‘Evolution, Not Revolution’: The Fight to Integrate Haredi Jews into Secular Society

by | Sep 9, 2016

JERUSALEM — The streets of the Me’a She’arim neighborhood look like few places in Israel.

Men walk around its narrow streets in black suits and white shirts; pious heads are covered with hats of different material or shape depending on their denomination. Women wear long skirts and sleeves, their hair covered with wigs or the snood, a traditional head covering.

Women in full head-to-toe veils, the Frumqas, seem to carry with them the rejection of the rest of the community who sees them as something taken out of the Islamic world.

Posters, known as the pashkevilim, cover the street walls with the latest news, opinions, obituaries and rabbinical mandates. Me’a She’arim is a traditional Haredi Jewish neighborhood, isolated from the modern world of secular Israel that surrounds it.

The Haredim, sometimes referred to as the “ultra-orthodox,” make up about 11 percent of Israel’s population. High birth rates among them have caused a rapid increase in those numbers in recent years. Haredi households have twice as many children as other Israelis, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

Israel’s secular majority and other religious groups fear that a surging Haredi population will alter Israel’s politics and society. They want Haredi to join the military, volunteer for national service and start businesses.

They say this is important because Haredi communities are isolated and typically live off social welfare. With their numbers increasing along with associated welfare costs, there a sense of urgency to assimilate the Haredim into modern Israeli life.

This effort could find an ally in a quiet pocket of the Ultra Orthodox community — women.

“Those communities didn’t change for many years,” said Yael Elimelech, a Haredi woman who works at the Israeli Ministry of Education who is also an activist within her community. “Today, however, we can see and hear the winds of change.”

Yael Elimelech, activist for women’s rights within the Ultra-orthodox community, outside the Jerusalem Press Club. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J School

Yael Elimelech, activist for women’s rights within the Ultra-orthodox community, outside the Jerusalem Press Club. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J

Elimelech is one of a group of women within the Haredi who are pushing to bring mainstream teachings in subjects such as science and English into conservative, religious-laden Haredi schools.

Haredi children are usually taught religious studies their entire lives, with little emphasis on core subjects. “When the children grow up and want to enter the job market, they do not have the basic skills for integration,” said Elimelech.

Elimelech works within the Jerusalem local government to create schools that integrate core curriculums. Two years ago when the project began, only 75 students were enrolled and today more than 1,000 children are a part of the program. Elimelelch says this is because mothers understand that education can lead to a better quality of life for their children.

This is an especially important distinction for women within the Haredi community, who are expected to bring in the family’s income while the men spent their entire days studying the Torah. While 76 percent of Haredi women who hold academic degrees are gainfully employed, only 20 percent of entire community actually have those degrees, according to the Taub Center.

Knesset Member Nachman Shai of the Labor Party said he has seen a slow change within the Haredi community that has pushed them into the secular society. Shai has especially seen this change with the Haredi men and women who participate in the armed forces or national service. Until recently the Haredi were excused from military service, which is compulsory for all Israelis from the age of 18. It is compulsory for the orthodox now too, since the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the Tal Law exempting them from service in 2012.

A young Haredi boy walks around the Me’a She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem. Me’a She’arim is populated mostly by Haredi Jews, a strictly orthodox group inclined to reject modern secular strains of Judaism in favor of traditional practices. Christina Thornell/CUNY J

“They understand they cannot live a Jewish life of 100, 200 years ago. The rabbis would like them to, but they practically cannot,” said Shai.

It will take time, before this integration will occur overall, says Shai. Although he has seen many Haredi integrate smoothly, especially women in the workforce, traditions are not erased overnight. There are still many taboos such as women in politics.

Etsy Shushan began a movement called “No Voice, No Vote” in 2012 to protest the lack of Haredi women in the Knesset. Shushan, a Haredi woman herself, claimed it was a form of extremism to make the women of the community invisible in all facets of life. She began a Facebook page to fight for the rights of Haredi women and push for a woman to be allowed on the ballot.

“As long as we stay out from the politics, they will continue to silence us,” Shushan says in a 2015 lecture.

This movement was seen to be radical even by other Haredi women, but Shushan pushed on. Others like Shai are much more skeptical that this change will occur in the foreseeable future. A council of rabbis approves Haredi candidates and Shai says that the council will probably never give a woman access to politics. Elimelech says if it happens, it will be a long fight.

“I think it is an evolution, not a revolution,” says Elimelech.

Top Photo: A Haredi man reads from the posters, known as ‘pashkevilim’, on a wall in the Bea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. The pashkevilim are used to communicate news, opinions, and moral dictates from different rabinic groups within the Haredi communities. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J