A Haredi legend tells of the head of a Lithuanian-style yeshiva in England, one of whose students came to him with trembling knees, and informed him of his intention to leave the yeshiva and to study at university.
The rabbi shouted at him that he was going astray and reprimanded him bitterly. Before throwing him out, he turned and asked: "And where are you going to study?"
"At Cambridge," answered the student in a weak voice.
"At least at Cambridge," said the rabbi with satisfaction.
This anecdote sheds light on the ambivalence of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society today in Israel in its attitude toward leaving the yeshiva in general, and higher education in particular. The Haredi rhetoric advocates the ideal of the student of Torah who studies in the Beit Midrash [study hall] day and night, and university is a dirty word. But apparently these foundations are beginning to grow less solid.
The professional success of a Haredi man, and social mobility, may still not be considered equal to the value of Torah study, but today, more than ever, a career is a tempting possibility in the broader Haredi community, which has begun to year for a normal life and fears economic distress.
According to statistics of the Labor Ministry, which provides most of the funds for professional training for Haredim, in 2002 some 1,600 Haredim, two-thirds of them men, participated in the study of professions that are not defined as typically Haredi (in other words, professions unconnected to religion). About half of them studied computer professions. This is a partial statistic; Haredim study in other courses as well, such as that at the Center for Entrepreneurs, but in fewer numbers. During the past two years, a university education, which is related to a wider bloc in this society, has also become legitimate.
Even though this is not a mass movement - a fact Haredi spokesmen emphasize - there is no doubt that after years of brainwashing that totally rejects the value of work, this new situation is causing ferment in Haredi society, and is bringing to the surface the struggle between old and new, conservatives and pragmatists.
"This is a complex dance between the various forces," says researcher Neri Horwitz of the School for Educational Leadership. "The rabbis who give legitimacy or who look the other way, the Haredim entrepreneurs, and the secular volunteer organizations providing financial support. There is mutual suspicion, and the trick is not to make mistakes, because any wrong step is liable to close the gates."
Prof. Menahem Friedman, who studies Haredi society, also sees contradictory trends. On the one hand, there is openness to the new situation, and on the other hand, extremism. The question, he says, is which trend will be stronger, and what is the strength of the sane forces in Haredi society. The question is whether a new elitism is growing among the Haredim, which will compete with the status of the Torah scholars. The Haredim would put this question differently - will there be a renewal of the traditional class of ba'aeli batim [ financially well-established family heads, who are not yeshiva students].
Renan Hartman, chair of the Academic Complex in Kiryat Ono, which has opened a separate campus for Haredim in Or Yehuda, where 150 men and woman are studying business administration and law, tells of the tremendous desire of the Haredi law students to be top lawyers. Professions considered prestigious show signs of becoming a new status symbol. "A Haredi woman wants her husband to be a Torah scholar," says a Haredi entrepreneur in the field of professional training, "and if not, that at least he'll work in high-tech."
Along with these changes, it must be admitted that the infrastructure of professional training and academic study in the Haredi population has not expanded in accordance with the great expectations of both Haredi and secular entrepreneurs. Apparently this trend has come to a crossroads. The bursting of the high-tech bubble, admit the entrepreneurs, contributed to the awakening of the rabbis and to a drop in the rate of people seeking professional training.
Meir Kumer, who is in charge of the Haredi track at Machon Lev, a religious technical institute in Jerusalem, says that next year no programming courses will be opened, and that the institute is trying to develop courses in related professions (computer networks, for example), which may be more in demand in the market.
The head of the professional training department in the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, Sarah Horesh, warns that the new treasury decree decreasing the budget for training courses, and designating it only for those receiving guaranteed income, is likely to deal a death blow to professional training for Haredim.
But the Haredi entrepreneur in the field of professional training believes that this trend will not expand for a different reason: "As long as the state supports yeshiva students and transfers huge budgets, it won't pay to leave the yeshiva world, especially in today's economic situation." He gives even less of a chance to the trend toward academic studies: "The Haredi community is pragmatic. A young man won't devote four years of his life, in addition to college preparatory studies, in order to get the degree. After all, he's not doing it for the career."
"Haredi society has Pavlovian reflexes when it comes to higher education," says Yehezkel Rosenblum, one of the law students in the Haredi track in Kiryat Ono. "This is a conservative community. Changes don't come instantly. Today you may be a strange bird, but when you come to that same community as a Haredi lawyer, they'll look at you differently." Rosenblum, 34, married and the father of three, works as an administrator in a small yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was educated in prestigious Lithuanian-style yeshivas, and was ordained a rabbi. On the way to becoming a lawyer he abandoned a Sisyphean track, as he put it, to receive an appointment as a rabbi in one of the moshavim in Emek Hefer. "I always wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, but first of all I decided to give Torah study a chance," he says.
In his studies of Haredi communities in the United States and England, Prof. Amiram Gonen, head of the Flusheimer Institute for Policy Studies, describes the transition from the yeshiva to the workplace among yeshiva students there as a long process. Gonen defines an intermediate stage of a "scholar-earner," a yeshiva student who earns a living from occasional work, such as a driver for Haredi school children or as a private tutor.
In the course of time, this yeshiva student, says Gonen, is likely to become an "earner-scholar," i.e. to work during the day, and in the evening to try to study with a partner, in order not to be cut off from the Torah atmosphere.
Rosenblum's life is reminiscent of this description, While studying for rabbinic ordination, he studied in a kollel [a yeshiva for married men] in his town, Betar Illit. At one stage he began to combine his study with work at a Jerusalem publishing house. He also completed "Stage 2" in the army. When he saw that time was passing and his future was still unclear - the appointment to the rabbinate was delayed, and meanwhile his children were growing, and with them financial needs - he decided to study a profession with which to earn a living.
Years of living in two worlds, Torah and work, and a slow exit from the status of a Torah scholar, are typical of most of those who leave in favor of professional training or academic studies. Most waited patiently until the cracks opened and allowed them to leave. When they are in their thirties, with four or more children, it is easier for them to receive the approval of the rabbi and legitimacy from the surroundings to leave the kollel and to go and study or work.
Shlomo Mizrahi, for example, a Chabad Hasid considered a genius by his friends in the second year of law school in Kiryat Ono, first studied in a Kollel like everyone else. During a year as an emissary in a Chabad community in the U.S., he made up for what he was missing in the study of English and secular subjects. Later he studied to become a rabbinic pleader [the equivalent of a lawyer in the rabbinic courts] and worked in that profession. When the law track was opened, he naturally went there. With him in the classroom is his cousin Tzeli Mizrahi, also a Chabadnik, who has been working for several years, and is at present a sales manager for the Haredi sector in Eurocom.
The story of the Haredi track in Kiryat Ono is a story of a growing group in the Haredi community, men aged 25-35, individualists who accept the Haredi framework, but develop new norms for themselves: young men who have exhausted the channels of Torah study, and have decided to continue outside the circle of Torah students. If representatives of Shas in this track are eyeing jobs in government, perhaps even in politics, the others, modern Hasidim and Lithuanian-style scholars like Rosenblum, hope to become part of the general employment market. They did partial military service, and definitely do not intend to abandon the Haredi world. On the contrary, they are finding their place in Haredi society with an ease reminiscent of American Haredim.