Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

There seems to be a quiet revolution taking place among Israel's Charedim. Has the pendulum begun to swing back to normalcy? Only time will tell if this new phenomenon will change the current paradigm

Those who read this blog regularly know my view on this subject.

The very idea that one should opt for a job instead of learning full time has been anathema in the Charedi world. The thrust of Charedi education in Israel (and increasingly in some of the more right wing segments of American Charedi society) is that Learning Torah full time is an imperative. To that end their educational system indoctrinates each student to place value only on Torah subjects. Anything else has been considered a waste of time at best and forbidden at worst.

So aside from some basic math Charedim learn in elementary school there are no other secular subjects taught. High school consists literally of Torah only, mostly in the form of Gemarah and Meforshim. Post high school that trend continues and intensifies. There is no preparation at all for the workplace anywhere along the line in any way. Nothing. Zero. Nada.

Exacerbated by refusal to serve in the armed forces – from which they are exempted by law - the result is that this relatively intelligent and capable group of people has the highest poverty rate in Israel. A staggering 59% of Charedim live below the poverty line.

What makes this statistic even more amazing is the obvious fact that they are poor by choice. Although I question whether they really do have a choice since they are indoctrinated to see working people as second class citizens. The psychological pressure to remain in the Beis HaMedrash full time for as long as possible from the Charedi rabbinic leadership, and the peer pressure that accompanies it makes opting for the workplace very difficult for them even after spending many years in a Kollel.

I have always advocated a paradigm change. I have applauded efforts by the Israeli government to introduce minimal secular studies into the Charedi educational system – futile though hey may have been.  Rabbinic leaders had always stridently rejected those efforts seeing them as insidious “anti Torah” efforts to undermine Judaism itself.

To be fair, some Rabbanim in Charedi establishment in Israel have quietly been encouraging  “full timers”  indicating an interest in joining the workforce- to get the training needed to get those jobs.  Although it seeem like it has only been done a case by case basis, the paradigm of learning full time at all costs seems to be shifting a bit. 

To that end Charedi rabbinic leaders (like R’ Aharon Leib Steinman) have supported new Charedi oriented programs like the (now defunct) Tal Law and Nachal Charedi. Programs have been developed specifically for army service and to train Charedim for the current job market. While this change is still in its infancy it seems to be taking root. An article in The Times of Israel has made an observation that is illustrative of that fact:

Employment among haredi men rose from 33% in 2002 to 42% in 2010, and is expected to continue rising. Among women, too, employment rose from 48% to 55% in the same period.

This rise in employment was accompanied by a steep rise in unemployment (measured by) those who are looking for work… The demand for jobs among haredi men grew even faster than the increasing number who found jobs in an expanding job market. More haredim now work, and more want to work, than at any time in the recent past. (And) more haredim are turning to higher education than ever before. 

In recent years, three publicly-funded and several private institutions of higher education have opened in Israel that are run by haredim for haredim, including the Haredi College of Jerusalem, the Bnei Brak Haredi College and others. 

Where just a few hundred haredi students attended Israel’s colleges and universities a decade ago, today some 6,000 are enrolled in recognized institutions of higher learning. More than 1,100 are studying to become engineers. Studies (have) found that almost 74% of haredim are interested in non-religious higher education.

If these figures are accurate, this is a very encouraging sign. That said I believe that we still have a long way to go. As I keep saying - it would help tremendously if the Charedi establishment would adopt the American Charedi model of injecting some basic secular studies into their high schools. Although that paradigm is in fact eroding in America as new Yeshivos seem to be popping up that have eliminated secular studies, the majority of mainstream Charedi high schools in America still offer a secular studies program – including Telshe, and Lakewood affiliated ‘Philly’.

Unfortunately I don’t see that kind of paradigm shift happening in Israel. Nonetheless this new trend is an encouraging sign.

A fringe benefit of this new phenomenon pointed out in this article is that the isolationist populations like Meah Shearim and Ramat Bet Shemesh B are becoming marginalized. And as suggested: “haredi extremists are becoming violent precisely because they are losing their battle against modernity.

They are fighting back via their extremists - trying to maintain their isolationist way of life. While these populations are not of the “learning full time or bust’ mentality and actually do encourage working, they do not encourage getting educated for it, thus leaving their members unable to compete for better, higher paying jobs. Except for the entrepreneurs among them, my guess is their poverty level will continue at about the same rate – or increase as their numbers increase.

Is their stridency the ‘storm before the calm’? I hope so. If there is to be any real chance of that it would be helpful if the mainstream Charedim stopped defending their values as they reject their extremists. It is bad enough that their own members defend their extremists even if they do not themselves participate in it. That mainstream Charedim defend the motives of these extremists as well is not helpful.

I believe that these isolationist communities are intransigent. They will never waver from their isolationist approach to Judaism. The will never as a group opt for higher education of any kind that will help them improve their incomes – even as mainstream Charedi population begins to thaw out of that mentality and out of poverty.

What does the future hold? What will the overall Charedi world in Israel look like a few years from now? I don’t know.  The Edah HaCharedis / Meah Shearim crowd will continue to increase in size by virtue of their high birth rate. But at least for the current mainstream Charedi population – there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel.