Israel’s Charedi population has just hit a million, and the community is growing so fast that in just under half a century two out of every five Israeli Jews are expected to be Charedi.
Many Israeli economists are alarmed by the figures, just released by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), saying that they have no idea how Israel will retain its prosperity. How, they ask, can Israel keep hold of its advanced economy when many Charedi children are growing up without the education they need to participate?
“There are no shortcuts in life,” said Dan Ben-David, former advisor to the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. “You cannot stop studying material needed for contending with a modern economy and still expect to do well afterwards.”
He is referring to the fact that many Charedim — especially boys — study in schools that shun the national curriculum and say it is their right to study almost exclusively religious subjects.
“Already today, half the population is so poor that they pay no income tax whatsoever,” said Dr Ben-David, President of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.
One in five first grade students in Israel today is Charedi, he said, adding: “What will happen when today’s children become adults?”
For him, the challenge of a Charedi population ill-equipped for work could “become an existential issue” for Israel.
It is a different picture over at Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv. In addition to its main college for the general population, the institution has a buzzing campus especially for Charedim studying a range of secular subjects.
The IDI says the number of ultra-Orthodox students in the higher education system has grown tenfold over the last decade to 10,800. It also found that resistance to secular subjects in Charedi schools seems to be slowly falling: one in three students took university entrance exams in 2015 compared to 23 per cent in 2005.
“The younger generation has already come to a point of doing things that 50 to 60 years ago were unthinkable but which are becoming very natural today — training and going out to provide for their families,” said Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, director of the Ono campus.
Schools will change but slowly, he predicted, because there is a strong belief that intense religious study should dominate early years, with secular studies following later.
“This is already rooted in to the Charedi way of life,” he said.
With salaried Charedi men earning 39 per cent less than other Jewish men, many Israelis are sceptical about waiting for slow, organic change and want the government to force schools to teach secular subjects.
But lots of Charedim say they are getting by — not least because they are simply less materialistic than the rest of Israel.
“I don’t see a big critical financial crisis in the Charedi community,” said Rabbi Fogel.
He suggested that Charedim are living in better homes and are more likely today than in the past to own cars.
The figures suggest otherwise, with the IDI putting poverty rates in the community at 45 per cent, albeit the lowest in more than a decade. Yet Rabbi Fogel thanks that with many people running small businesses in the grey economy that do not show up in statistics, poverty figures are artificially high.
The social scientist Yoel Finkelman agreed that there was change among Charedim that mde the population growth slightly less daunting — but believes that this change is often overblown. “Some people talk about radical shifts but I don’t see anything that is quite so dramatic,” he said.
In his view, “the most effective change is probably happening from grassroots but whether this can be enough I’m sceptical.”
Dr Finkelman, part of the faculty at the National Library of Israel, said: “Everybody is concerned about economic wellbeing but whether people are prepared to sacrifice what they see as sacred values is unclear.”