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“There are those who mentally cannot study at yeshiva all day and those who cannot afford to do so financially. We just can’t live off 5,000 Shekels ($1,430) a month,” said Hayim, who did not want to give his family name.
Though attitudes among Haredim towards working and higher education were changing, Hayim said, “I would prefer my son grow up to be a Torah genius rather than a Bill Gates.”
Nissim Leon of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology said there were several reasons for the Haredi push into academia, professional training and the military.
The global financial crisis has cut overseas donations to Haredi institutions, Leon said, and the Israeli government has tightened the purse strings when it comes to the Haredim.
“There is also the Israeli consumer culture, which the poverty-stricken Haredim can see, and they are choosing to study practical professions that increase the family unit’s consumption ability,” Leon said.
But for some, change can come at a price.
“Haredi society has many tools to enforce its norms,” said Racheli Ibenboim, a Haredi mother of two who chose an unusual path for an ultra-Orthodox woman when she decided to run for public office in Jerusalem’s Oct. 22 municipal election.
As a rule, Ultra-Orthodox women are excluded from politics. Ibenboim, who describes her Haredi sect as particularly strict, said her family was threatened with ostracism.
She said an anonymous phone call was made to her husband’s workplace saying he could no longer be employed there unless she pulled out of the race. He was told by members of their Hassidic community that he would no longer be allowed into synagogue and that their children would face expulsion from school.
“There are two clashing processes in the Haredi society today, one toward radicalisation and one toward integration and it is too early to say which will win,” Ibenboim said. “There are many more social activists today calling for change. Poverty and hardship are pushing people toward change.”
Ibenboim eventually chose to quit the race, saying she wanted to stay in her community and promote change from within. But the municipal election has presented another arena where change among Haredim can be seen.
In Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv, Israel’s first-ever party comprised entirely of Haredi women ran for seats on the all-male city council
“This is new. Haredi women do not go into politics. There is objection to women in public office,” said Michal Zernowitski, 33, who headed the list.
“The Haredi street is ready, but when it comes to the institutions and to Haredi media, then there is a lot of opposition,” Zernowitski said. “It may take two, or three or even 15 years. When you make a change you start on your own.”