Moving Charedim Into Israeli Workforce
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Moving Charedim Into Israeli Workforce

In conference here, funders grapple with crisis over lack of employment.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Israel has “an existential problem.” No, it’s not a nuclear Iran, or ISIS at the northern border.

It’s charedim (also known as ultra-Orthodox Jews), too few of whom have adequate secular education and too few of whom have jobs to support their families — a situation that threatens to turn Israel’s economy into a “Third World” one. The problem is especially grave given that charedim are the fastest-growing segment in the Jewish state’s population.

But getting potential funders to open their wallets to back programs that will move charedim into the Israeli workforce won’t be easy.

That was one of the takeaways from a daylong conference held here earlier this month that addressed the challenges presented by the lack of charedi participation in the Israeli workforce. It was called “Accelerate: Charedi Employment and Economic Empowerment,” and was hosted by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Rachel Charitable Trust of London and several other prominent charitable foundations in Europe and Israel. It brought together potential funders as well as practitioners in the field, and included panel presentations and breakout sessions describing a unique model that connects charedi entrepreneurs to high-tech and start-up companies offering mentorship, training and hiring.

The message: don’t donate because you support the charedi way of life; donate to benefit the State of Israel — economically, socially, politically and strategically.

“Charedi employment is not about charedim,” British businessman and philanthropist Leo Noe, who heads the Rachel Charitable Trust, asserted in his opening remarks. “It is about poverty, welfare, education, employment, social mobility, tolerance, economic growth, investment, Israel, unity and more.”

Following up on Noe’s remarks, Sir Mick Davis, another well-known British businessman who chairs the Jewish Leadership Council of Great Britain, offered a thorough and gloomy analysis of Israel’s challenges in the 21st century, focusing on how philanthropists can best strengthen the Jewish state. At one point he noted that “almost half of Israel’s children today are receiving a Third World education, and they tend to come from the fastest growing portions of the population,” namely charedim and Israeli Arabs.

“Children receiving a Third World education will only be able to maintain a Third World economy. A Third World economy cannot support the First World defense and security force that Israel needs.”

Thus, Davis asserted, Israel is faced with “an existential problem” that requires philanthropic as well as continued government support for educational and employment programs aimed at charedi young men.

Noe explained why he and two philanthropic partners have contributed more than $60 million in the last seven years to The Kemach Foundation he launched (as part of the Rachel Charitable Trust) to support charedi employment in Israel. (The name refers to a well-known phrase in Jewish lore: “Ayn kemach, ayn Torah,” without flour — or more generally, sustenance — there can be no Torah study.)

Noe said he was motivated to act after seeing a “culture of complacency” among charedim when it comes to supporting their families, and the “lack of tolerance” between charedim and the rest of Israeli society.

It’s not difficult to see why that mutual resentment is prevalent. Most charedim see the pursuit of Torah study as a man’s life’s work. As a result theirs is a largely closed society and secular education, army service and employment, other than teaching Torah and ritual services, are eschewed. Those who study Torah full time are subsidized by the government. The charedim, who often have large families, say they are supporting society spiritually. Not surprisingly most Israelis resent this situation, where a portion of their taxes goes to maintain a lifestyle they view as living off of Israeli society rather than contributing to it.

Compounding the social divide is the fact that while charedim make up about 10 percent of Israel’s population today, that figure is expected to almost triple in the next four decades.

The Kemach Foundation has shown much success as a major employment agency for charedim, Noe said, bringing thousands of men and women into the work force in the last few years, particularly in technology, through educational training and by encouraging companies to hire a cohort that has proven to be bright, loyal and committed on the job.

He said the effort reduces the financial strain on the government in helping people support their families and make for sustainable communities. And, he added, it is an expression of Jewish values.

Noe called for partnerships and collaboration from more funders, noting that a goal of the conference was to widen the effort “from the bottom up” and enhance Israeli society. “I cannot change every charedi in Israel, and perhaps none of us should,” he said. “But together we can provide opportunities for them to acquire skills and provide opportunities for them to succeed on their own.”

‘What Are The Men Doing?’

The Accelerate program was the first major effort by JFN to focus on charedi employment. Some funders present were familiar with the programs and already supported them. For others it was clearly new territory.

One funder, questioning a charedi panelist who is the mother of seven and the CEO of a start-up communications company, asked: “What are the men doing, and how do you change their values?”

The panelist, Sari Roth, explained with pride that her husband was a Torah scholar and that she is fully supportive of their division of labor — his to learn Torah and educate their children spiritually, and hers to be the breadwinner. It was personal and poignant moment that revealed the gap between mainstream and charedi ideals.

We learned that while rabbinic leaders of the charedi communities are not about to publicly endorse young men leaving the beit midrash, or house of Torah study, to find employment, the rabbis will not prevent it, either. And on an individual basis, if a young scholar tells the rabbi he is unable to support his family, the rabbi may encourage him to make use of various employment services operated by and geared toward charedi men.

One foundation representative at the conference later told me he found the program to be fascinating. But he said the charity he works for is not prepared to fund any charedi programs at this time, in part because many of the services are geared to young men in their 20s who are failing economically. His foundation would rather see more proactive programs — there are a few — that work with charedi boys still in high school, or earlier, teaching them secular as well as religious subjects and orienting them toward university and/or the work force.

“Why wait until their options are limited?” asked the foundation program officer, who spoke off the record because he had not cleared his remarks with his superiors first. (He also noted that more Jewish funders appear to be helping Israeli Arabs than charedim.)

Responding to his critique, Yael Simon, the London-based philanthropic adviser to the Rachel Charitable Trust, told me, “He’s right, but that’s like encountering a flood in your kitchen” and responding by taking steps to prevent future floods. “First, you have to deal with the problem at hand,” she said.

Simon, who spent 18 months traveling the globe to organize the Accelerate conference, said its main success was having funders, NGOs, representatives of the Israeli government, charedi educators and entrepreneurs, and high-tech officials in the same room. The key, she said, is in “including rather than excluding,” and in showing sensitivity and respect to the charedi community while offering its members an opportunity to benefit their daily lives without sacrificing their values.

Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation in New Jersey and JFN co-board chair, expressed enthusiasm for the Accelerate program in her closing remarks at the conference. She called it “an eye-opening experience … because I learned how much I still don’t know about what other funders and nonprofits are doing around the issue of increasing participation to strengthen Israel.”

She called for creativity and collaboration in moving charedi education and employment to the forefront of JFN funders’ issues. And this week she told me her foundation has “dipped its toes in the water,” giving out some grants for vocational and educational programs for charedim and “getting to see how we can collaborate.”

Others are showing interest, too. Simon, of the Rachel Charitable Trust, said she has received very positive feedback, and Eli Genauer of the Samis Foundation in Seattle said his board will be exploring ways to help.

Perhaps the most encouraging element of the Accelerate approach is that it can apply to other minority and periphery groups in Israel, including Ethiopian Jews and Israeli Arabs. It would require a combination of government support, philanthropic funding and close cooperation with any specific community to gradually bring its members into the mainstream work force and society.

The Charedi experience could be a model for the future.

Gary@jewishweek.org

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