Israel: Putting Orthodox Males to Work

The government fears that the lack of employment among Orthodox males may impede Israel's prosperity

Bloomberg Business Week/August 5, 2010

Moshe Linker spends his days studying Jewish religious texts in Jerusalem, supporting his three children with a seminary stipend, state child payments, and his wife's teacher salary.

Linker isn't alone. Almost 60 percent of Israel's estimated 100,000 ultra-Orthodox men of working age don't have jobs. They have prompted Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to assert that the haredim, as they are called in Hebrew, may impede Israel's prosperity. The low rate of employment is putting pressure on the economy in a way that is "not sustainable," Fischer told reporters in Jerusalem in July. About 50,000 ultra-Orthodox men who study full-time are also exempted from service in the military, which means they don't participate in an institution that has driven Israel's technology boom and helped transform its economy. (All the haredim together—men, women, and children—come to about 700,000.)

Linker, 39, says he makes an essential, if nonfinancial, contribution: "We live in a Jewish nation and provide it with the spiritual energy to keep it going. That's at least as important as the economy." According to a June 30 Finance Ministry report, the country lost an estimated $1 billion in additional economic output last year because so few able-bodied haredim worked at paying jobs. "Every citizen gives some and gets back some," says Omer Moav, an economics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "An average haredi family gives a small amount and gets a lot. The burden on the working population will grow and grow."

For people such as Linker and Hillel Mann, a 36-year-old student with five children, leaving the yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, is tantamount to forsaking their way of life. "The sages say that someone who even for one day abandons Torah study will find it extremely difficult to return," says Mann.

Undeterred, the government is proposing to spend more on job-placement, educational, and vocational programs to boost ultra-Orthodox males' labor market participation to about 63 percent. That may lift annual economic growth by between 0.5 and 0.75 percentage points for the next 15 years, says Eugene Kandel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top economic adviser. "This group has a lot of potential in it because they know how to learn," he adds.

Because most haredi men get no more than a basic education in math and science, even those who want to work can't get jobs in the technology industry. Those who do serve in the army don't qualify for the high-tech units that produce entrepreneurs. One attempt to address this is an army program called "Wisdom in Khaki" that offers haredi men training in computer and communications work. The men apply these newly acquired skills in the intelligence branch of the army. When they finish their service they are equipped to find high-tech jobs.

Many haredim would get a job if workplaces "appropriate to the ultra-Orthodox culture and rules of conduct" could be created, says Benjamin Fefferman, director of the planning, research, and economics administration at the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor. Says Moshe Gafni, a member of the ultra-Orthodox political party United Torah Judaism: "We are not parasites. The haredim want to work, but we don't want to change the way we live."

The bottom line: The Israeli government is trying out some innovative programs to boost the labor participation of ultra-Orthodox males.

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