Tuesday, October 4, 2016

New generation of Israeli ultra-Orthodox challenge old guard

“We are looking into the future, what will become of the next generation,” said Avigayil Karlinsky, a 28-year-old social activist. “I am part of the larger Israel and I want my voice to be heard.”

She said the ultra-Orthodox leadership’s aversion to progress and integration is mostly about maintaining political power rather than serving their constituents. Until recently, such open criticism was unheard of, but it is gaining traction as people like Karlinsky try to change their world from within.

Experts have long warned that the ultra-Orthodox community’s high birthrate and poverty levels, along with low rates of employment and education, could doom Israel’s economic prospects.

Many ultra-Orthodox acknowledge this, but they reject any outside effort to enforce changes and insist the process has to happen at its own pace.

Critics inside and outside the community say a more comprehensive reform is needed, including greater emphasis on teaching children math, English and computer literacy. There also are growing calls for outreach to Israel’s secular majority.[...]

Gilad Malach, a researcher who specializes in the community, said reform was already underway. He said a majority of haredi men now work, compared to just a third in 2003. Women continue to be the primary breadwinners, and their employment rates of close to 75% are comparable to the general public, he said.

The number of ultra-Orthodox joining the military and pursuing degrees has also quietly grown, but “modern” haredim like Karlinsky still only make up about 10% of the community, he said. He says the leadership hopes it stays that way.

“Their approach is ‘nothing has changed,'” said Malach. “But regular people are more sophisticated than that. Every mainstream haredi knows he has to make adjustments.”

The state offers specialized training programs, study grants and other incentives to haredim, but they have to be handled with care so as not to come off as patronizing. While leading rabbis and their representatives in parliament have given their blessing to some projects, they have offered none of their own.

“There is no vision. That’s the real problem,” said Malach. “They don’t have any plans and it would be best if the push came from them.”[...]

In Elad, a central Israeli city of 50,000 mostly haredi residents, the ultra-Orthodox are seeking a happy medium. It boasts the highest rates of employment, salaries and high school matriculation of all haredi communities in Israel. It also prides itself in having clean streets, close ties to neighboring secular and Arab towns, and ample public services like libraries, theaters and community centers.

Mayor Yisrael Porush, a 35-year-old father of six and scion of a prominent haredi family, said his main objective was to develop the city and provide opportunities for residents.

“I’m opening the door for them and it doesn’t come at the expense of study,” he said. “The world is moving forward and everyone wants to feel equal.”

He deferred larger questions about haredi society to the rulings of the great rabbis, but clearly reveled in the companies and colleges that had opened branches in his city and accommodated haredi needs, such as separate working spaces for men and women, and flexible hours for working mothers. He said such an approach would be much more effective than open confrontation.

“Everyone understands that you have to provide for your family,” he said. “But if you come at us with a gun, or with a whip, or threats, we have a problem.”

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