Are the Ultra-Orthodox the Key to Israel's Future?

How a misunderstood minority can help spur the Jewish state’s economy and repair its tattered social fabric.


Essay
Dec. 1 2014
About the author

Aharon Ariel Lavi is co-founder of the Shuva community on the Gaza border, where he lives, and of the National Council of Mission-Driven Communities. A regular contributor to Aderaba magazine, he has also published a book on Jewish economic thought and was a 2013-14 Tikvah fellow in New York.


While much is known about the tough situation facing Israel externally, less familiar, even to Israel’s supporters, is the social and economic situation at home. Of course, Israeli exploits in the fields of science and technology are deservedly the stuff of legend; the Jewish state is indeed the “start-up nation” par excellence. Dig a little deeper, however, and one might also hear about special difficulties posed by two underperforming sectors of the society: Israeli Arabs, and haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It’s the latter of these two groups that will concern me here, and for a simple reason: socially and economically, the state of Israel is on the verge of either a leap forward or a crippling regression. To a large extent, the outcome depends on whether, and how, its haredi population can be integrated into the larger society.

In Israel as in the United States, the ultra-Orthodox constitute the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population. In and of itself, this demographic success is a fascinating example of how a community can maintain a demandingly pious way of life in an era of boundless personal freedom. Yet, in Israel, the social and economic infrastructure of the haredi sector is exceedingly fragile, which—given that they now make up 10-15 percent of the Jewish population—makes their situation and their future a national test of the first order.

Quite a few agencies and organizations within Israel, both public and private, have been preoccupied with this challenge, and have pursued a variety of approaches to it. Unfortunately, many are ineffective, primarily because they misunderstand the phenomenon they are trying to address. In what follows, I want to offer some perspective and to propose a better way.

 

I. Defining the Moment

 

First, a little history. In one way or another, the Zionist awakening in the late 19th century affected every part of the Jewish Diaspora. Numbers of European Jews, inspired by the idea of returning home after almost 2,000 years of exile, set out for Palestine to transform the Zionist dream into a reality. But Orthodox leaders, for the most part, stood aloof, seeing Zionism as another poisonous fruit of the Jewish “Enlightenment,” and a clear and present danger to their traditional way of life. Their efforts led to increased separation of the Orthodox from other Jewish groups along with an intensified emphasis on Talmud study and on the strict observance of Jewish religious law (halakhah).

Still, some Eastern European religious Jews, despite their basic suspicions of Zionism, found reason to cooperate with it. In 1902, four years after Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, the Mizrahi party in Vilna was founded as an explicitly religious-Zionist movement. Ten years later, Orthodox opponents of Zionism met to organize their own political movement. This group—today we would call them ultra-Orthodox—established a new, unequivocally anti-Zionist movement named Agudat Israel (more informally, Agudah).

David Ben-Gurion was convinced that, after the Holocaust, Orthodox Judaism was destined to wither away on its own. He was completely mistaken.

Not long after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Mizrahi became the National Religious party, which remained the primary representative of religious Zionists until 2008. For its part, Agudah was persuaded to downplay its anti-Zionist predilections and to enter the political life of the country as the main representative of the haredi population.

Today, most haredi Jews have made their peace with the state of Israel. Ironically enough, they do so thanks in great part to the pioneering efforts of David Ben-Gurion, who as head of the pre-state Zionist movement had come to terms with Agudah regarding future religious conditions in the nation-to-be. Despite his own conspicuous lack of religious belief, Ben-Gurion realized that a failure to preserve Jewish unity could undermine the Zionist cause in world opinion and at the United Nations. He also happened to be convinced that, after the Holocaust, Orthodox Judaism was destined to wither away on its own; if only a public fight could be avoided over its place in the future state, eventually the problem would take care of itself.

With these considerations in mind, Ben-Gurion entered into an agreement with Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin (1893-1971), the then-head of Agudah, to preserve the “status quo.” The agreement had four main components: the laws of kashrut would be observed in all public places; the Jewish Sabbath would be the official day of rest; religious Jews interested in maintaining an independent education system would be allowed to do so, to some degree at state expense; and issues of marriage and personal status would be governed by halakhah, with no civil option for marriage. Later it was also agreed that religious men who wished to study Torah full time, and all religious women, would be exempted from military service.

