who served in the army. But following this month’s round of appointments, fully half its judges are now veterans, including two Sephardi Haredim and one Ashkenazi Haredi. The latter is particularly noteworthy because army service is much less common among Ashkenazi Haredim.

As Levmore wrote, these appointments send an important message: Army service no longer disqualifies Haredim for prominent rabbinical positions. Today, you can serve and still be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, with the unanimous approval of a panel that includes the Haredi chief rabbis and a Haredi Knesset member.

Admittedly, these changes in Haredi society won’t lead to changes in attitude at the top anytime soon. The leading Haredi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create “new Jews” in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.

But younger Haredim grew up in a very different world–one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome Haredim without trying to make them stop being Haredi. Consequently, this generation feels less threatened by the secular world; it’s confident of its ability to work, attend college and even do army service without losing its Haredi identity.

Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting. And therefore, the headlines of recent months are misleading: Developments in Haredi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.

Originally published in Commentary on July 27, 2016

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‘We need to talk’ about the role of non-Orthodox movements

The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

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