Earners vs. Learners

The Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Revolution

11.13.12 2:45 PM ET

The most pressing danger facing Israel may come not from without but from within the Jewish state, according to yesterday’s panel on haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women at the JFNA General Assembly in Baltimore. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector numbers 650,000 to 800,000 people, forming about 10 percent of the general population. Because the majority of haredi men are chronically non-employed—that is, they choose to engage in Torah study rather than enter the workforce—one in five Israelis currently lives below the poverty line. Given how quickly the ultra-Orthodox population is growing, something needs to change, and fast.

And something is changing. While haredi men immerse themselves in state-subsidized Torah study, their wives are going out to work and becoming family breadwinners. These women are the focus of a new documentary by iconic Jewish sex therapist Dr. Ruth, who told the GA audience that initiatives like the JDC’s Tevet program—which trains women in high-tech, computer science, financial analysis, and other fields—are sparking a “revolution” in Israel. Careful to respect its participants’ religious sensibilities, Tevet boasts an impressive placement record: 90 percent of graduates go on to find work with mainstream Israeli companies.

“Every workplace that employs them is extremely satisfied,” an interviewee tells Dr. Ruth in the documentary, explaining that haredi women are unusually loyal to their employers. One woman was even seen clocking out at the end of the day, only to go right back to her desk and continue working. Asked why she didn’t go straight home, she explained that she felt obligated to get in a few more work hours, since she’d spent too much time chatting with her coworker that day.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the new revolution. One of Dr. Ruth’s interviewees relates that when some 250 haredi women attended an assembly designed to help them fill out job applications, their husbands staged a protest, shouting gevalt and cutting off the auditorium’s electricity. But—amazingly, resourcefully, rebelliously—the women stayed in their seats and, using their cell phones to illuminate their paperwork, filled out the applications anyway.

“If a woman brings home a paycheck that’s larger than her husband’s, psychological issues arise,” Dr. Ruth said. Still, she was optimistic that “with counselors and therapists, they can work on these issues and solve them for the greater good of the family.” She stated that even women with seven children—the haredi average—should participate in the workforce because it’s vital to their self-esteem.

The audience, however, greeted the panelist with a healthy dose of skepticism. How will a workplace accommodate the needs of women with seven children? Even with Israel’s generous maternity leave policy, wouldn’t that mean taking a lot of time off work? Isn’t that bound to discourage employers from hiring them, and won’t it breed resentment in their secular coworkers, who’ll likely be asked to shoulder a greater part of the burden as a result?

“Their enthusiasm, when they go back to work, will make up for it,” was Dr. Ruth’s only response.

Jane Eisner, Forward editor and Dr. Ruth’s co-panelist, applauded the entrance of haredi women into the workforce but cautioned against the notion that this phenomenon will be enough to solve Israel’s income inequality problem. “While it’s really important to have these grassroots efforts, government policy has to change if the trajectory is going to change,” she said. If the Israeli government keeps subsidizing the ultra-Orthodox community, there will be no incentive for haredi men to enter the workforce. Only when Israel understands that “the value of non-employment in the haredi community is very, very new,” and stops kowtowing to their insistence on engaging in full-time Torah study, will we begin to see some substantial improvement.

Besides, while haredi women now enjoy a 66 percent employment rate, that’s still 14 percent lower than the rate enjoyed by non-Orthodox Jewish women in Israel. Dr. Ruth’s documentary may spotlight some great success stories among haredi women, but, as Eisner cautioned, “The plural of anecdote is not always data.”