Back then, there were only about 400 young men studying in yeshivas: to Ben-Gurion, they were a kind of living museum, inhabiting the margins of history. He thus had every reason to believe that he had made a cost-free accommodation for the sake of preserving both traditional Jewish scholarship and present-day Jewish concord. He was completely mistaken. As the number of yeshiva students grew at unimaginable rates, their military exemptions would become one of the most internally divisive issues in Israel’s history.

In this respect, indeed, the earlier intra-Orthodox schism between Mizrahi and Agudah remained a portent of things to come. To this day, the haredi dissent, not only from secularism but also and perhaps even more acutely from the “religious-Zionist” movement, with its commitment to public service, stands at the heart of the Israeli debate.

 

II. From Past to Present

 

Fast forward to the 21st century. Over the decades, the haredi population itself has grown tremendously, thanks both to high birthrates and to an entirely unexpected inflow of formerly secular Jews who have chosen to become religious as adults. In 2011, there were about 800,000 haredi adults—there are disagreements over how to define and how to count haredim—above the age of twenty; adding their children brings the figure to somewhere around 1,200,000. (The total Jewish population in Israel now stands at over six million.) Since over a quarter of Israel’s first-grade pupils are now haredi, the numbers are soon likely to burgeon even more dramatically.

Demographic increase has been reflected in political terms as well. In actuality, haredi society comprises dozens of subgroups that, despite certain similarities in terms of religious practice, are in many cases completely distinct and independent. Still, one can generalize by saying that—as a voting bloc—the haredi community is mainly represented by Agudah and also, since the early 1990s, by the Shas (Union of Sephardi Torah Observant Jews) party. Together, these two parties regularly hold 15-20 Knesset seats, and since 1977 have benefited from near-permanent membership in coalition governments. Their run was broken only in the last election of 2012.

By 2011, a sixth or more of Israel’s Jewish population was haredi. Since over a quarter of first-graders are now haredi, the numbers will likely burgeon even more dramatically.

Growing political power has worked to solidify social and economic self-segregation. Most Israeli haredim continue to live in insular communities and to attend haredi-only schools, from which young men emerge armed with Jewish traditional wisdom but almost no secular knowledge or training. As for exemptions from military service, the numbers have jumped from 400 in 1948 to over 60,000 today; 5,000-6,000 new exemptions are issued each year. In order to qualify, one must be studying full-time in a yeshiva or kollel (Torah academy for married men) and cannot hold another job until attaining a certain age or having a certain number of children.

In brief, the state has provided a systematic incentive for a whole sector of the population to remain unemployed or underemployed. (In many cases, moreover, those who do take jobs work “off the books,” a situation that has led to the creation of a vast underground economy.) Not only is a huge proportion of Israel’s population thus unequipped for today’s job market, but, absent some dramatic change in its demographics, an even greater proportion will be unequipped for tomorrow’s, which is expected to be even more strongly tilted toward credentialed professionalism and away from traditional manufacturing with its well-paying jobs for low-skilled workers.

Assuming a normal business curve, we can therefore expect that growing numbers of haredim will be mired in extreme poverty, presumably relying on welfare funds and contributing very little to the national GDP. After a certain threshold, the situation will become unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Israel is facing serious harm to its social fabric and its networks of trust and cooperation. Secular and religious-Zionist Jews are increasingly refusing to accept a situation that imposes the full burden of Israel’s security obligations on their shoulders. For its part, the haredi sector strongly opposes external interference with its way of life, and has rejected attempts to draft young haredi men into the army or to impose a core curriculum (i.e., English, math, and science) on haredi children.

No matter how you look at it, something will eventually have to change. There is no need to stress the benefits of a successful and sustainable integration of the majority of haredi men into the workforce. Those benefits are obvious and would affect all parties to Israel’s social contract, increasing their cohesiveness and potentially sparking an economic surge similar to the one touched off by the massive immigration in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union. But how to bring it about?

 

III. Man is Born to Work

 

So far, the main proposal for addressing the issue of haredi integration has been to end the exemption from the draft, which is perceived as a decades-long injustice. Besides, Israel’s army, so the argument goes, is a tested and successful forging-house of lifelong relationships and attitudes, and has worked wonders in stimulating both national solidarity and economic enterprise. Why not exploit its wealth of experience and knowledge to jump-start the integration of the haredim?

