When Shimon Shur, an 18-year-old Israeli from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home, decided he wanted to work rather than spend his days immersed in religious studies, he first had to learn to multiply and divide.
His education at that point, grounded in his community’s tradition, consisted almost solely of learning Jewish texts such as the Talmud. He knew virtually no English and barely any math. All he knew, he said, is that such a life wasn’t for him.
“I started from zero,” said Shur, wearing a black skullcap, white shirt and black pants as he spoke at a Jerusalem institute that combines religious study with academic classes. “I didn’t know arithmetic, multiplication tables, division. I didn’t know the order of the English alphabet, not even ABCD. I hardly knew what the letters looked like.”
Pushing men such as Shur into the workforce is one of the Israeli government’s top priorities, to ease their drag on the economy. The group, called haredim for a Hebrew expression meaning “trembling before God,” is projected to grow to 18 percent of the population by 2030, from 11 percent in 2010.
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Because the community values full-time religious study above any paid occupation and rejects Israel’s obligatory military service, many of its men remain outside mainstream society. About 46 percent of working-age men in the community were employed in 2011, the most recent year available, compared with 78 percent for all Israeli adult males.
Income comes from government stipends, charity and, in many cases, a working wife. Unlike men, haredi women are educated in such work-oriented fields as teaching and software engineering after they get 12 years of religious and secular education.
Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug expressed concern about the relatively low workforce participation of haredi men, and of Israeli Arab women. In her first speech after the cabinet approved her appointment, she said “changes in employment patterns” were necessary to allow continued economic growth.
“This is a strategic threat for the Israeli economy and for Israeli society — one that we must not ignore,” Flug said on Oct. 29.
A year before, then-Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, whom President Obama has nominated as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, also called attention to the trend in a group whose birthrate is 6.5 children per family, versus three per family for all Israelis.
“I very much respect the ultra-Orthodox population, but I must say a continued increase in the share of the population which does not participate in the workforce cannot continue forever, and so has to stop,” Fischer said in a 2012 speech.
The opportunity to overcome entrenched political opposition to getting more haredi men into the labor force arose after elections a year ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a government without two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that had been part of almost every ruling coalition for the past 30 years.
Taking their place was new political faction Yesh Atid, which had campaigned against military service exemptions and subsidies for the haredim.
Yesh Atid chairman and new Finance Minister Yair Lapid proposed a bill last year to reduce the number of military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox students in religious schools to a maximum of 1,800. The remainder would be subject to the draft after a certain age; now all are exempt while in yeshiva, or religious schools.
Concurrently, those already over the age of 22 would get a permanent draft exemption, freeing up about 28,000 haredi men to start working. The bill is under discussion in parliament.
Child allowances cut
Facing budgetary pressures, the government last year also cut child allowances that had helped support many large families in the community, increasing the economic incentive for haredi men to start making a livelihood.
With unemployment at 5.5 percent, a 30-year low, Lapid says he’s confident the economy will be able to absorb the new workers, even if many lack the math skills and English that are taught to all Israelis in schools outside the ultra-Orthodox educational system.
The Economy Ministry has earmarked 500 million shekels ($143 million) over the next five years for programs to give haredi men the needed skills.
Included are programs to offer vocational training, job-placement services and employment counseling. The first “one-stop” job center is operating in Bnei Brak, the largest haredi-majority city in Israel and one of the country’s poorest communities. A second is set to open in Jerusalem in March and another half-dozen are planned across the country this year.
The government is also helping support a pilot program combining religious studies with English, math and computer training for students from yeshiva. Shur has been there for one month and has made progress, though he is still finding it difficult.
“The challenge is to break through all the obstacles: in English, learning a new language; and in math, developing the logic that you didn’t have until now,” said Shur. “It doesn’t matter how talented someone is, math is a different way of thinking.”
In addition to the academic demands, the young men have lost their “framework” — the yeshiva, said Rabbi Karmi Gross, who runs the center. Many are rejected by their families and community, he said. His program provides religious as well as emotional support to encourage success.
Shur, who said he wants to go into white-collar work, found that one of the hardest parts of his decision was explaining it to his family. They expected him to attend yeshiva.
“It was a difficult process, telling my parents, destroying their dream for me,” he said.