He is one of the best-known rabbis in the Haredi world. Short with a gray beard - and always with a book in his hand, his word has a huge influence on vast sections of the ultra-Orthodox world. His aide asked me to drive him home after we had both made a short consolation visit to a house in mourning.
During the drive I asked him, "Rabbi, why aren't you willing to have core [non-religious] subjects taught in Haredi schools? After all, for generations fathers have been required to teach their sons a trade. Isn't it clear we also have to work?"
"Nu, and what's the problem with going out and getting a job?" he answered. "Whoever wants to work always can do so."
"But rabbi," I replied, "in today's world, to make a living you need basic knowledge such as English and math."
"Really?" he said, looking at me in surprise. "Whoever doesn't know math and English can't find a job? You really need all that? I didn't know."
That conversation reveals the complexity underlying the Haredi world. On the one hand, the rabbinic and political leadership is trying with all its might to preserve the principle of separateness, even to the point of not having an idea about how Western society works. The goal is to do everything possible to prevent young Haredim from desiring the permissive world of the non-religious - even at the price of poverty.
On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox community is no longer a small and conformist community. Under the surface, things are starting to boil over. The poverty is already unbearable, and more people are saying that such a large group of men can no longer be locked up in study halls all day. Worst of all, a Haredi middle class is developing that keeps its old ways but occasionally wants to enjoy the pleasures of the world.
In Bnei Brak they have never heard of the OECD, or of the organization's recommendations on workforce participation in Israel. But many young Haredim no longer see themselves as an integral part of the Haredi world. They are the new Haredim. They are getting an education, serving in the Israel Defense Forces - in special frameworks - living comfortable lives, and may God have mercy, they are even surfing the Internet.
How can we calm the tension between the Haredi leadership and the masses? How can we find the proper path to encourage Haredi employment - an effective path that does not inflame the leadership and set off a war both sides will lose?
Normal methods of reward and punishment won't work here. For such a delicate balance we need a new formula. We need not a carrot and a stick but more like a baby carrot and a toothpick.
The principle is to tempt, to strike very gently - instead of an all-out war over core studies or threats of cutting off funds to Haredi institutions. It's possible to get a lot done by acting with understanding. We can deal with specific problem areas such as Haredi towns with high unemployment, instead of using huge government subsidies to encourage employment.
The discussion with central bank chief Stanley Fischer was a first step in this direction, while a petition to the High Court of Justice over core studies is a big stick - one that could make the whole solution fall apart, and one the Haredim are quite used to.