There is a new, outward-looking strictly-Orthodox middle class emerging in Israel, one of the country's leading think tanks has reported.
Challenging the received wisdom that the Charedi community as a whole is becoming more withdrawn from mainstream society, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) has found that a growing demographic within the group is "not afraid to integrate into the Israeli public domain, whether in academia, the workplace or the world of culture and leisure".
The IDI, which revealed its findings last week at a conference entitled 'The Development of the strictly-Orthodox Middle Class', said that while followers of this trend are still in a minority, "the size of this group is far from marginal".
According to the research, members of the Charedi middle class are just like other Charedim internally in that they accept mainstream Charedi ideology; externally in that they dress the same and culturally in that they are fully involved in communal life. The differences are that they have acquired academic qualifications, become professionals and increased their earning power.
The report is important because it identifies a broad social change in the Charedi community and explains the many small developments of recent years. In Jerusalem, trendy restaurants with the most exacting glatt kashrut supervision are opening to serve sophisticated Charedim. In Bnei Brak, stores for the modest consumer are stocking increasingly expensive clothes. Enrolment of Charedim in universities and colleges today are three times what they were five years ago. And Charedi birth rates are dropping.
These, and many other developments, can now be explained as symptoms of the emergence of the Charedi middle class.
But the significance of this report goes beyond the frame of reference it provides. In government, integrating Charedim into the workforce is the golden chalice of economic policy, and this report provides evidence that the process ministers dream about is under way.
But it also raises an important
question. If Charedim are integrating, should government seek to accelerate the process or leave it well alone? If it does not put money in to enabling more Charedim go into higher education it could find itself accused of wasting an opportunity, but if it tries to help things along, it may cause a counter-reaction from the Charedi leadership. It's a high-stakes gamble and nobody can predict the winning way.