Slowly, almost by stealth, the strictly- Orthodox world is changing. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Israel and the vexed question of getting Charedi men into the workplace, something that was previously unthinkable, but is now, gradually, becoming more acceptable.
One man who should know is Rabbi Nechemia Steinberger, a cheerful Jerusalemite who, 10 years ago, aged 25, changed his life. In London to meet supporters of Kemach, the organisation that promotes Charedi employment, Rabbi Steinberger, Kemach’s director of strategic partnerships and development, spoke of the unwritten contract in the yeshiva world that work is not discussed, that men devote themselves to Torah study, and that their wives, where possible, are the breadwinners.
The result of such an approach is that thousands of Charedi families live in poverty and on benefits. Kemach (Hebrew for flour, from the rabbinic teaching ‘if there is no kemach, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no kemach’)seeks to change that by helping men to enter the workforce, through training and educational programmes.
When Rabbi Steinberger first approached Kemach he was better qualified than most yeshiva students — because he grew up in an English-speaking environment. So he had one of the four “building blocks” Kemach deems necessary for success in finding a job: a basic understanding of maths, good English and Hebrew, and a facility with computers. With these basics, Kemach has placed 20,000 Charedim into the Israeli job market in the past 10 years.
“The main goal of the Charedi community is to preserve and keep their values,” says Rabbi Steinberger. “And that means that Kemach does everything possible to meet that aim, providing the men who approach it with support and assurances that they will be able to enter the job market on their own terms — that is, without compromising the Charedi way of life.
“What works for Kemach is what works for the Charedim. We have one aim, to get as many strictly Orthodox into work as possible. So we provide viable options: and we tell them, you can be a plumber or an electrician, or you can be a rocket scientist. It’s up to them. But we don’t try to change them: and we ensure, right from the start, to get approval from the rabbis”.
There are said to be around 1.2million Charedim in Israel, with an average of seven children per household. Kemach estimates that more than half of the children are growing up beneath the poverty threshold.
Increasingly, the men are concluding that they cannot provide for their families by living on benefits. And the incentive cuts both ways, says Rabbi Steinberger. “Official statistics say that for every Charedi who goes out to work, the state saves 240,000 shekels (£51,600) per person, per year.” This is because once the man is off benefits and paying taxes, he is making an improved contribution to society.
In the years since its founding in 2007 — spearheaded by British philanthropist Leo Noe and supported in Israel by UJIA — Kemach has encouraged hundreds of men, and, latterly, women, to enter the workplace. There have been some singular successes including a Charedi airline pilot, a chef, law graduates and medical students. One of the best known is Yehuda Sabiner, who has just completed his training at the Technion medical school. There is even a Charedi man who runs a horse farm, to provide riding for the disabled courses.