In fact, attempts to do this are already being made. A bill passed by the Knesset last March provides for drafting growing numbers of haredim over the next few years and imposes criminal sanctions if specified quotas are not met. Yet, in my view, despite the hopes invested in this measure, it is highly unlikely to yield the positive results its sponsors aim to achieve. Let me briefly say why.

First, Israel’s security depends less and less on numbers of infantry soldiers and tanks and increasingly on cutting-edge technology operated by highly skilled and motivated personnel. In the past, the greatest military threat was posed by bordering states, but these states (notably Jordan and Egypt) tend to be at relative peace with Israel or (like Syria and Lebanon) are themselves dissolving. The threat from terrorist organizations like Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic State remains real enough—as recent experience forcibly reminds us—but it will not be decided by numbers. Among them, the three terror groups have fewer fighters than a single IDF division and no armored or air forces, which is one reason why they have chosen to fight from within civilian areas and why they rely on the IDF’s moral restraint rather than risk open war. As for the prospect of a potential nuclear breakout by Iran, one can safely assume that an Israeli infantry attack would be the least likely military response.

Without the haredim, the IDF is unlikely to collapse. But the Israeli economy could.

Second, what can the haredim do for the IDF? Individual success stories aside, the new draft law will mainly yield a few thousand more recruits characterized by low motivation and few if any skills relevant to the IDF’s high-tech units. Because of their special kashrut requirements and their large families, moreover, these recruits will come at a high cost. (The army supplements the pay of soldiers-with- children, a situation as common among young haredim as it is rare among most others.) Worse, the draft bill itself, which continues to arouse tremendous antagonism in the haredi public, has actually retarded a quietly building tendency within that community to take on the burden of national service voluntarily.

As a former combat soldier and medic in the IDF, and as one who most recently performed reserve duty during the operation in Gaza, I share the resentments felt by many Israelis at the situation bequeathed to us by Ben-Gurion. Why should I, my siblings, and my children sacrifice three years of our lives (and perhaps our lives themselves), while others benefit from a no-longer-relevant deal cut before my father was born? But I also recognize that our national debate needs to be conducted rationally. The bottom line is that, without the haredim, the IDF is unlikely to collapse. But the Israeli economy might.

 

It is in the economic realm that, in my judgment, the real potential for haredi integration lies. The good news is that there already is a grassroots movement within the haredi public toward economic integration. But this movement is fragile and easily set back by any hint of government coercion. In addition, many well-intentioned initiatives, public as well as private, have created problems of their own, particularly for young haredi men who are frequently enticed to enroll in superfluous training and degree programs.

A prime example is a much-touted wavelet of haredi students being trained to enter law school. The problem here is that Israel already boasts the world’s highest ratio of lawyers per capita; injecting more of them into the national bloodstream hardly seems the wisest of social policies. Nor do Israeli law degrees confer much advantage on their holders globally.

And that example is typical. In fact, most of the professional-training programs currently on offer fail to take into account either current or probable future trends in the labor market. Just as a previous generation witnessed the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, Israel is now well into its transition to an information economy. Many of today’s vocations are likely destined to become extinct—and perhaps, given the pace of the robotics revolution, sooner than we think. Israel has already been through an analogous experiment: waves of immigrants from North Africa were trained for jobs in the textile industry, which collapsed two decades later and moved to China. Why make the same mistake again?

In addition, career spans in the future are likely to become much briefer and more volatile. According to one study, people may hold as many as 22 different jobs over their lifetime, of which eighteen haven’t yet been even dreamed of. Workers are expected to share tasks, change careers, and in general be prepared to function in multidimensional environments requiring multidimensional skills and training. Key factors in making it through the future economy will be a multifaceted background and an individual’s ability to navigate transitions smoothly through his or her command of social capital, better known as networking.

For the most part, current programs for haredi employment in Israel take too literally a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes: “that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” They supply single-dimensional training, usually for low-paying jobs. In addition, instead of offering even moderate exposure to the outside world, most programs have created cloistered, haredi-only training environments—even separate campuses—and have persuaded potential employers to continue this practice with those they hire. This might make sense in the short term as a means of attracting young haredim, but in the long run it will prevent the creation of successful networking, cripple flexibility, and constrict job opportunities.

