October 3, 2005

Israel urges ultra-Orthodox Jews to work

By Steven Silber

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Dudi Zilbershlag is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who wears the beard, black coat and skullcap of a community steeped in centuries of tradition.

A key difference between him and most of the hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews -- or haredim -- in Israel is that Zilbershlag, a consultant and newspaper publisher, works.

More than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox adults in the country do not work, says the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and 55 percent of the community of up to 800,000 lives below the poverty line.

Government subsidies, especially for child care, and a fear army service will erode their way of life have kept many haredim studying Judaism's holy books full time, even though their cousins outside the Jewish state work.

Their absence from the army can isolate them and prevent them from integrating fully into the workforce.

"When we didn't have our own country almost all the haredim had to have an occupation. The rabbis in the Talmud were shoemakers and farmers and blacksmiths, because they needed to have a livelihood," said Shlomo Maital, academic director of the Technion School of Management in Tel Aviv.

"Now that we have our own country and a welfare state, the welfare state is regarded by them as something that should support all haredim rather than just a tiny select few."

Maital said if groups such as the haredim, handicapped people and students worked, Israel could add another $12 billion to its 2004 gross domestic product of $122 billion.

Zilbershlag said he works partly because his father, a Holocaust survivor, believed one should give what one could to the country and serve in the army. "That enabled me to be part of the creative workforce, and had I not had my army experience, I would not have had those opportunities."

But many traditionally insular haredim fear the secular atmosphere in the military. Even Zilbershlag cringes at the language they use there and the fact that in Israel women serve -- a practice the haredim oppose.


The biggest bone of contention between the haredim and the millions of secular Israelis is probably the tax money that goes to a community that largely does not work or serve in the army.

Momi Dahan, an economist at Hebrew University's School of Public Policy, found that well over half of average haredi household income a decade ago came from government transfers.

The government has since cut child allowances, a move that has capped budget deficits and hit communities with big families like the haredim and Israeli Arabs, who number more than 1 million out of a total population of more than 6 million.

Benefits to large families are gradually being cut by as much as around 70 percent, while funds for large yeshivas -- traditional Jewish religious schools -- are falling 40 percent.

A secular party called Shinui, or change, has made a career out of campaigning to lower haredi entitlements. Many Israelis also regret the ultra-Orthodox community's role in providing the votes that have, through the years, enabled the leading party after an election to form a coalition government.

"Basically they sit on the fence and can decide whether it's going to be right this time or left this time," said Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University.

"One of the biggest decisions this country has made is to pull out of Gaza, and these guys are neutral, 'just keep our school system out of it and we don't care what you do in Gaza.'

"That political clout, though, is hurting their voters, because these guys are living pretty much in abject poverty," he said, arguing that the haredi school system did not provide students with a "basic toolbox" for life.


Economists say Israel should require haredi children to study more of subjects such as mathematics and English. This would augment skills gained from bible study.

"We're not talking about a culture of ignorance," said Ben-David.

"It's a culture of study, and if their education stops at the 8th grade (13-14 years old), you don't need four extra years of school to give them what they lack," he said.

"They have study habits that our kids don't."

Many young haredim, including women, who have ventured into the working world have succeeded in computer programming.

Ben-David said haredi communities such as the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem could become Israel's answer to India's Bangalore, where many international companies have placed operations such as call centers to lower costs.

"The moment you have (Internet) broadband, and the moment these guys have the basic tools -- they know English, they know how to use computers -- they can sit within their own community, even in their own house in most cases, and you can build them all kinds of access to the outer world," said Ben-David.

The JDC launched a vocational training program for the haredim in 1996, allowing married students of the Torah, the Jewish sacred teachings, to study the holy books by day and receive job training in the evening.

The budget cuts boosted interest. Amir Ben-Zvi, a project manager for haredi employment at the JDC, said 2,500 ultra-Orthodox from around Jerusalem came to a recent jobs market.

Many working ultra-Orthodox find they can support their families and still follow the prophet Micah in the Bible, who said one should "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (hatznea lechet) with your God."

Ben-Zvi tells of a student who remodeled the data management program for Elta Electronics Industries.

"He didn't change his way of life and he's still hatznea lechet."