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Eighteen-year-old Iluz had been on the traditional Haredi track, studying Torah for about 10 hours a day. But he felt he was unsuited for the intensive scholarly regimen and though dropping out of a yeshiva, or seminary, is very much frowned upon, he decided to leave.
Religious scholars are revered in Haredi culture, which sees the study of Torah and Talmud as a sacred task, meant to keep alive centuries of knowledge and tradition almost wiped out in the Holocaust.
Iluz now studies computer programming at a Jerusalem college, and when he enlists he hopes to serve in one of the military’s computer units.
“I want to prepare myself for a profession now, to be able to support my family,” he said. “There is no reason for my community to see me in a lesser light, I am not doing less with my life than a seminary student.”
Iluz is not alone. The number of Haredim getting job training at specialised centres and studying at academic institutes has been steadily rising, giving graduates a better chance of finding a job and increasing their earning power.
According to Israel’s Council for Higher Education, some 7,000 Haredim were engaged in academic studies in 2012, up from 5,600 students in 2010, with business administration, law and social sciences drawing the majority.
The number is projected to rise further in 2013.
Army statistics show the number of Haredim in military service growing steadily over the past few years. In 2008 there were 387 Haredi soldiers. To date there are about 3,500, nearly 10 times as many, ultra-Orthodox soldiers.
The number of Haredim who enter national service in civil capacities has also risen between 2010-2012, according to Israel’s Administration for National-Civic Service.
Facing public pressure, the government has been grappling for months with the task of writing a new military draft bill that would slash the seminary student exemptions. The law is expected to be brought to parliament in the coming months.
Haredim who choose to enter military or civic service often do so with the knowledge it will eventually boost their chances of earning a decent salary.
In May, an Economy Ministry report found that found 70 percent of Haredim who served in the army had found jobs after completing service. By contrast, only 45 percent of all Haredi men are employed, according to the Central Bank of Israel.
Hayim is a 23-year-old Haredi man whose wife is a social worker. He studies computer programming in the evenings and during the day does computer work at a government office as part of his national civic service.