You will be seeing them near you. You will not find them in movie theaters or nightclubs, but you will see them driving the Mazda on your right at the traffic light. They will be standing on line in front of you and behind you at the duty-free shops in Ben-Gurion Airport and will be sitting at the next table in restaurants all over the country. They work for a living just like you do, and in complete opposition to the description of haredim as parasites, they earn salaries similar to those of the Israeli middle class.
This description comes from a haredi man wearing a black suit and a black skullcap on his head. He represents the "new haredi" movement that has had Israel’s religious world in an uproar in the recent past. If this phenomenon had been hidden away like skeletons in the closets of haredi society until fairly recently, now no one dares to ignore it.
This topic — one of the most sensitive and urgent in the haredi sector — threatens to change the face of haredi society. Some people claim that this new movement is going to cause a revolution.
The number of the "new haredim" is estimated in the tens of thousands.
They are scattered throughout the haredi population centers in Israel, from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak, from Beitar Illit to Elad, from Beit Shemesh to Upper Modi’in. Most of them come from the major Lithuanian segment identified with the United Torah Judaism party. Their parents no longer shun them as was done in the past, even if they do not necessarily condone their children’s choices. “The parents are in no hurry to let people know that they have "new haredim" at home, but they are not ashamed of it either,” one of them says. “Ostracism by the family has become something that is done only by the more extreme types, if at all.”
Y., 30, lives in a haredi city in the center of the country and works in marketing and public relations. He does not like the description "new haredi." He would rather be known as a “working haredi.” He has already seen how tough it is to leave the world that the rabbis ruled, and despite everything we know, he does not spare the local leaders of the haredi public from which he came. “When I wanted to enroll my daughter in the Bais Yaakov school closest to my home, they would not accept her.
"They started to ask questions and complain that I was working and that I had a ‘non-kosher’ cellphone. I told them that I had to use it for work, but nothing helped. Things reached a peak when they talked about the synagogue where I worship, which is too modern for their liking. As far as they’re concerned, only those who live exactly as they do are haredi. All others are second-class.”
The problems did not end with the school. Y. will also have trouble finding a husband for his daughter. “I’m not sure that I’m less haredi than they are. On the contrary. I deal with the temptations of the non-religious world, and at the end of the day, when I come home, I spend time studying Torah. They represent all the people who sit in kollel [Orthodox Jewish seminary for married men] all day and don’t have to deal with anything. But I, and people like me, should be appreciated a lot more. It’s time for the policymakers on the haredi street to understand that our numbers are increasing and that we’re not afraid. We also contribute more and we’re of a much higher quality.”
Q. And yet you’re still afraid of exposure. You still don’t want to give your full name.
“Yes — because after all is said and done, my daughter is the one who will be pointed at on the street. She’s the one who will have to get up an hour earlier every morning to go to school on the other side of town.
The local leaders control the faucet and they make decisions as they see fit, and nobody can interfere.”
Yaki Reiser, 33, is a classic "new haredi." The vice president of the Z. Landau real estate firm, he is considered a well-known entrepreneur in the haredi sector. But he is also frustrated over the obstacles that the leaders of the Edah Chareidis, a prominent ultra-Orthodox communal organization, place in front of him and others like him.
“Many of us make donations from our own money to yeshivas and kollels, but the prevalent feeling is that the child of a lawyer or a person in high-tech is a tainted child. We also want our children to excel as Torah scholars, but there’s no contradiction. A haredi person can work. It was known in the past that the wealthy people of the town were particularly respected because they maintained the world of Torah study. So when the newspaper Yated Ne’eman writes that a haredi person should go to work depressed and weeping, that’s just not acceptable. Most of the people who attend my synagogue serve in the Israel Defense Forces either in the regular army or in the reserves, and I still consider myself haredi. I am ‘anxious to do the will of God’ [the definition of “haredi,” from the Hebrew word for anxious or fearful] and I obey the Torah sages. I teach my children morals and convey the message that the Torah is what protects the world. But there is also the need to combine Torah with work. We have a kollel called Amelim — ‘laborers’ — which is open at night. It’s for people who work from seven in the morning to seven at night. When they come home, they go to evening prayers and a class. One of the rabbis in Elad told us that two hours of such study is worth what a yeshiva student learns for a whole day.”
