Ultra-Orthodox facing 'unprecedented' crisis as young people drift away

New study suggests that drop-out rate partly explains sector's violations of virus regulations; researcher warns country must tackle 'alienation and marginalization' that leads many who leave their Haredi lives to end up on streets

YNet News, Israel/October 30, 2020

By Eliezer Hayun

Many young members of the Haredi community in Israel are abandoning the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in favor of living on the margins of society, while the drop-out rate in religious Jewish schools is three times higher than that of state-run institutions, a new study finds.

This phenomenon could explain why many in the ultra-Orthodox sector are choosing to reopen educational institutions, gather in synagogues, and hold mass gatherings despite extremely high infection rates among the sector and in clear violations of health guidelines.

The study was conducted on behalf of the Israel Democracy Institute and included 38 in-depth interviews with the heads of yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox associations and organizations, and education and welfare officials.

According to a number of rabbis and ultra-Orthodox parents who took part in the study, there is an unprecedented number of young people abandoning the community, an issue that was prevalent in the sector even before the pandemic began.

"The ultra-Orthodox youth just fall between the cracks," says Dr. Asaf Malchi, who led the study.

Malchi describes "disconnection, alienation and marginalization" of young people within the ultra-Orthodox community, leading to "delinquency, detachment and many other unhealthy situations."

According to the study, the state has failed in its response to marginalized ultra-Orthodox youth for a range of reasons, including failures by the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services.

"Young people dropping out of religious institutions is not a phenomenon that began during the coronavirus crisis," says Malchi.

"It is a phenomenon that has existed for many, many years within the ultra-Orthodox society. But the crisis, the closure of yeshivas and partial studies for ultra-Orthodox youth has only intensified and exacerbated the phenomenon.”

Contact with the “outside” world and a sense of boredom have led to "a huge crisis within ultra-Orthodox society,” says Malchi.

“The ultra-Orthodox community does not give legitimacy to secular education for Haredi teens, and this is one of the great crises facing ultra-Orthodox society today. Therefore, ultra-Orthodox rabbis are insisting on opening yeshivas and Torah studies to prevent this drift away."

Unofficial data shows that 15.20% of all Haredi students have partially dropped out of the ultra-Orthodox educational system and are attending their respective yeshivas only partially.

The distress caused by the crisis has led to extreme statements among the ultra-Orthodox mainstream. For example, by Rabbi Shimon M. who claims the health regulations are a plot by the authorities to harm the ultra-Orthodox way of life.

"I have no doubt that the government and other factors have found the opportunity to disrupt the proper functioning of our yeshivas," the rabbi says. "They simply want to create a situation in which the ultra-Orthodox public is crumbling.”

Rabbi Shlomo B., who works at a small yeshiva highlights focuses on the harm he says is caused by smartphones that "have changed the rules of the game."

“Among the students there is always one who does not necessarily belong to the core of yeshiva, it is he who has a smartphone,” the rabbi says.

“The first time the students see this unclean device they are shocked; the second time the shock abates and they even peek at the screen; the third time they are already asking to hold it. Watching the content on the device drags them like a whirlwind to other undesirable places, and they may even ultimately end up on the street.”

The rabbi also says, however, that smartphones are not necessarily the only issue.

“Take me, for example. I never listened to the radio before. I didn't have time for that. Since the virus broke out I found myself listening to the news every day. This is definitely a side effect of the coronavirus."

Unlike in the yeshiva world of the '90s, the content available from the "outside" world is readily accessible and available to anyone.

"You used to have to travel, change clothes and buy a movie ticket," says Yonatan, who works in a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh.

"Today you can keep your shtreimel and sidelocks and still have access to everything at the push of a button. I met a boy who left the yeshiva next to ours during the pandemic and today he is on the streets."

Malchi has a series of suggestions to deal with the phenomenon of ultra-Orthodox youths abandoning their studies only to find they have no place to go.

One such solution is the establishment of an ultra-Orthodox youth directorate in the Education Ministry, which would provide education and training for Haredi young people wishing to integrate into the general population and the labor market.

“The state has a lot to do to tackle the phenomenon,” says Malchi.

“I have to say that this is a phenomenon that is too big for ultra-Orthodox society to deal with alone. We will see it intensify during this difficult period of the pandemic if left untreated."

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