Besides, even if some jobs remain steady, they will not tap the real economic potential of the haredi public. And that brings us to perhaps the most stubborn barrier of all: the lack of basic knowledge and education.

A cherished belief in the haredi community holds that someone steeped in a decade or more of Talmud study is mentally well equipped to excel in any program of higher education. There’s a grain of truth in that. But while a background in Talmud can impart a relative advantage in the area of logical reasoning, it is no substitute for mathematics or basic science, or the ability to read and write in Hebrew above an elementary-school level. Moreover, as anyone who has studied in a university knows, even those skills will not take you far if you lack a reasonable command of English, now more than ever an entry point to almost all disciplines.

Haredi leaders repudiate all attempts to intervene in the education of their children, who are the indispensable means of perpetuating their community.

In the past, the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson could instruct his followers to study in yeshiva until marriage, then spend another year in advanced study, and then get a vocation. But that was in the early 1990s, before the sharp trend toward the information economy. Today, almost 50 percent of haredi students in Israel drop out before finishing their BA. In some cases the reasons are financial, but the truth is that these students are also at a woeful disadvantage. Childhood is the optimal age for acquiring any new language—and mathematics and scientific reasoning are also languages.

Hence, the long-term path to haredi economic integration must start at the primary-school level and continue all the way up through high school. Yet here is exactly where the internal opposition becomes fiercest. Haredi leaders repudiate all attempts to intervene in the education of their children, who are the indispensable means of perpetuating their community. As they see it, moreover, maintaining the haredi way of life is not only a haredi interest but a general Jewish interest—indeed, a cosmic interest.

In this connection, many haredi thinkers point to what they regard as a cautionary counterexample: ex-progeny of the old Mizrahi movement who now constitute the religious-Zionist community in Israel and the Modern Orthodox community in the United States. These traditionalist streams declared it their mission to create a life balancing Torah with secular learning and engagement in the world. While their members have for the most part been successful in economic terms, higher percentages of their young people have forsaken the path of strict religious observance.

Or such at least is the haredi claim; the reality is different. Many Modern Orthodox and religious-Zionist communities have achieved an impressive integration of the religious and secular worlds, and have produced both outstanding Torah scholars and outstanding scientists, academics, and intellectuals. Nor is that all. In terms of numbers, the rate of dropouts from the haredi sector in Israel—dropouts here only in the strict meaning of hard-core cases who end up on the streets—is twice as high as in the religious-Zionist community, and four times higher than in the secular world.

But the claim is impervious to debate. In order to counter it, and to assuage the genuine fear of the future that informs it, new ways will have to be devised for teaching math and English that will not so much run parallel to Torah studies as interact with them.

We will return to this subject below. Here, however, it is important to note that the same challenge confronts not only those who have been born into the haredi community but those members of the religious-Zionist population who have been drawn to the haredi way of life while continuing to stress the national aspect of their identity. They, too, will find it necessary to confront this problem when it comes to teaching math and English to their children.

 

IV. A Hidden Ingredient

 

Lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly intractable debate over the haredim in Israel are assumptions, at once political and theological, that can shed some light on the issues at hand and hint at productive ways of addressing them.

In the eyes of both secular and religious-Zionist Israelis, a state is a joint venture in which citizens agree (a) to offer each other mutual support in certain defined areas and (b) to give up some of their private freedoms in order to preserve the society as a whole and protect it against external dangers. From the secular perspective, those who do not work but instead live off the labor of others, and who are exempted from military service, violate the terms of the social contract.

This is true in principle for every liberal democracy, but for many Israelis the state also embodies a value that transcends the social contract. As the “national home” of the Jewish people, it has empowered them to take responsibility for their own fate and to participate in history as members of the family of sovereign nations. Precisely in this latter capacity, they believe that the Jewish state should reflect, at least to some degree, its specifically Jewish heritage and beliefs, thereby distinguishing itself from other liberal democracies with which it shares such values as justice, freedom, and equality.

Historically, the haredi community did not see itself as obligated by the second part of the social contract—the part about sacrificing certain freedoms for the common good—and extended only limited acceptance to the part about mutual support. In its eyes, if the state of Israel is just another state, then traditional Judaism’s commitment to it need go no farther than its historical commitment to non-Jewish states.

