Half of Israel’s strictly-Orthodox men are unemployed. Stephen Oryszczuk visits a unique project in the Galil that’s giving the country’s Charedim a crucial first step on the career ladder
Israel’s strictly Orthodox are work-shy. They don’t want a career. They don’t want to participate. They’d rather sponge off the state. “I hear it all the time,” says a weary Tzvika Shreiber from Kemach, a non-profit organisation, addressing a room full of sceptical Jews from the UK. “Well, I come from the Charedi sector myself, and I’m telling you: it’s not true. We want to do it. The question is how.”
With the support of private benefactors in London and elsewhere, Shreiber tells a UJIA delegation how Kemach helps get strictly Orthodox men into employment using training, job placements, mentoring and aptitude tests for those who don’t know what they want to do.
There are even counsellors and “employment psychologists” thrown in for good measure. Money is given for vocational training for Charedi men to learn a profession, but is only dispensed once Kemach has evidence that the learner has already paid his tuition fees. If they don’t finish their studies, they’re liable to repay what Kemach has dished out to-date.
Half of Israel’s Charedi men are unemployed. Shreiber agrees that there is a problem, and that the curriculum should be “wider” in Charedi schools, but says that learning per se isn’t an issue. “Until the eighth grade they’re learning secular studies, then until the age of 30, 40, 50, they don’t stop learning… They have the habit to learn, to open a book every day, almost all day. They have much more than 16 years of studies, just not secular studies.”
Most Israeli politicians agree that increasing workforce participation is a national priority, which is one of the reasons UJIA also helps fund Kemach, but Schreiber says that motivating Charedi men with a nationalist appeal won’t work.
“If I say to him: ‘We have to save the state of Israel,’ it’s not speaking to him. There’s too much distance between the Charedi man and the state of Israel that he will care. Better to give them “the opportunity to maintain their families with dignity,” he says.
Will it work? The scepticism in the room grows as, minutes later, he warns that “the Charedim want to preserve their way of living”. Of the 12,000 scholarships Kemach has supported (most in Jerusalem, but many here in the Galil), there are some success stories.
Paris-born father-of-four Yedidiel Elbaz is 30, but looks barely 18. He lives in Zfat, in the north, and is learning to be a doctor at the city’s medical school. Crucially, perhaps, both his own parents are also professionals (his father a dentist, his mother a speech therapist).
“I always thought that as long as I can study the Torah while my wife will work, I will continue, but from the moment it will be necessary, I will work,” he says. “When I saw my wife’s difficulties, I decided to take my responsibilities, but I did not want to enter a simple job with no future, so I looked for satisfactory and respectable work.”
Following “bad advice,” he enrolled on an engineering course, but knew he was “looking for a job with the human touch, giving help”. He had been first aid trained and helped in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, so later settled on medicine, beginning a degree in molecular biology, while working in a bank part-time to support his family as he learned. The organisation provided income top-up, or “subsistence” payments, he says. “It would not have been possible without the financial support of Kemach.”
With an average of 7.7 children per family, their share of the population will quickly grow. Prof. Dan Ben-David, founder of the Shoresh Institute and one of Israel’s leading economists, advises the government on policy vis-a-vis the Charedim, and knows that two thirds of Charedi children live in poverty.
He also knows that education is key: despite the growth of Charedi colleges, only one in eight Charedi men have academic degrees (compared with a quarter of Charedi men in the US). Of those who do have a job, only 2,000 have jobs in Israel’s all-important high-tech industry, where 300,000 Israelis work.
It’s an existential threat, he argues, and impacts on security. “Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, and the fastest growing segments of Israel’s population are receiving the worst core education.” Most do not study the basic subjects, he says. “Children with a third-world education can only maintain a third-world economy, which cannot support a first-world defence.”
Israel can’t afford for the strictly-Orthodox not to work, he says: Israel can’t afford the welfare payments or the lack of tax receipts. Newly-discovered off-shore gas in the Mediterranean eases the urgency, but if employment and productivity rates among Charedim and Arab Israelis (who also have large families) do not start to match those in the rest of Israeli society, the government deficit will increase four-fold, according to the Finance Ministry.
With Israel’s elderly population set to increase by half over the next two decades, the pressure is on, especially in the Galil, which has a 45 percent child poverty rate and the lowest incomes of any region, up to 70 percent below the national average.
The stakes are high, the risks are great, but so are the rewards. While Kemach believes “the true benefit to society will only be the personal growth one finds in pursuing additional opportunities,” Ben-David takes a slightly different view. “When a large share of future adults will not be able to maintain Israel’s economy,” he asks, “who then will fund it?”