Munching cashews with the MK
The voices of Y., Reisner and others like them are finally being heard. Haredi politicians are also catching on to what is happening, and they cannot afford to ignore it. About six weeks ago, when it looked like Israel was going to have early elections, MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) quickly held a parlor meeting in the haredi city of Elad. Ten people attended — ten votes in all, and they sat together for almost four hours. All ten people at the meeting were "new haredim." Among them were a contractor, an employee of an advertising firm, a high-tech worker and so on. They all wore black skullcaps. On the table were refreshments that were considered fancy for haredi gatherings. There were cashews and candied almonds instead of pistachio nuts, and the well-known sponge cake was upgraded to more expensive baked goods. “For us, those black seeds are out of the question,” joked one of the people at the meeting.
The discussion itself, which was much more serious, was not the first of its kind. Similar meetings have taken place recently in Bnei Brak and other haredi cities.
Evidence of the topic’s sensitive nature can be seen in the fact that Gafni and Maklev refused to be interviewed for this report or even comment here. The MKs, who refuse to see these meetings as a significant event, deny that there is any connection between them and the elections that were believed to be around the corner. “My worldview didn’t change,” MK Gafni said in an interview on the haredi radio station Kol Barama. “We think that anyone who accepts the authority of the Torah sages is haredi no matter whether he’s Ashkenazi or Sephardi, whether he works or studies. We saw a need to have these meetings recently because there are people who feel that they are not part of United Torah Judaism, and that’s not accurate.”
Political officials who have ties to United Torah Judaism differ with Gafni. “He can say that nothing happened, but three years ago nobody ever thought of holding such meetings. Something new is happening here.
People aren’t afraid to say it anymore, and they’re not afraid to demand that their daughters be accepted into good schools because they’re working haredim. If the word ‘work’ was once a dirty word among this population, in the future this population is going to be the majority.”
Some people also criticized Gafni and Maklev for their meetings with the "new haredim." The haredi press does not usually come out publicly against its own politicians and public figures, but Yeruham Ostreicher published an essay on the Kikar Hashabbat website claiming that the two MKs were perpetuating discrimination and wanted to put the "new haredim" in a ghetto. “Gafni did not come with a proposal that said, ‘We’re going to fight against discrimination and racism and make sure that every haredi person serves God whether Torah study is his profession or he uses his Torah study for material gain. Everybody will live together and attend the same schools, just like in the end of days the wolf will dwell with the lamb.’ Not at all. He came with a proposal that said, ‘Join us so that we can help you perpetuate the discrimination, fund schools that will be known for good as second-class, where no one else will mix with us, God forbid, and be a bad influence on our little ones. We will fund a ghetto that will be just for you, and you’ll just support us.”
“Another party is needed”
The strongest fear among United Torah Judaism is that the strength of the "new haredim" will cause pain at the most sensitive place for politicians — the voting booth. The threats to establish a competing party are already taking shape. One example is the Tov list, which represents this subsector. Tov has succeeded in being elected to several local authorities and won one seat each in Beit Shemesh and Beitar. It also has representation at the Israel Bar Association. “In the next election, we will run in Jerusalem, Upper Modi’in and Elad also,” said Eli Friedman, one of Tov’s leaders. “We represent the working haredi public, which United Torah Judaism never took seriously, but only patronized. We don’t need to be patronized. We can run things on our own. I estimate that one-sixth of United Torah Judaism’s haredi constituency define themselves as working haredim.”
Friedman says that it is possible that in the future, the list may compete directly against United Torah Judaism in the Knesset elections.
“We have a future. The haredim understand and know that they have no choice but to work. We have no aspirations to get into the Knesset and we’re in no hurry to do it, but another haredi party is necessary.”
Reisner agrees that political strength is nothing to take lightly. “The possibility that new lists could come out of haredi cities certainly exists. The officials of United Torah Judaism realize this. That’s why they’re having these meetings. It’s a process that’s developing. This segment of the public is growing and needs solutions. It doesn’t stop there. It’s not definite whether the haredim should oppose the Tal Law, for example. On the contrary. A solution must be found for the working haredim who did national service as civilians and might be able to integrate easily into the work force.”
Reisner warns that the ones who might stop this process are actually the non-religious population. “The demand that the haredim contribute to society and work needs to come from within, not from outside. An attack on haredim could cause a great deal of damage. When it comes from without, there will always be haredi people who will choose to portray it as a decree of forced conversion, as it were, against the haredi community. This will unite the haredi community, as if it were forbidden to give in to the demands of the non-religious world, which is trying to impose another way of life on the haredim. The process of haredim going out to work is already under way. It just needs time.”