But there is a contradiction here, or rather a web of contradictions. For one thing, large numbers of haredim enjoy and depend on welfare funds, a situation they justify by appealing precisely to the idea of common support in activities essential to the state’s welfare and survival. For another thing, as we have seen, they define “essential” on their own terms. The non-haredi majority, they claim, should understand the importance of Torah study as a crucial national interest and hence agree to finance it and to exempt Torah scholars from military service. In this, they are explicitly appealing to and relying on Israel’s presumed obligation as a Jewish state to support a minority population that is preserving the state’s Jewishness in exchange for some privileges.

As long as both sides refuse to give, neither one can offer a path toward a mutually acceptable solution. But neither will a solution succeed if it is imposed through the coercive power of the state; that will only generate resistance and countervailing pressure. As long as Israel remains a democracy, the haredim can be expected to mobilize their own political clout both to protect and fortify their way of life and to resist any interference with it.

 

To find a way out of this tangle, it may be helpful to pull back and see it in a somewhat larger context.

There are significant numbers of Israelis today who, at some point in their family’s history, broke away from traditional Judaism, pledging their allegiance instead to the modern secular ideal: essentially, liberal democracy in its Zionist form. Like many in my generation, I grew up in a society informed by that secular ideal. Except for the fact that Hebrew was our language, and that we studied some Bible at school, we were almost completely detached from our millennia-old Jewish heritage. But, as many of us came to discover to our grief, liberal democracy is not a faith and no substitute for a faith; nor is it a community, or any kind of substitute for community. In short, we found ourselves in a crisis of identity.

As many of us came to discover to our grief, liberal democracy is not a faith and is no substitute for a faith; nor is it a community, or any kind of substitute for community.

As it happens, our problem, even though we were living in a Jewish state, was not so different from one described by the American political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973): the problem, that is, of “the Western Jewish individual who or whose parents severed his connection with the Jewish community in the expectation that he would thus become a normal member of a purely liberal or of a universal human society, and who is naturally perplexed when he finds no such society.” The political problem of such a Jew, Strauss wrote, might not be soluble in the context of a secular state. But to this Jew’s specifically “Jewish problem,” a solution did indeed lie at hand. It was the same solution that eventually I and many others in Israel would also hit upon: in Strauss’s words, “return to the Jewish community, the community established by the Jewish faith and the Jewish way of life: teshuvah [return] in the most comprehensive sense.”

To Strauss, viewing the problem in the Western context, the solution was an individual one. In the Jewish state of Israel, it has larger social implications. In fact, over the last four decades, an entire movement has arisen in response to the identity crisis I have described: a wave of teshuvah measurable not only in the number of adults who have decided to commit themselves to a way of life bound by Jewish religious law but also in numerous non-religious initiatives and events aimed at connecting average Israelis with their Jewish identity.

The results have deeply affected common Israeli discourse. Instead of polarization, a continuum has been forged between religious and secular Jews, with beneficial effects on the solidarity of Israeli society as a whole. The main such benefit has been the ability to construct a social raison d’être based on shared Jewish values, knowledge, and vision.

I will have more to say about this below, but for now let’s concentrate on a specific, identifiable group. In 2011, according to Israel’s Statistical Yearbook, approximately 200,000 Israeli Jews defined themselves as “hozrim be-teshuvah” (a term synonymous with baalei teshuvah, or “returnees”) . If anything, the number is too low, since the statistics cover only those over the age of twenty. Such baalei teshuvah have ended up at every point on the spectrum of Israeli observance and affiliation. In the haredi world alone, the main focus of our attention here, they constitute about 20 percent of the total. Indeed, they form the only element in that world with a heavy presence in almost every one of its subgroups, while at the same time maintaining distinctive bonds among themselves.

This circumstance has had its own unmistakable if complex impact on the nature and profile of the haredi community.

 

For the overwhelming majority of returnees, the process of return has not been simple. Those who have made their way into the haredi community have paid a high personal price: giving up careers and livelihoods, moving away from their families, often only to find themselves under suspicion as outsiders by the haredim themselves. In a way, the process has mirrored their own or their parents’ previous distancing from Judaism. Once again an expectation prevailed of finding a community that would embrace them and honor their sacrifice. Once again, the sought-after society turned out in some respects to be a figment of idealization.

