Getting Charedim to work

By Nathan Jeffay, March 11, 2010
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A strictly Orthodox woman working at a bookbindery.  There has been a large jump in the number of Charedim going to work  in the planned city of Modiin Illit, where factories and other firms are designed to accomodate their religious needs

A strictly Orthodox woman working at a bookbindery. There has been a large jump in the number of Charedim going to work in the planned city of Modiin Illit, where factories and other firms are designed to accomodate their religious needs

The large buildings and symmetrical streets in Modiin Illit are a world away from the crowded flats found in other Charedi neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. And according to new figures, the environment is directly contributing to a growing enthusiasm for work.

Israel's fast-growing Charedi community is traditionally characterised by low employment, high poverty and dependence on charity and benefits. How to change this has become a perennial question of Israeli politics.

Haim Shani, director general of the Ministry of Finance, told the recent Herzelia conference that if Charedim and Arabs "were left out of GDP calculations, Israel would rank among the foremost developed countries".

In Modiin Illit, which has 42,000 residents, 48 per cent of adults worked in 2007, double the figure for some Charedi areas and just eight per cent below the national average of 56 per cent. This is a rise of 17 per cent since 2003. The mayor, Yaakov Gutterman, hopes to reach the national average employment rate within three years.

Modiin Illit, 1.5 miles inside the West Bank, was established in the mid 1990s in an attempt to tackle the socio-economic challenges facing the Charedi community through town planning.

Homes were cheap and spacious, and employers were given financial incentives to set up shop. They were then given guidance by the municipality to establish working environments suitable for the largest component of the workforce - women known as "kollel wives", whose husbands are in full-time religious study, .

Several hi-tech firms have located in Modiin Illit, providing female-only offices to protect employees from supposedly immodest encounters with men, as well as special rooms where the female employees can express breast milk.

Yechiel Sever, spokesman for the city council, said that the proof that Modiin Illit's model is working is that fewer and fewer residents rely on handouts.

"We see that there is less demand on charities," he said.

The government now has plans for two new Charedi cities drawing on the Modiin Illit model - Harish in the north and Kasif in the south.

According to Yehezkel Fogel, an expert on Charedi housing and employment, Modiin Illit proves that there is "a change in mindset" which, given the right outlets, will guarantee its financial stability. Rabbi Fogel, who directs an all-Charedi campus of Kiryat Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv, said: "As the community has grown people understand that they have to provide for themselves as well as relying on donations, unemployment benefits and allowances."

Israel's leading sociologist on the Charedi community, Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University, described rising employment in Modiin Illit as a "very optimistic development".

But he said there is a glass ceiling on what the Modiin Illit approach can achieve without the Charedi community reconsidering its reluctance to teach secular subjects in schools. Many Modiin Illit workers have unskilled and low-paid jobs.

"Without a change in attitudes towards education the main problem remains - they can't access the mainstream Israeli job market," said Dr Friedman.

    Last updated: 3:37pm, March 11 2010