Some officials of the haredi political establishment see the "new haredim" as the solution to the mystery of United Torah Judaism’s disappearing Knesset seats. Despite the accelerated rate of natural increase in the haredi sector, election polls indicate that the number of the party’s seats remains the same or even decreases. On the other hand, Reisner feels that nobody is representing the new movement. “This segment of the public has needs. It is inconceivable that the schools that the children of working haredim attend should be in any way inferior to the schools attended by the children of kollel students.
It’s inconceivable that we should have to scatter our children among various schools. We have almost no representation in municipalities.
There’s almost no one who will listen to us. Every movement and every Hasidic group, such as Vizhnitz or Ger, has municipal representation and representation in the Knesset that helps in the establishment of nonprofit organizations and the opening of schools. But we, the working haredim, have nothing like that. We demand that the politicians give us explanations.”
“The mainstream is the kollel”
The list of demands does not end with political representation. If the "new haredim" accomplish their goals, the haredi sector will open up to new worlds. Many people in this sector want their children to study non-religious subjects such as arithmetic. Enrollment is also increasing in the haredi colleges. But at Yated Ne’eman, the newspaper that represents Degel Hatorah, it is forbidden to advertise such places.
“It’s like we don’t belong there,” says Reisner. “We all meet non-religious people in our day-to-day lives, and we all hear the same sentence: ‘If all the haredim were like you, everything would be all right.’ The public is not at all aware of what’s really happening among us. Today, a haredi person who sends a résumé to a non-religious company takes into account that if he writes that he graduated from the Ponevezh Yeshiva or studied at Kehilot Yaakov for four years, that could keep him from being hired. We want people to know about the problems that we have and get to know the processes that are happening. These are historic processes, and I’m not sure that our representatives in the Knesset can deal with them.”
The most recent data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Bank of Israel show an employment rate of 45 percent among men in the haredi sector as compared with 38% in 2009. The goal that the government has set by the year 2020 — 60% to 65% — still seems far off, if not a fantasy. People in the haredi sector have trouble explaining the data. “It is possible that the government ministries only count official statistics or well-known institutions,” says Mordechai, who works at a high-tech company. “But there is hardly a haredi who doesn’t work — in the free market, high-tech, accounting or real estate, or even in religious professions, such as rabbis, teachers and school principals within the haredi sector. It’s no secret that many people work on the black market or do work on the side, like giving private lessons or other businesses. The era of ‘the parasites who live at our expense’ — the slogan that the non-religious like so much — is over. In Israel, the cost of living is high, and [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has cut back allowances. So anyone who doesn’t work will have nothing to eat.”
Q. If that’s true, why aren’t the working haredim accepted in a more obvious and natural way?
“The major problem is leaving the yeshiva and going outside. Being part of the haredi mainstream means studying in kollel, and people go out to work with knocking knees and trembling hearts. They’re afraid of what people will say about them, about the fact that they left the ‘source of living water’ and went to dig in ‘broken wells.’”
“They just want to make money”
The rise and strengthening of the "new haredim" does not allow their opponents, who are responsible for that very “mainstream,” to keep on ignoring them. Degel Hatorah’s organ, the daily newspaper Yated Ne’eman, is the entity that represents the major stream more than any other one while sharply criticizing the phenomenon of the "new haredim." Yated Ne’eman, which usually ignores occurrences of violence and crime — deliberately, so as not to create a platform for discussion — has attacked the phenomenon more than once. In recent weeks, it dedicated several of its articles to criticizing it. The articles attempted to sharpen the definitions of a "haredi Jew" and a "new haredi" and explain the differences between them.
Yated Ne’eman recently published an editorial entitled "On fanaticism and extremism: Haredi pioneers and 'new haredim.'" An excerpt follows:
"Some people ask, with toxic demagoguery, ‘Doesn’t a haredi who works for a living become a new haredi?' Of course, the answer is no. It is simple and obvious that the fact that he is busy making a living doesn’t take away his haredi status. A 'new haredi' believes that the concept of being haredi is a symbolic brand that is flexible and changes as necessary. A haredi Jew knows that his main purpose is to elevate himself through Torah and reverence ... and that even if he should be forced to leave the study hall to occupy himself with making a living for a time, he should do so because he must, bowed down and weeping. ... A 'new haredi' regards materialistic careerism with admiration. He conveys the message to the members of his household that being successful at making money is a worthy and preferred goal. The 'new haredi' attributes importance to the values of the external world such as careerism and academics, entertainment and amusement. He dreams of joining the waves of progress and modernity, and tries hard to win recognition from the non-religious world."
