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A marker for the way forward

Ever since February 2012, when the High Court of Justice struck down the “Tal Law,” which allowed haredi men to indefinitely defer their military service, the issue of haredi integration – not only into the army but also into the workforce – has risen ever higher in the list of national priorities and in the national debate. In fact, several politicians and experts on the issue, such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, have opined that the main goal of haredi enlistment in the army is not to bolster IDF manpower, but in fact to get the ultra-Orthodox community working.

Haredi male employment is substantially lower than the national average. Data published by the Bank of Israel in 2012 showed male haredi employment at 45.6 percent, compared to a national average of 77.7%. Female haredi employment is significantly higher and closer to the national average, with 61.2% of haredi women at work, compared to 66.3% of the general population of women.

Haredi men attend an English lesson in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad.
Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters

Recent trends have shown an increase – albeit a slow one – in ultra-Orthodox employment, and even the emergence of a small group within the community known as the “new haredim,” individuals and families who identify as haredi, live a haredi lifestyle but nevertheless have obtained academic or professional qualifications and joined the workforce. There are, however, significant obstacles for haredim in achieving this goal, principal among them the almost total absence of secular studies in the ultra-Orthodox school system, particularly for men.

Should someone decide that he wants or needs to leave yeshiva and full-time Torah study, he is faced with the formidable problem of having no qualifications to offer any potential employer, and frequently no idea what he wants to do either. In addition to this obstacle, many haredi men are married with children by the time they decide they need to leave yeshiva and enter the workforce, creating further financial problems.

At present, a full-time yeshiva student receives a government stipend, plus additional funds from his yeshiva while he is studying. Although such a student’s total income is minimal, it is significant enough to help provide the basic requirements, especially when combined with another source of income, such as family support or his wife’s income, whether part- or full-time.

Embarking on an educational course requires leaving yeshiva and therefore losing this important source of income. The shorfall for the family budget is another significant barrier to enrollment in higher education.The Kemach Foundation is one organization which seeks to provide an answer to these particular challenges.

Founded in 2008, the organization grants scholarship funds to men and women from the haredi community seeking to begin an educational course, and also provides comprehensive career guidance and assistance throughout the duration of the student’s studies. The foundation is primarily funded by private donations, although the government does also provide significant financial support.

Around 55% percent of recipients study for academic degrees, such as law, business management, and accounting, with another 40% studying for vocational courses such as bookkeeping and computer and network maintenance.

In the five years since it was established, the Kemach Foundation has helped, or is currently helping, more than 8,000 haredi individuals identify a suitable career, find the right academic course with which to pursue that vocation, and provided them with a scholarship of up to NIS 24,00 a year to cover some of the expenses of the course as well as their daily living costs. The stipend is provided in monthly payments on the understanding that if the recipient drops out of his studies without sufficient cause, they will be required to pay back the money received until that point.

Once the course has been completed – and 97% of Kemach scholarship recipients do complete their course – the foundation also assists its graduates with job placement. Critically, the foundation is run by staff from the haredi community, and the entire process is conducted with understanding and accommodation for the concerns and requirements individuals from that sector have when deciding on such a life-changing initiative.

The foundation does not advertise its services in any way because of sensitivities in the ultra-Orthodox community, and the potentially controversial notion of leaving yeshiva study in order to gain a secular education and to go to work. Applicants therefore generally find out about the organization by word of mouth. One recent applicant who was approved by Kemach to receive its scholarship is Gershon Safrin, 24, a married haredi man and father of two daughters. He has been in full-time Torah study since the age of 17 and received almost no non-religious education whatsoever while in elementary and secondary school.

Gershon got married four years ago and at that time, his father-in-law told him he would support him in his religious studies, at least for the first few years. But the financial support dwindled over the years and he found himself in an increasingly problematic situation, as he was becoming less and less able to provide for his family. He noted the situation of some of his cousins, with the men continuing to learn in yeshiva but unable to support themselves and their children, leading their families to live in poverty. “I don’t want my children to live under such conditions,” says Gershon. “We need to be able to live pleasantly and with dignity.”

It was for these reasons that he started exploring his options for leaving the world of the yeshiva and how he could start making a living. He notes that his father was supportive of this process and encouraged him to look for a study program where he could acquire some kind of professional qualification. Eventually, Gershon became acquainted with the Kemach Foundation, and embarked on its process of vetting candidates for financial support and then determining what kind of qualification he would most like to obtain.

