Monday, July 25, 2011

The Slowly Changing Face of Chareidi Society

Chareidim at a recent job fair in Yerushalayim
Chareidim in Israel find themselves victims of derision, if not outright hatred by the secular public. They are seen as parasites of society, who collect taxes and social benefits, while refusing to work or serve in the armed forces.
But people often fail to consider just how challenging Chareidi life can really be. You're expected to learn full-time for years on end. It sounds easy, but try it. What if you're either not good at it, or you just don't like learning full time? You also can't really get a secular education, because society - that you love - has rejected it as treif. And, because you didn't serve in the army, you can't really work either.
In addition, Chareidim have large families, and while Chareidim truly live very frugal lives, groceries in Israel cost a lot of money. Moreover, Chareidim often buy meat, produce and other products that have only the best hechsherim, which are always the most expensive. (The chicken I buy is regularly 10 shekel per kilo for a whole chicken - I learned to cut up whole chickens very soon after we arrived in Israel; A chicken with a chareidi hechsher would easily cost double that amount. Easily.) Chareidim are expected to buy their children apartments when they marry, and many - probably even a majority, live from month to month by juggling small loans and large debts, paying when they can and borrowing to pay off other loans. And, when things get so large and out of control that there's no way out? That's when you go collecting.
Now, you might not have much sympathy for someone who actively chooses this type of lifestyle. After all, it is a choice. Go out and get a job? Personally, I agree. But it's not that simple. If you're born into this lifestyle, not only is it all that you know, but many, many thousands of Jews find themselves drawn to the insularity, sincerity and religious passion of Chareidi life. It's not as easy to reject your cultural upbringing as we may think.
But things do seem to be changing, ever so slowly. The Nachal Chareidi - the Chareidi brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, while extremely small right now (representing a tiny fraction of Israeli society), is growing and expanding at a surprising rate. Moreover, a recent Hebrew article on Yediot Achronot's website, tells of a recent job fair for Chareidim that attracted 4,000 participants, far outstripping the expectations of the people who organized the fair.
And, as work in the Chareidi world becomes more widespread, it will only continue to grow. After all, until now, even if a Chareidi wanted to work, he might refrain from doing so for fear of ostricization on the part of his community. But, as more Chareidim find gainful employment and remain integral parts of their communities, their friends and neighbors will begin to wonder, "Why am I killing myself mired in thousands of shekel of debt, while my friend and neighbor is able to support his family and remains an honored and respected member of my community?" Good question.
This is not, by any means, a suggestion that the Chareidi lifestyle is going anywhere. Far from it. I actually think that Chareidim working will strengthen their community, making a Chareidi lifestyle a viable, livable option for the next generation. But, as more Chareidim enter the workforce, they will begin to not only integrate into society in small and large ways, but also influece the people that they work with, bringing us all a little closer to the Torah that they hold so dear.