An ultra-Orthodox boy, Shlomo Black, nervously entered the classroom at the Open University in Jerusalem. Don’t let anyone recognize me, thought the first-year psychology student. “I was afraid people would see me with a laptop. Studying felt wrong — like I’d failed,” Black, now 33, said of her struggle. Academia is mostly uncharted territory for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Black is now a psychologist and researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. His own experiences at university led him to integrate ultra-Orthodox, haredimin Israeli society.
Many ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work, but spend their time studying the Torah, the ancient Jewish law books. It was therefore far from obvious that Black went to university. But after being treated for ADHD, he decided to study psychology. Self-healing is the motivation for many psychologists to take this course, he explains.
For most ultra-Orthodox men, studying and entering the workforce is still a step too far, but Black received support from his environment. “I was very fortunate that my wife and even my rabbi supported university studies.”
Most Orthodox Jews who study do so for a living rather than for knowledge
Increasing the labor force participation of the ultra-Orthodox is an economic necessity for Israel, with a population of about 9.5 million. According to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the low labor productivity of Orthodox men cost about 33 billion shekels (9.5 billion euros) in 2018, or 2 percent of GDP.
Haredim make up about 13 percent of Israel’s population, a share expected to grow to about a third by 2065. On average, an ultra-Orthodox woman will have about seven children, a secular woman two. The poverty rate among the Orthodox is above average. According to the IDI, 44 percent of them live in poverty, compared to 22 percent on average. The Israeli government supports the Haredim financially, but certainly does not ensure their full development.
“A Social Revolution in Israel: Ultra-Orthodox Men at Work,” said the Israeli daily Haaretz in 2016. That group’s labor market participation rose above 50 percent for the first time, partly due to targeted incentives from the government. “The data show that we are no longer talking about a community of [Thora-]students, but about a community of students and workers,” researcher Gilad Malach said in the article.
But since then, labor participation among Orthodox men has stagnated. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who included some haredi parties in his government after the 2015 election, reversed some of the incentives to increase employment among haredim. The coalition increased child benefits and invested in Orthodox education, which the previous government had cut.
Outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced legislation to increase labor force participation, but as Israel prepares for its fifth general election in three years, the fate of those plans is uncertain.
Employment rates are different among ultra-Orthodox women, who are often breadwinners because the men study Torah. Of these women, 78 percent were in paid work in 2020, compared to 71 percent five years earlier.
On Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat, the holy day of rest, Black sits in front of his computer in his clinic in Bnei Brak, the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city where he lives with his wife and two children. In this town near Tel Aviv, the men wear long black suits, tall hats and big curly beards, and married women, wearing wigs and long skirts, push baby carriages.
As the son of a British father and American mother, it was difficult for Black to feel at home among the Israeli Haredim after settling in Israel. Connecting his ultra-Orthodox and his Israeli identity is not without struggle either. As a researcher, it has kept him busy for years: How does a boy maintain his Haredi identity and at the same time participate in ‘secular’ Israeli society?
According to Black, Haredim traditionally do not want to integrate into the non-Jewish world. “That’s the idea of the ghetto. They prefer to live apart.” In this way, they keep their distance from the non-Jewish world in order to live strictly according to the laws halacha (Jewish law).
At the end of the day, I am a haredi in college and a scientist in my own neighborhood
Black concluded in his thesis that attempts to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the secular world from a socio-cultural perspective have been futile. Ultra-Orthodox who study and work in the secular world have psychological and social problems. “They are in danger of being alienated from the Haredi community,” says Black, who experienced this alienation herself at university. “Then for the first time in my life I was in a class with female students. It was very uncomfortable.” Black was used to the orthodox norm that women and men should work separately.
This morning, at a meeting for PhD students in Tel Aviv, too much attention was paid to him. “At least four people told me there was kosher food. They didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable, but it just made me feel uncomfortable.” Black concludes, “At the end of the day, I’m a haredi in college and a scientist in my own neighborhood. It’s a feeling of not belonging 24/7.”