After examining his options, he elected to start a course in speech therapy at Ono Academic College’s school for haredim, citing the opportunity for earning a significant salary in private practice as a prime motivator. Gershon says that he was interested in the field of medical care and recuperation but that nursing demands long hours and is poorly paid, while a degree in medicine was, practically speaking, too challenging given his educational background.

Instead, he opted for the speech therapy profession. It will take him four years to complete his course, including a year of remedial studies in English, math and Hebrew. The course costs NIS 26,000 per year, up to NIS 10,000 of which Kemach provides. Gershon’s father, who works as a religious scribe, is helping financially, and he also intends to apply to other foundations to make up the shortfall.

Despite his entry into the world of secular studies, and eventually into the workforce, Gershon says he still believes that full-time Torah study is the ideal way of life for anyone able to sustain it. “I would prefer to remain in learning all my life; going out to work is not the optimal situation,” he says, citing a Talmudic dictum that “Torah study is equivalent to all [the commandments].” “Every moment you’re learning is a mitzva. I enjoy studying Torah, its my purpose, it builds me up and makes me a better person,” he says. But financial realities have led to him to change tracks, as have thousands of other haredi men in recent years.

According to Bank of Israel figures, there are currently some 7,000 haredim enrolled in academic courses around the country. One critical factor which has led more haredi men to seek work is a series of reforms made to child welfare since 2003 that have cut benefits significantly for large families.The reforms have been highlighted by experts in the field as one of the main causative factors in increasing haredi employment over the last decade, by dint of the market forces exerted on the community at large.

Natan Becker is another beneficiary of Kemach’s scholarship program. He is 39 years old, married with seven children and lives in the haredi city of Betar Illit. He studied in kollel, yeshiva for married men, for over 10 years but says he gradually began to feel “stuck,” needing to do something different. Natan was already working as a youth counselor while learning in yeshiva, but as a result of a dispute with the Betar Municipal Council, lost his job. Due to his experience working with at-risk youth in the city, he decided to start a bachelors degree in social work.

Five years ago, he ceased his full-time Torah studies and started the four-year course at the Haredi College of Jerusalem, which like Gershon’s, required a year of remedial studies in English, math and Hebrew before he could begin the core social work degree. “I felt I could contribute something to the Jewish people in this field of work, and that is an important value for me,” says Natan. He notes that his wife works as a bookkeeper and office manager, and that her salary combined with the stipend provided by his kollel meant they were financially stable.

While studying for his degree, he was no longer able to learn full-time in yeshiva, which meant that he lost the stipend. To supplement his family’s income, Natan began teaching in a haredi boys school for two hours day. Coupled with his degree studies and the practical training required, in addition to the study hours, there was not much time left in the day. Despite the difficulties, Natan says his wife and broader family supported his decision, as did his community.

He now works for an organization called Em Habanim, which provides assistance for divorced women and their children in the haredi community, bringing such women together for Jewish holidays and outings, and providing mentors for their children.

Children of broken haredi homes frequently fall behind their peers in school performance and in general developmental progress, Natan says. He is now responsible for Em Habanim’s mentor program, which provides assistance for 500 children.

After working in the field of social work for more than a year, which he describes as, “holy work,” Natan decided to combine his job with more advanced study of his profession. He has begun a combined masters and doctorate course in social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with the financial help of Kemach. He says that although the haredi community in general is understanding about the need to get some form of higher education in order to improve one’s earning potential, the notion of graduate studies is seen less sympathetically, since the goal of studying is simply to make enough money to support one’s family.

Once that objective has been reached, there is little justification for devoting time to studies outside of the Torah world. Nevertheless, Natan says that the experience he has gained in his new job led him to seek further qualifications in his field. He says that when he is finished he will be able to affect change not just on the ground but also on a broader scale, by advising on social policy in some capacity. Although the absolute numbers of haredim in higher education are on the rise, a recent report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel noted that the overall percentage of haredim with higher education qualifications is still declining, as of 2010.

The Taub Center has also published research directly linking the low level of higher education enrollment and qualifications in the haredi sector to the low level of employment. The Taub reported noted that in a haredi household in which the husband has an academic degree, the total income is 88 percent higher than that of a household in which neither spouse has a degree. When both spouses have degrees, income is 157% higher than when neither spouse has such a qualification.

If continued progress in increasing haredi employment, especially that of men, is to be made, then projects such as the Kemach Foundation would appear to be one of the best routes to obtain such objectives. Increasing haredi employment is certainly high on the current national agenda and if the political establishment is serious about achieving this goal, it would do well to examine the efforts and ongoing successes being made by this organization right now, as a marker for the way forward into the future.

Jeremy Sharon