Study: Haredi middle class emerging

Institute warns against coercive measures designed to forcibly accelerate these processes.

The Jerusalem Post/February 9, 2012

A small but significant segment of the haredi population is beginning to emerge, whose socioeconomic status could be defined as middle class, says a new study from the Israel Democracy Institute.

Although specific numbers are not yet available, the report, which was presented on Wednesday at the organization's headquarters in Jerusalem, identified several defining characteristics of a nascent ultra-Orthodox middle class that sets them apart from other members of their community and which represent a new haredi sector that aspires to a more varied lifestyle.

"We're seeing more and more young haredi people who are eager to go to work, to make a living, to be exposed to normal life, and not to just stay in yeshiva," Prof. Yedidia Stern, IDI vice president for research, told The Jerusalem Post.

"But they also work hard to live in both worlds without losing their original identity. They want to maintain their culture and identity as members of the ultra-Orthodox community, but they are also inclined to go to the theater, read non-haredi newspapers, as well as the haredi ones, and be exposed to a greater extent to wider Israeli society," he said.

Stern warned, however, against any coercive measures from the Knesset or the High Court of Justice designed to forcibly accelerate these processes, especially with regards to education and national service. Upcoming elections and an atmosphere of political populism could strengthen hardliners within the haredi community who would use such sentiment to prove to their public that cooperation with the broader society is not possible, he said.

"My main message is that Israeli politics and the legal system in Israel should not push haredim at this time. Any kind of push by law, any coercive intervention in the delicate fabric of relationships between haredim and wider society will be counter-effective and harmful.

"The process is already under way and the invisible hand of Adam Smith is much more efficient than any court ruling or Knesset bill," Stern explained.

According to the report, unlike other segments of the ultra-Orthodox public, the middle class haredim are likely to work outside the community, often in professional vocations such as accounting or law.

They tend to send their children to national-religious elementary schools, although for high school and further Torah study they send them to haredi educational institutes.

Middle class haredim marry within the ultra-Orthodox framework and at the same young age as most other haredim, the study says, but are more inclined to choose a partner with similar interests and aspirations, especially regarding employment.

Participation in some form of national service is also common for these more modern haredi men, but it is done within an ultra-Orthodox framework and for practical not ideological purposes. Torah study in kollel comes first, then the army or national service, and then some form of higher education.

According to Stern, there has been a marked increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox entering universities or colleges, from approximately 2,000 in 2006/7, to between 5,000 and 6,000 for the 2012/13 school year.

"There is a huge strengthening of academic and professional studies among haredim... in fields that take an ultra- Orthodox man or woman to a profession which provides opportunities for career progression and a rising salary," said attorney Haim Zicherman, one of the report's authors.

Despite these developments, the study's authors pointed out that the group is still small and remains largely committed to the broader haredi community.

"Although there is certainly a discernible haredi middle class, they have yet to become a consolidated group, and their allegiance remains to the haredi leadership, not the State of Israel," Zicherman said.

The authors attribute the rise of this embryonic haredi sector to several factors, including increased exposure to the Internet that has "opened the eyes of the community," and a weakening leadership that is more reactive, less proactive.

According to Stern, the past decade has seen a disintegration of the authority of the haredi leadership, distinct from earlier times when the community was led by strong and dynamic leaders such as the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Elazar Shach. Current leaders are ageing, such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, 101, who is hospitalized in serious condition and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 91, and infighting between potential successors means that the relative lack of authority and rigid hierarchy is "here to stay," Stern said.

The reason behind the timing is less clear, although Stern attributes it to a natural process in which people are "fed up with living in a ghetto and being poor."

For the haredi middle class to continue growing and become a consolidated group, it will need to develop its own Torah leaders, political leadership and educational system, according to the study.

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