In recent years, positive reports about the integration of the ultra-Orthodox community into secular society have increased. Orthodox use the Internet more often, the birth rate is slowly falling, and they marry later.
Reports on labor participation were also quite positive. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed since 2015,” says Asaf Malchi, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, on the roof terrace of an office in the middle of Bnei Brak. In the building, ultra-Orthodox people work together, men and women separately. At four o’clock a Hebrew call sounds. Moments later, in the main hall, a dozen black-clad men move their torsos from front to back, trembling. A collective prayer during work, it is possible here in Bnei Brak.
Where these Haredi men hardly need to integrate, others must make the trip to secular Tel Aviv. It is only ten kilometers from Bnei Brak, but socially the distance is great. Malchi researched integration in such ‘mixed’ workplaces. Non-Haredi employers and employees were asked about their experiences with ultra-Orthodox colleagues.
The ultra-Orthodox mainly have to deal with socio-cultural obstacles, says Malchi. Think of haredim who isolate themselves from colleagues or fail to adhere to work standards, such as meeting deadlines. “They are not trying to make a career in the labor market. Most of them come only to work for a living,’ says Malchi.
Also read this farewell article by former Israel correspondent Jannie Schipper: In the land of the misunderstood, no one feels like a winner
His research leaves room for further development. For example, he concludes that cooperation with colleagues from the ‘other’ group improves social solidarity both in and outside the workplace and will narrow the social divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. Important because many secular Israelis are upset that Haredim work less and often avoid military service. “When they meet daily in the office, in the factory or in the market, they look at each other very differently than when a secular Jew sees the ultra-Orthodox demonstrating on TV,” Malchi said.
In Jerusalem, with Bnei Brak the largest home of the ultra-Orthodox, is the Jerusalem College of Technology. It is immediately noticeable that there are only men around. The university has a religious character and a separate campus for women. It therefore does well among religious Jews. For example, daily reading of the Torah is mandatory and everyone can eat kosher there.
In the yard there are mainly religious Jewish boys, as can be seen on the skull cap. Inside is Yaakov Taber, 27, an ultra-Orthodox Jew with a degree in computer science. Taber is a cheerful boy with American roots. Why did he go to college? “For the money,” jokes a friend next to him. Although both laugh, Taber affirms the importance of money: “I will do everything I can to make a living for my family. Most Haredim who go to college do so for their livelihood rather than for knowledge about the academic world.”
At the Jerusalem College of Technology, there is not much to complain about for religious Jews. “This is a very accessible location for us,” says Taber. “If you have problems with maths or English, the university will help you.”
Yet these student Haredim also belong to a select group. “They are different from 99 percent of Haredi society. They come from abroad and are more open”, says the Swiss teacher Michael Dreyfuss.
Give and take
While not all Israeli universities will switch to segregated education or mandatory Torah study, employers and universities should be aware of ultra-Orthodox people, Black advises. “If the state wants them to participate in the practical life of the country, they must create suitable socio-cultural places where their lifestyle will not be affected.” Black, Taber and Dreyfuss are also thinking about scholarships for Haredi students. Such a financial contribution can lower the threshold for going to university.
Also read this previous report on the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel: Those who tremble must work
“It’s definitely a double story,” says Malchi. According to the researcher, a religious Jew cannot be required to continue working on Friday afternoon, just before the Holy Sabbath. On the other hand, according to Malchi, the ultra-Orthodox must accept that men and women cannot work separately everywhere in Israel.
Shlomo Black does not work on the Sabbath either. He wants to talk about his haredim all day long. Only Bnei Brak is locked on the day of rest. Shops close and there are no cars on the street anymore. While ten kilometers away the bars and terraces of Tel Aviv fill with nightlife, Black turns the key to his office in the lock. He rushes home before his wife lights the Sabbath candles.