Many baalei teshuvah possess talents in diverse fields of endeavor: business, education, social work, creative arts, and culture. Many come with an academic background, have served in the IDF, and possess organizational and networking skills, not to mention proven flexibility and adaptability: crucial assets, all, in a rapidly developing economy like Israel’s. Integration into haredi society has meant that many of these talents have been lost to society at large, even as they have simultaneously been stifled in the haredi environment. Among other signs of damage, the results are reflected in higher rates of divorce and higher numbers of at-risk children.

It has taken decades for all of this to be registered fully. But recent years have witnessed a fascinating and hopeful development, turning the problem of the returnees’ partial integration within haredi society into a potential opportunity. For one thing, more and more returnees are remaining physically in the environs, whether urban or rural, in which they grew up, and are seeking to fulfill their new religious needs within those environs. For another and no less momentous thing, many veteran baalei teshuvah are finding their way back into Israeli public life—without giving up their religious commitments and practice.

Many religious returnees are finding their way back into public life—without giving up their religious commitments and practice.

Thanks to these developments, it is possible to see the outlines of an emerging movement that can straddle the border separating the haredim on the one hand from, on the other hand, the religious Zionists and the secularists. And this movement, precisely because of where it has come from and the values it internalized in its former life, is ready for bigger things. As one thinker, Nir Menussi, has put it:

Even if, in the era before the teshuvah movement, returnees had not actually been engaged in social or political activity, the fact that they grew up in the dominant society as the children and grandchildren of founders and pioneers marked them from childhood, giving them, even if only subconsciously, a sense that there was no one else upon whom to hand off the task of managing society; it depended on them. [emphasis added]

By now, the teshuvah community has reached a point where it is ready to assume responsibility for itself and its own role in relation both to haredi society and to Israeli society at large.

Among those who recognized the opportunity early on were several veteran returnees led by Rabbi Oded Nitzani, who in the late 1990s established a self-defined community of returnees within the haredi city of Betar Illit. (The community has since moved to the northern town of Maalot.) In 2008, the group founded a magazine, Aderaba, in order to promote debate among returnees. The journal helped nurture the developments sketched above and to some degree also influenced young people within haredi society in general.

In 2010, soon after my own community was established in Shuva (near the Gaza border), a decision was made to inaugurate a whole network of “mission-driven” communities of returnees. Called Nettiot (plantings), the network currently consists of ten communities, with more under construction. Some, like mine, are free-standing; others are within already existing haredi locales like the city of Elad, where they are integrated with the general populace. Within these communities, Nettiot operates dozens of social, educational, and employment programs. With its emphasis both on taking responsibility for oneself and one’s surroundings and on engagement with the public sphere, its work has the potential to reach much larger numbers of returnees and to fashion a role as a bridge-builder within Israeli society at large.

Already, many young, native-born haredim, hoping to effect a positive internal reform in the areas of work, education, and public involvement, have been turning (sometimes openly, sometimes behind the scenes) to representatives of Aderaba and Nettiot saying things like “You lead the way, and when the time comes, we will join.” Support is also emerging from prominent rabbis, suggesting the potential for this movement to become a central actor in the haredi sphere—an especially heartening sign since sustainable change is inconceivable without such leaders from within.

The cooperative network between young haredim and returnees, and their shared determination to overhaul their lives, are only now starting to reach the awareness of decision-makers in the Israeli government, which for the most part is still trying to solve a social and cultural predicament through top-down programs. Alas, the government capable of engineering a good society has not yet been born, and many are the instances in which such efforts have ended up causing more harm than good. By contrast, the dual background of baalei teshuvah makes them uniquely placed to catalyze the work that government cannot do.

 

V. A Way Forward

 

Any effective strategy must empower a wide variety of people to become involved in different initiatives at different levels. For the baalei teshuvah, I see, roughly speaking, three main areas on which to concentrate: social organization, education, and the promotion of ideas and arguments.

