Israel Looks for Solutions to Its Ultra-Orthodox Men Problem


Israel’s army is a subject of fascination to many Americans, primarily because they draft not only male civilians, but women as well. There’s a group of Israelis though who, until recently, were actually exempt from conscription: ultra-Orthodox men and women. And it’s their lack of inclusion in the draft, similar to that of historically conscientious objectors like the Quakers, has changed that nation in ways that many see as incredibly damaging – and spreading in the United States as well.

A piece in the New York Times explores how in Israel, a growing ultra-Orthodox population is struggling because, according to their religious tradition, men don’t work. Studies show that due to “their commitment to full-time Torah study and a fear of assimilation,” only 4 of 10 ultra-Orthodox men hold jobs in Israel. This means their families often live in extreme poverty, supported only by low-wage jobs held by their wives.

Israel is trying to fix this problem by including ultra-Orthodox young men, who are exempt from service because of their devotion to religious study, in the draft. In the eyes of the government, this would give these men a wage and skills, not to mention silence the voices that have sounded for years from other groups of Israelis who believe that by allowing only the Haredi to avoid the army, the Israeli government was allowing inequality to exist. With recent legal reforms, all men will have to sign up when they’re 17.

Other Israeli men are going back to school, encouraged by the government to get an education they were not given at yeshiva, which focuses – especially for men – on purely religious study. This lack of education in topics like reading, writing and math (not to mention computer studies) is not isolated to Israel, and is happening in the United States as well, where the population of Orthodox and reform Jews is growing rapidly. In fact, because of high birth rates, by 2050 the population of ultra-Orthodox Jews is expected to be larger than that of reform Jews. In Israel, Haredi families will make up over 25 percent of the nation’s population in less than 40 years.

In New York City, the level of education most yeshivas provide is far below state standards, which means there are students who cannot read and write English properly, a problem that DNAinfo investigated earlier this year. This week, an organization made up primarily of former yeshiva students tried to draw attention to an issue that the Department of Education appears to be ignoring by putting up a billboard in Gowanus that reads, “It’s your mitzvah. It’s the law,” in an attempt to target religious families who send their children to these schools.

But it’s an article from New York magazine from April about a community north of New York in Rockland County that’s the best example of the tensions involved here. Once a diverse middle-class community, Ramapo, New York has been taken over – through representation on its school board, of all things – by the growing Hasidic community there. Faced with increasing special education needs for their children (limited gene pools, remember), Haredi school board members have funneled money away from the public schools and put it towards forming yeshivas and granting more special education placements for needy students. The tensions between the secular and non-secular families living in Ramapo and its surrounding towns might make the issues between Williamsburg hipsters and Hasidic Jews look quaint, but they end up being the same problem: a group slowly takes over a neighborhood and wants it to be dictated by their way of living. The preexisting community says, “Hey, no.”

Where are the women in these communities? In Israel, they’re often silently supporting the families, though they’re also the only women in the country exempt from the draft. In the United States, they’re actually getting a better education than their husbands. Even in very religious schools, the girls receive a more well-rounded secular education than the boys, because the boys are expected to be the religious authority figures in the community. They’re still married off early though, and expected to start a family.

A crackdown from the Department of Education could probably solve the education issue in America, as the Israeli government is attempting to do overseas. But this struggle is really one that grapples with the right of the ultra-Orthodox to practice their religious traditions while uploading standards of education for their children that will allow them to function in a society that isn’t primarily Orthodox. Until recently, the population of this community might just have been small enough to not appear important to education officials. But as it continues to grow, they can’t be ignored just because religion is scary and they aren’t considered a big enough group to matter.

As activists in Brooklyn have found, the support for reform in the Orthodox community has to come from within that community, which is going to be hard, given that much of the older generation is pleased with the growth and want things to remain status quo. This weekend, there’s a planned rally in New York City protesting the changes in Israel’s conscription policies that could have as many as 15,000 attendees, with members of traditionally at odds Hasidic sects coming together over what they see as their rights to conscientiously object. In Israel, one young man who had gone back to school told the New York Times that his parents were not happy with his choice. “The silence is thundering,” he said. It’s thundering outside of his community as well. You can’t help a group of people without support from within, but you also can’t help them by pretending they don’t exist.

Image via Spencer Platt/Getty

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