Poverty drives change among Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews

Reuters

* Some ultra-Orthodox breaking with traditional ways

* More joining military as a route to better jobs

* Tougher times force young men to quit religious studies

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Better trained in wrestlingwith complex religious texts than in martial arts, theultra-Orthodox Jewish youths drop to the floor to give theircombat instructor a dozen push-ups.

Black skullcaps slip off their heads and a pair of glassesgoes flying across the room as the khaki-clad trainer barks out:"I will kick your ass if you do not keep time."

The 15 young men have chosen to go against the norm of their reclusive community. They are training for military service, atwo-to-three-year obligation that binds most Israelis, but fromwhich the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, are mostly exempt.

Not 10 minutes drive away, posters in Jerusalem'sultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods scorn Haredi men who choose toserve in the army and quote rabbis who rule against the practicethey fear will lead their youth away from piety and into badways.

But there are those who swim against the stream, many ofthem seeking a way out of financial hardship. According to theIsraeli military, there are increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodoxsoldiers in its ranks today.

"Army is an essential stage for the rest of my life, you gothrough a lot there, you leave there ready for life," saidMichael Iluz, one of the youths taking part in the privateprogramme meant to prepare him for military life.

From childhood, ultra-Orthodox men are schooled almostexclusively in religious studies, many at adulthood choosingfull-time study over working. Their traditionally large familiesrely on state benefits, stipends and their wives' wages.

As such, Haredim, who make up about 10 percent of Israel'seight million population, are viewed by many in Israel as aneconomic burden.

Adhering to a strict religious lifestyle, Haredim - Hebrewfor "those who fear God" - mostly live in their own towns andneighbourhoods, keep to their own schools and shun secularculture. Men wear traditional black garb and women cover up.

CHANGE

But there are signs of a growing, dispersed movement drivingchange inside the cloistered, and also poor, community.

Eighteen-year-old Iluz had been on the traditional Hareditrack, studying Torah for about 10 hours a day. But he felt hewas unsuited for the intensive scholarly regimen and thoughdropping out of a yeshiva, or seminary, is very much frownedupon, he decided to leave.

Religious scholars are revered in Haredi culture, which seesthe study of Torah and Talmud as a sacred task, meant to keepalive centuries of knowledge and tradition almost wiped out inthe Holocaust.

Iluz now studies computer programming at a Jerusalem college, and when he enlists he hopes to serve in one of themilitary's computer units.

"I want to prepare myself for a profession now, to be ableto support my family," he said. "There is no reason for mycommunity to see me in a lesser light, I am not doing less withmy life than a seminary student."

Iluz is not alone. The number of Haredim getting jobtraining at specialised centres and studying at academicinstitutes has been steadily rising, giving graduates a betterchance of finding a job and increasing their earning power.

According to Israel's Council for Higher Education, some7,000 Haredim were engaged in academic studies in 2012, up from5,600 students in 2010, with business administration, law andsocial sciences drawing the majority.

The number is projected to rise further in 2013.

Army statistics show the number of Haredim in militaryservice growing steadily over the past few years. In 2008 therewere 387 Haredi soldiers. To date there are about 3,500, nearly10 times as many, ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

The number of Haredim who enter national service in civilcapacities has also risen between 2010-2012, according toIsrael's Administration for National-Civic Service.

Facing public pressure, the government has been grapplingfor months with the task of writing a new military draft billthat would slash the seminary student exemptions. The law isexpected to be brought to parliament in the coming months.

Haredim who choose to enter military or civic service oftendo so with the knowledge it will eventually boost their chancesof earning a decent salary.

In May, an Economy Ministry report found that found 70percent of Haredim who served in the army had found jobs aftercompleting service. By contrast, only 45 percent of all Haredimen are employed, according to the Central Bank of Israel.

Hayim is a 23-year-old Haredi man whose wife is a socialworker. He studies computer programming in the evenings andduring the day does computer work at a government office as partof his national civic service.

"There are those who mentally cannot study at yeshiva allday and those who cannot afford to do so financially. We justcan't live off 5,000 Shekels ($1,430) a month," said Hayim, whodid not want to give his family name.

Though attitudes among Haredim towards working and highereducation were changing, Hayim said, "I would prefer my son growup to be a Torah genius rather than a Bill Gates."

CONSUMER ENVY

Nissim Leon of Bar-Ilan University's Department of Sociologyand Anthropology said there were several reasons for the Haredipush into academia, professional training and the military.

The global financial crisis has cut overseas donations toHaredi institutions, Leon said, and the Israeli government hastightened the purse strings when it comes to the Haredim.

"There is also the Israeli consumer culture, which thepoverty-stricken Haredim can see, and they are choosing to studypractical professions that increase the family unit'sconsumption 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 unusualpath for an ultra-Orthodox woman when she decided to run forpublic 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 particularlystrict, said her family was threatened with ostracism.

She said an anonymous phone call was made to her husband'sworkplace saying he could no longer be employed there unless shepulled out of the race. He was told by members of their Hassidiccommunity that he would no longer be allowed into synagogue andthat their children would face expulsion from school.

"There are two clashing processes in the Haredi societytoday, one toward radicalisation and one toward integration andit is too early to say which will win," Ibenboim said. "Thereare many more social activists today calling for change. Povertyand hardship are pushing people toward change."

Ibenboim eventually chose to quit the race, saying shewanted 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'sfirst-ever party comprised entirely of Haredi women ran forseats on the all-male city council

"This is new. Haredi women do not go into politics. There isobjection to women in public office," said Michal Zernowitski,33, who headed the list.

"The Haredi street is ready, but when it comes to theinstitutions and to Haredi media, then there is a lot ofopposition," Zernowitski said. "It may take two, or three oreven 15 years. When you make a change you start on your own."

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