One powerful organizing tool, as we have seen, is the mission-driven community; establishing new ones is an obvious priority. These communities, made up of dedicated young people who move to Israel’s social and geographical peripheries in order to strengthen them from the bottom up, are life-long projects, requiring a commitment more along the lines of that made by Chabad emissaries around the world than that made by students on “gap year” programs, however worthy. In turn, such communities also serve as innovators of larger social and educational projects, and as seedbeds of the ideas informing them. A network comprising a few of these communities already constitutes a base of support and energy.

Failure to address the issues properly, especially in broad-brush initiatives undertaken by government, could set the cause back.

In education, what is required is a method of integrating Torah learning with the study of math and science. This goal has been pursued in recent years by the Rakee’a Institute (one of Nettiot’s projects), which is developing a one-of-a-kind curriculum to do precisely that. The curriculum is geared at covering close to 100 percent of the topics required by Israel’s ministry of education, plus additional topics uniquely suited to particular dimensions of Torah study: algorithmic thinking, pattern and symmetry recognition, and the aesthetic side of mathematics. All topics and exercises are taken directly and exclusively from the biblical text. The project itself was initiated and is being developed mostly by baalei teshuvah with the necessary background in both areas.

Here, too, an amplification effect has been set in motion. A group of leading educators has begun to create, under Nettiot’s auspices, a network of schools that together can set the tone for other alternative institutions of the same ilk. One such initiative is a pre-military academy for haredi youth, the first of its kind. Dozens of such institutes already exist for non-haredi Israelis, and those who pass through them supply the army with high-quality soldiers; a significant number go on to become officers. Until now, the small but growing pool of haredi recruits have lacked this preparatory resource, with devastating results once they are enlisted. Appropriately, the leader of the new academy is a former officer in Israel’s “Navy SEALs,” a premier commando unit, and himself a baal teshuvah.

Related to both education and military service is social and economic entrepreneurship. As explained earlier, the modes of employment now envisioned for the haredi public are very limited and mostly of a low level, with little prospect for advancement. Almost no program encourages entrepreneurship, despite the fact that for many young adults, such a path can serve more effectively to unleash their potential than will a monolithic professional-training program, and can thereby yield much greater benefit to themselves and to society.

Progress in this direction is being made by yet another initiative: the Hitzim project, founded in the Negev (and lately expanded) in order to meet the need for high-quality informal education in the haredi world. My community of Shuva, for instance, consisting mainly of baalei teshuvah, boasted a large number of highly skilled and experienced educators, each one of whom, however, was financially unequipped to start a business on his or her own. By creating a community-based business platform that releases them from “back-office” chores like accounting, insurance, marketing, cash-flow management, and so forth, the Hitzim project has over the last four years produced jobs for 45 instructors, youth counselors, physical-fitness trainers, and others, many from outside the community, and is developing new branches including a seminar center and a center for female leadership.

Finally, all of these initiatives need to be undergirded by a framework of ideas that explains and defends the values and the larger purpose that animate and guide them. To do so effectively requires writers and educators with a background both in traditional and contemporary Jewish thought and in the world of political and social ideas in general. It also requires a gift for communicating ideas at a high but easily accessible level of discourse. The job is partly one of intellectual translation and cross-fertilization, partly one of social inspiration: connecting Torah with life, as it were. Aderaba still goes strong, but there are also proposals on the table for other means of disseminating ideas and stimulating debate through books, social media, and even a think tank.

 

Where does all this leave us? The haredi challenge in Israel presents at once a fascinating opportunity and a delicate game. As I noted early on, both governmental and philanthropic bodies have gravitated to the challenge, and are investing in a wide array of projects. This has happened with previous challenges to Zionism; it is a highly laudable response in itself, if also, in some cases, potentially counterproductive. Failure to address the issues properly, especially in broad-brush initiatives undertaken by government, could set the cause back and entail deleterious consequences for Israeli society.

But if the hazards are great, so are the potential rewards. Increasing haredi integration in a way that does not undermine the community’s way of life or exacerbate social tensions can not only infuse fresh energy into the Israeli economy but also help to invigorate Israel’s civic spirit and repair its tattered social fabric—to the benefit both of Israel and of relations between the Jewish state and the Diaspora. As a group newly motivated by the desire to reclaim what it means to be Israeli, the baalei teshuvah, hand in hand with others to the left and the right of them, stand ready to do their part.

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More about: baalei teshuvah, Haredim, Israel, Ultra-Orthodox