Yated Ne’eman also ran a caricature that annoyed the "new haredim" a great deal. At the center is a female haredi sheep surrounded by many threats — from Hezbollah and Iran to the "new haredim." “As far as these local leaders, whose organ is Yated Ne’eman, are concerned, I’m their enemy,” says an activist who sent the caricature to his friends by email.
“They’re putting me in the same category as the worst murderers and Jew-haters. It’s inconceivable.”
Officials of Yated Ne’eman refused to comment.
The key: legitimacy
“The war of the 'new haredim' is not only over budgets and schools. It’s also about legitimacy,” says Reisner. “That’s the key. Though this situation is vastly different, one of the demands being made of the Palestinians is that they remove all the hate-filled content from their schoolbooks and understand that the existence of a Jewish state is legitimate. Legitimacy is important. We are not second-class, we don’t want to feel as though we are.”
Rabbi Mordechai Blau, chairman of the Guardians of Holiness and Education and one of the vigorous opponents of the "new haredim," does not mince words in describing his views about them. “These are not haredim but haredi-lite,” he says. “A person can’t belong to a certain club and want an education, and in the end mix the sacred and the profane. That is a problem. The haredim are not an ethnic group, but rather a group with codes that are binding. The word haredi comes from the verse ‘haredim le-dvar Hashem’ [“anxious for the word of God”
(Isaiah 66:5)] — people who are anxious to observe the 613 commandments in an excellent manner. There are many religious and traditional Jews, and there are many different styles in Judaism. But those who want to be included among the haredim must live under its binding way of life.”
Q. Then who is a haredi?
“A haredi is a person who first of all accepts upon himself the authority of the Torah sages, who obeys all their instructions, mainly regarding the education of children. A haredi is a person for whom Torah study is the most important thing. It’s not true that people who work are not haredi. The struggle is not against those who go out to work.
There was always the concept of the baalei batim, Jews who worked and were still meticulous in their observance. But people who wish to give their children a different kind of education, who think that children should also study non-religious subjects and that the Torah sages have no say and they are influenced and incited by the local leaders — they are not haredim.”
Q. How can a person support himself honorably without studying non-religious subjects?
“One can study other subjects, but only after marriage. A haredi man needs to be in yeshiva before and after he marries. If he does not do that, he is not a classic haredi man, and he will have a problem finding a wife.”
Professor Asher Cohen of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University says that both sides in this struggle are undergoing changes to which they are not always willing to admit. “The ‘old-style haredi,’ as he is portrayed in Yated Ne’eman, does not see or show reality. The haredi press never described haredi society as it is, but as it ought to be. Yated Ne’eman represents the Lithuanian hard core, which believes that the state should fund groups whose members study Torah from morning until night. Actually, it’s not just that Israeli society is not ready for that, but that today, haredi society doesn’t want it anymore either.
The newspaper is fighting for an ideal, for the attempt to protect an elite that will devote time to Torah study. They will not admit to the greatest change in haredi society, in which they are moving away from a situation in which all the men study Torah to an elite that studies while all the rest go out to work.”
According to Professor Cohen, the "new haredim" are also creating a reality for themselves that is not always true. “It’s something that is much bigger than a brief cultural program at the movies. Their exposure to the non-religious world has great significance — not in the way that they try to portray it, that they go out to work and then come back to Kiryat Sefer or Elad, and nothing trickles down. That’s a bit naive.”
Cohen believes that these struggles and upheavals are characteristic only of our society. “The excitement over this topic is Israeli excitement, because a phenomenon known as haredim and a group of learners was created here, and it’s hard to get free of it. In the skyscrapers in Manhattan you’ll see haredim, people who are haredim without a doubt, and nobody has a problem with it.”
Q. Who will win this fight?
“The fact is that the 'new haredim' are still dictating the direction.
"If another haredi political party should be established, it will be a very big surprise. It doesn’t look to me like it has a chance because in the end, the haredi public listens to the Torah sages, and no significant Torah sage is going to support this party. Even if such a party should be established, it is very likely that it will not clear the voting threshold. There is still a great deal of distance between being a 'new haredi' and voting for a party that is not United Torah Judaism. It is a symbol. You can live together and get used to each other, but to vote for a different party means that we are the other and different from you, that we are no longer members of the same society.
"That point is still very far off.”