The silent Charedi revolution

How Israel's Orthodox are being helped into work


"The best solutions for the Charedi community can come from within the community, and nowhere else," says Yossi Deitch, chairman and one of the founders of the Kemach Foundation, as he looks through the personal files of some of the thousands of Charedi men and women who his organisation is helping into the workplace.

"So many committees have been set up to try to solve the problem of Charedi employment over the years, and have achieved nothing. We succeeded because we know the sensitivities and the nuances between the various groups, and also by not going about our work with any fanfare. In over three years of existence, we have done no PR, it's all word of mouth."

But the message has got out. Kemach, founded in late 2007, already supports 5000 men and women participating in a wide range of professional and academic courses and has another 2500 applicants currently being processed. In Israeli society, this is little short of a silent revolution.

The low levels of participation in the national workforce by the strictly Orthodox have long been a major concern of economists and politicians. Motti Feldstein, Kemach's director general, admits that it is a worry also within the community.

"After the Holocaust, when the surviving rabbis came to Israel to rebuild the yeshivas that had been destroyed, they had only a few hundred students and they could all find paid jobs as rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers and other positions within the religious framework. That, in addition to the reparations many families of survivors began receiving in the 1950s, was enough to keep the community afloat."

Social chasm

Of Charedi children in Israel live below the poverty line
Number of Charedim enrolled in Kemach's vocational training classes.70,000
Number of Charedim currently studying in Israeli yeshivas

But the high birth-rate within the Charedi community has brought about a situation where over 70,000 are today studying in yeshivas, and most of them have no hope of finding jobs within the community or the rabbinical establishment.

Most of the solutions so far have been proposed by government agencies and have been unsuccessful, particularly because many rabbis saw them as attempts to interfere with the community's inner workings and impose on them ideological changes.

Yossi Deitch, a veteran Charedi politician and currently a member of the Jerusalem City Council, together with a few partners, realised that the way forward was to work quietly from within. With the backing of a number of Jewish philanthropists from abroad, chief among them British real estate magnate Leo Noe and the Wolfson Family, they founded Kemach ("flour" in Hebrew) and began interviewing Charedi men in their late 20s who had left yeshivas after many years of study and were looking for jobs.

"We built a special questionnaire that assesses their capabilities and aspirations," explains Tzvika Schreiber, Kemach's chief vocational adviser, "we have whole classes around the country learning to be lawyers, electricians, engineers and bank employees, but we also have people training for more offbeat occupations, including one future commercial pilot and a professional storyteller."

"We accept any applicant who wants to remain within the community while learning a decent job," says Mr Deitch, "the only applicants that we turn away are those who turn out to be such exceptional Torah scholars that we encourage them to return to yeshivah. We assist them by helping their wives get jobs."

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