Into the World of the Haredi

On Dover Shalom Street, in Jerusalem

The voice in my head was excited:

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

“Mmmmm. Huh? Uh….What?”

“You know what time it is?”

“Let me guess: six a.m.?”

“Right! Time to get up!”

“Uh, thanks, but I set the alarm for seven.”

“My pleasure! … [time passes] … You’re not just going to lie there, are you?”

“Uh, yeah, I was. I figure I’ve got another hour before (fumbles with watch)…. Hey, wait – it’s not six! It’s like one fifteen in the morning. That’s not even six a.m. back home!”

“It’s six a.m. in Yogyakarta, in Ust’-Kut Russia, and apparently some parts of Mongolia! Really – you ought to get up!”

“You’re pushing it, there. What – did I leave the system preferences on my laptop unlocked again? Listen: just… just let me sleep until six, okay?”

“But you’re awake! And it’s six a.m.!”

“No, no it’s…. Damn. Okay.”

So I’ve been doing most of my writing between about one and three in the morning, after which I’m able to fall asleep until the damned puppy in my brain starts barking again at six. But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about the Haredi.

Folks have been asking me for more details about the kind of stuff our group is doing here, and we did have an actual site visit that I can talk about yesterday. Telling you, though, requires a bit of background:

Three (of many) phases of life in a Haredi communityDuring the Second World War, the great centers of Torah learning in Europe were destroyed. As the straggling death camp survivors made their way to Israel, the ultra-orthodox shtetl Jews of Poland, Latvia, Germany pledged to rebuild. They formed separate communities and cloistered themselves, the women raising and supporting large families so that the men could devote themselves to Torah study, to the exclusion of all else.

The Israeli government gave these Jews, the Haredi, a special place in Israeli society: they don’t serve in the Army and receive a small monthly stipend to keep them going. They are, after all, fulfilling the commandment to wrap themselves in the study of Torah, and they are doing it on behalf of the entire Jewish nation.

Chaviva brings us up to speed

Chaviva brings us up to speed

The Haredi are a society to themselves. Or societies – plural, depending on where they came from. Our facilitator Chaviva – a Haredi mother and wife herself – tells us that there are something like a dozen different communities; they all look alike to us, but she can tell them apart in an instant, by how they wear their curls, by subtle differences in the shape of their omnipresent black hats, by the cut of their coats. Married Haredi women don’t show their hair to anyone except their husband. In some communities the women wear a shawl, in some a head scarf. In some, the women cut their hair close and wear wigs. Others wear both wigs and a 50’s-style pillbox hat (perhaps to signal that yeah, that’s not my real hair). I give Chaviva a double take – that’s not her real hair? I don’t ask.

And so the Haredi live in a world they’ve created around themselves. They don’t read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio. Only a miniscule (but increasing) fraction use internet access, and then only a small number of sites that have been approved by the community or rabbi. But mostly the men study, and the women work to support them.

The problem is that “rebuild the great centers of Torah learning” wasn’t a completely specified algorithm, and – with 7-14 kids per family – these communities are the fastest growing segment of the Israeli population. Their separatist nature and special status has earned the ire and disdain of secular Israelis, and their swelling ranks have grown past the government’s ability to support them. The women – who are receive a practical secular education – have traditionally supplemented the family stipend by serving as teachers for other less orthodox Jews, but the men have no training except for their Torah study.

To compound things, spending time doing anything other than studying Torah has been, until recently, a subject of embarrassment and shame for the men. Chaviva was adamant: women are honored in this culture, and it’s a matter of great pride for a woman to be able to support her husband’s study. It’s just that they’re stretched past the breaking point – I think the statistic was that something like half the Haredi live below the poverty line.

The encouraging thing is that both the men and women of the Haredi community have been facing the facts: they need jobs, and they don’t have the skills needed to hold them. That’s where Mafteach, a Haredi employment training center comes in. It’s been approaching rabbis and engaging them in conversation about opportunities and services they have available that are consistent with the values and lifestyle of the community. The rabbis are key here: whether it’s who to marry or where to get the best shwarma, people here listen to their rabbi. So when a Haredi goes to his rabbi and asks how to support himself, the rabbis are increasingly suggesting that they go find a job. And when they do, Mafteach is there to help them find it.

We started our site visit with a walking tour of a Haredi neighborhood, then joined the head of the training center and three of his counselors in one of their classrooms. They explained how the outreach worked, how they have different hours for men and women, who aren’t allowed to study together. How initially they were only seeing men in their 40’s come in, but now many of their clients are making the realization early, in their 20’s. We asked some potentially sensitive questions, and got frank, sincere answers. Most of what we heard – and saw – was very promising.

The Mafteach folks know we’re not here because we’re trying to decide whether or not to support them financially – that’s not the point of the conversation. They know that we’re looking at novel models for capacity building, and models for public-private partnerships. Mafteach’s work has interesting lessons to teach us on both fronts. What they get out of this is a chance to tell the story of one of the most misunderstood and distrusted segments of the Israeli population. “What you’ve seen here today,” Chaviva tells us as we walk down the street at the end of the day “is more than 95% of what Israelis ever see. They don’t know us, and they don’t want to.”

I didn’t tell her, but I hadn’t wanted to either. Devon and I had flipped a coin for who got to go visit the “really cool project” and who “had” to see the Haredi. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I’ve heard their story. It’s a story I’d like more people to hear.

Waiting for the bus - one of these things is not like the other

3 responses to “Into the World of the Haredi

  1. On Thu, Apr 11, 2013 at 11:58 AM, David Pablo Cohn wrote: > > david pablo cohn posted: ” The voice in my head was excited: Hey! Hey! Hey! Mmmmm. Huh? Uh….What? You know what time it is? Let me guess: six a.m.? Right! Time to get up! Uh, thanks, but I set the alarm for seven. My pleasure! … [time passes] … Youre no” >

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  2. Hi David, there is a society of Haredi Jews in the town where I was born ( Gateshead, England) . Until I read your blog I didn’t know much about them, so many thanks. Hope the rest of your trip is as interesting. Ian

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