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The term haredi, which in Hebrew means “those who tremble before God”, refers to people who strictly observe Jewish law. They dress in traditional black outfits, the men do not shave their beards and they spend their days in study and prayer.
Some 8-10 percent of Israelis are haredi. For the most part they live in insular communities, are exempt from mandatory military service and, according to the Bank of Israel, less than half of ultra-Orthodox men work.
The issue has created a rift in the mostly secular Israeli society and put a strain on an otherwise robust economy. The government has already earmarked $200 million over the next five years to encourage haredi integration in the work force.
Many in the new generation of ultra-Orthodox are open to the idea of getting jobs. The key is finding one that fits, said Bezalel Cohen, 38, who has worked for years to promote employment among his fellow haredis.
“The diamond industry’s initiative (to hire ultra-Orthodox)has potential to really succeed,” he said. “As long as the pay and training is proper, it should take off.”
Aside from helping to pay the salaries for newly hired haredis, the government will offer grants to small exporters and marketing support.
The Trade Ministry’s diamond controller, Shmuel Mordechai, said the government backs the idea and has funded similar programs in other financial sectors. It would have helped even earlier, he said, but the diamond industry was never interested.
“They lived in their bubble, they said, ‘Don’t bother us, don’t help us’. In recent years, because of difficulties in the industry and because we opened up our tools to them, they understand,” he said.
One of the more advanced plans Mordechai described is that of an independent service plant where dealers bring their rough diamonds. Such a plant would cost $1-$2 million and employ 30-40 workers. The government will help recruit the ultra-Orthodox.
“In any plant they set up here and bring employment, we will give help with salaries and other incentives,” he said. “If two or three are set up, it will catch on. If the first one succeeds, others will follow.”
Traub, from the manufacturer’s association, intends to create dozens of new private factories. He has already spoken to leading rabbis in the community to win their support.
“I’m speaking of starting with hundreds and going to thousands of haredi workers,” he said. “Manufacturing attracts clients. Barring a global crisis, I think we will grow at least 10 percent a year in export.”