Jobless ultra-Orthodox weigh on Israel's economy

Reuters/April 14, 2011

Meir Gross is a Jewish ultra-Orthodox father of five who does not work. Despite warnings that Israel's economy may be threatened by his fast growing, often unemployed, community, he does not want a job.

Gross advocates a pious existence geared to study. He spends nearly his entire day learning Torah (Jewish law), which he says is the most important edict bestowed on the Jewish man, and it cannot be combined with a job.

"Torah study demands utter and complete devotion. We're not interested in making money or in material luxury. We are content with very little and our true joy, and highest duty, is learning," Gross said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or "Haredim," are a devout tight-knit community who make up 8-10 percent of Israel's 7.7 million population, with eight children per family on average. Many are supported by the state and live well below the poverty line.

A Bank of Israel report in March said about 60 percent of Haredi men don't work.

But in 20 years the Haredim will make up 17 percent of the work force and many analysts say Israel's economy will suffer enormously if things do not change.

"They are a real danger to Israel," said Omer Moav, economics professor at the University of London and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "If we go bankrupt it's the end of the story for us. Our strong army rests on a strong economy."

The Haredim traditionally keep to their own towns or neighborhoods, where men walk the streets in traditional black garb and broad hats while women wear long dark dresses and cover their hair with hats, scarves or wigs.


While some Haredim choose not to work, others say they would like to earn their keep, but face too many cultural hurdles searching for jobs among Israel's secular majority.

Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker and head of Israel's finance committee, says the government must do more.

"The Haredi man is always the last candidate to get the job. Employers are sure they're bad workers. What we need is affirmative action," he said.

Analysts say Haredi education is a key factor keeping the men back. Haredi schools limit non-religious studies. Maths, English, science and technology are sometimes cut out entirely, leaving pupils ill-equipped for a modern labor market.

But Haredi women are exempt from the demands of religious studies imposed on men, and the Bank of Israel says the past decade has seen "a significant increase" in the employment rate among ultra-Orthodox women, now at almost 60 percent.

One sector taking on more and more Haredi women is Israel's booming technology industry, where demand for workers is big.

Matrix Global, a division of the Matrix subsidiary of Israeli IT firm Formula Systems, is based in Modiin Illit, a West Bank settlement dubbed the "future Haredi city."

Matrix Global started hiring ultra-Orthodox women in 2004 and now employs 750, many with degrees in computer science or engineering, as software developers and testers.

Religious conventions such as not shaking a man's hand or sitting alone in a room with him, not driving and keeping strict Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), can make it difficult for a Haredi woman to fit in, and Matrix tries to accommodate.

The company's Chief Operating Officer Libby Affen, a Haredi woman herself, lists flexible work hours, proximity to the home, bus shuttles, close mentoring and guidance of a rabbi who explains religious rules to the customers "on the outside."

"We're not trying to change the women or their beliefs, but to understand both cultures and bridge between them," she said.

Project manager Sarit, 35, a Haredi mother of five, said she could not have developed a career anywhere else.

"There should be more places like this in more sectors. There's no shortage of Haredi women who want work," said Sarit, who declined to give a surname.

Dramatic change

But economist Omer Moav said such trends were not enough.

"As long as the government won't make a dramatic change, things will get worse. One cannot reach an agreed upon solution, it has to be forced upon the Haredim," he said.

Successive Israeli coalition governments have relied for their survival on the support of ultra-religious parties who in turn have exacted a price for their backing, most often in the form of state benefits for their community.

Resentment in the Jewish state toward Haredim over their state benefits, seen as discriminatory and funded by the tax money of Israel's working majority, is often overshadowed in public debate by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Professor Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel-Aviv University and head of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research, has been studying for years the extent of Haredi benefits, such as child allowances, housing subsidies and scholarships.

"The true amount is concealed, veiled in misleading budget definitions. We are shocked each time we get an inkling of its magnitude, but it has to be huge if it allows one of the highest unemployment rates in the Western world," Ben-David said.

A spokeswoman for Israel's finance ministry said finding such data was "problematic," adding that the government in 2010 spent over NIS 350 million ($88 million) on projects aimed at getting Haredim into the labor market.

Success for such projects would have a great impact, said Ben-David. "If we were to increase employment to American rates, then we would add NIS 85 billion ($25 billion) to the economy."

But Meir Gross sees his lack of a job in a different light. "My answer is not in facts and figures. We believe the world will end if it is left with no Torah study, even for a moment."

(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Gareth Jones)

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