For the JN by Jenni Frazer Dec 2019
Slowly, and almost by stealth, the strictly Orthodox world is changing.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in Israel and the vexed question of getting Charedi men into the workplace, something that was previously unthinkable, but is now, gradually, becoming more and more acceptable.
One man who should know is Rabbi Nechemia Steinberger, a cheerful Jerusalemite who, 10 years ago, aged 25, took the fateful decision to change his life.
In London in December to meet supporters of Kemach, the organisation which promotes Charedi employment, Rabbi Steinberger, who today is Kemach’s senior director of strategic partnerships and development, spoke of the “unwritten contract” in the yeshiva world, which says that work is not discussed, that men devote themselves to Torah study, and that their wives, where possible, are the breadwinners.
The net result of such an approach is that thousands of Charedi families are living in poverty and on benefits. Kemach seeks to change that situation by helping men enter the workforce, through training and a variety of educational programmes.
When Rabbi Steinberger first approached Kemach he was actually much better qualified than most of his fellow yeshiva students — because he grew up in an English-speaking environment, with an American mother. So he was fluent in one of the four “building blocks” which Kemach deems necessary for men to be successful in finding jobs. These are a basic understanding of maths, good English and Hebrew, and a facility with computer skills. Armed with these four basics, it has been possible for Kemach to place more than 20,000 Charedim into the Israeli job market in the last 10 years.
“The main goal of the Charedi community”, says Rabbi Steinberger, “is to preserve and keep their values”. And that means that Kemach does everything possible to meet that aim, providing the men who approach it with support and assurances that they will be able to enter the job market on their own terms — that is, without compromising the Charedi way of life.
“What works for Kemach is what works for the Charedim. We have one aim, to get as many strictly Orthodox into work as possible. So we provide viable options: and we tell them, you can be a plumber or an electrician, or you can be a rocket scientist. It’s up to them. But we don’t try to change them: and we ensure, right from the start, to get approval from the rabbis”.
There are said to be around 1.2 million Charedim in Israel, with an average of seven children per household. Kemach estimates that 67 per cent of Charedi children are growing up beneath the poverty threshold, although factored into that figure is the knowledge that the poverty threshold in Israeli society is calculated with many of the goods and services of a Western lifestyle, which do not apply to Charedim. So, for example, if a home does not have a TV or internet technology for religious reasons, or the family does not go to cinemas or restaurants or take foreign holidays, does that put it into the poverty category?
Nevertheless there is real and acute poverty in the Charedi sector, which is driving more and more men to conclude that they cannot provide for their families by continuing to live on benefits. And the incentive cuts both ways, says Rabbi Steinberger. “Official Israeli statistics say that for every Charedi who goes out to work, the state saves 240,000 shekels (£51,628) per person, per year”. This is because once the man is off benefits and paying taxes, he is making a different and improved contribution to society.
Rabbi Steinberger illustrates the change in attitude among the Charedi community with a conversation he overheard outside the Kemach offices. “There was a Charedi man, long coat, peyot, beard… and he had a child with him, and the little boy was telling his father he needed new shoes. And the man said, my salary is due in on the 10th of the month and then we will buy you new shoes. When I was growing up, such a sentence would never have been uttered by anyone in my community. For me, it showed a story of self-sufficiency and responsibility, of a determination not to live any longer on charity.”
In the years since its founding in 2007 — spearheaded by British philanthropist Leo Noe — Kemach has encouraged hundreds of men — and, latterly, Charedi women — to train at their own pace in order to go into the workplace. There have been some singular successes, including a Charedi airline pilot, a chef, law graduates and a whole cohort of strictly Orthodox medical students. One of the best known is a Gerer Chasid, Yehuda Sabiner, who has just completed his last year of training at the Technion medical school. There is even a Charedi man who runs a horse farm, to provide much-needed riding for the disabled courses.
Kemach is one of the key projects supported in Israel by UJIA, who explain its success as an organisation which simultaneously builds bridges between the Charedi communities and mainstream Israeli society, while enabling the Charedim themselves to stay true to their values.