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«Volume 14, 2009 Sponsored by the Leon Tamman Foundation for Research into Jewish Communities SOCIOLOGICAL INSTITUTE FOR COMMUNITY STUDIES BAR-ILAN ...»

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Sociological Papers


Series Editor: Larissa Remennick

Managing Editor: Ana Prashizky

Volume 14, 2009

Sponsored by the Leon Tamman Foundation for

Research into Jewish Communities



The Learners’ Society: Education and Employment among

Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Women

Rivka Neria-Ben Shahar Department of Communications Ariel Academic Center, Israel Abstract The author reports her data on the patterns and associations between some key socio- demographic variables (age, education, employment, numbers of children, and exposure to Haredi and secular media) in a sample of 300 women of Hassidic and Lithuanian (Litaim) communities in Jerusalem. This sample demonstrates relatively high rates of post-secondary education and gainful employment among Haredi women, characteristics that are associated with lower fertility rates and higher consumption of secular Israeli media. Women of the Lithuanian community are more often foreign-born, have a more liberal background, are better educated and show more diverse patterns of employment, often in skilled occupations. Hassidic women typically have fewer years of formal study, lower rates of employment, and less common use of secular media. In both communities, working women with higher education have fewer children. The author concludes that Haredi women are gradually narrowing the gap with mainstream Israeli society as a result of their participation in the labor market, exposure to secular mass media and public sphere in general.

Introduction This article sheds light on the patterns of participation of Israeli Haredi women in the world of education, vocational training and subsequent gainful employment in relation to their socio-demographic and personal characteristics, such as country of origin, number of children, affiliation with a specific ultra-Orthodox community (Hassidic and Lithuanian), and the consumption of secular Israeli media. The survey was conducted in a sample of 300 Haredi women living in Jerusalem – the city with the largest and most diverse ultra-Orthodox population in the country. The findings add some important facets to the growing body of research on this segment of Israeli society known for its isolated lifestyle and limited contact with the mainstream. Although some new studies among Haredi communities in general and specifically among the women have been published in recent years (e.g., Caplan, 2007; Shenker, 2006), most were ethnographic or qualitative and therefore did not provide any macro-level data. Little is known about the many changes that have taken place in the patterns of study and work among Haredi women since the early years of the State of Israel and how these changes have affected their family lives, fertility, and participat

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Theoretical background The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community Ultra-Orthodox Jews lead their private and public lives in strict compliance with the dictates of the Jewish law and tradition. According to existing estimates, the Haredi population comprises 6.7% of the adult (aged 20+) Jewish population of Israel (ICBS,1 2007). This sector is different from other religious Jewish communities, particularly in terms of its commitment to the prolonged study of Torah, which is considered a higher calling (vis-à-vis secular education and “profane work”) and an esteemed career for a man. Despite the popular stereotypes of men in black outfits and women in old-fashioned long dresses, Haredi society is not monolithic but rather diverse, consisting of many separate movements and groups (hatzerot, hugim and kehelot) that follow different religious leaders who originated in Eastern Europe over the last two hundred years (Heilman and Friedman, 1991; Friedman, 1993; Liebman, 1992).

As a minority in Jewish Israel, Haredi communities have complex and often tense relations with state institutions and non-religious Israelis (Efron, 2003). They are very protective of their traditional way of life and intent on distancing themselves from modernity and its technological achievements, which Haredim view as moral threats (Ayalon et. al., 1989; Lee and Tse, 1994; Orbe, 1998). Withdrawal from contact with the Jewish majority turns ultra-Orthodox populations into “enclave cultures” (Sivan, 1991), in line with the description by Berry (1990) of separatist minorities that avoid “contaminating” influences from mainstream society. In this sense, Haredi Jews resemble other religious minorities and sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites in the U.S., who are intent on maintaining clear differences in their appearance and lifestyle to stress their distance from mainstream American society (Kraybill, 1998; Yoder, 1993; Driedger, 2000; Hostetler, 1993).

Haredi communities employ several defense strategies to cope with the challenge of exposure to the dominant secular culture. One such strategy is residential segregation – living in closed quarters populated only by “insiders,” thereby building a physical and social barrier to communication with the outside world. Another strategy is the representation of the secular world in the Haredi discourse (sectarian press, educational texts, rabbinical court decisions, and recently also Haredi Internet sites) as hostile, corrupt and a moral hazard (Bataille, 1992). Haredi authorities create multiple moral and material incentives for committed individuals, calling on them not to stray from the path of virtue and never look outside for answers to their personal problems (Sivan, 1991;

Goldscheider and Uhlenberg, 1969). This closed society has developed multiple enforcement mechanisms and sanctions against any deviant conduct. In a way, Haredi society has achieved the ideal of Durkheim’s (3981/1969) “mechanical solidarity,” i.e.

adherence to collective goals and values of the group at the expense of individual freedom and self-development. Such groups typically maintain a high level of social control via persistent socialization of the young and strong dependency of individuals on the group’s norms and leaders for fulfilling their personal needs (Hechter, 1983, 1987).

1 Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.

2 Haredi women in the private and public sphere Social researchers have been increasingly interested in Haredi women. Initial studies were published during the 1980s (e.g., Goshen-Gottstein, 1984), but particular advances in the anthropological study of Haredi women are linked to the work of El-Or (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997). Over the last decade, research among Haredi women has expanded to include additional psychological and social aspects of their lifestyle (for example, Zalcberg, 2005).

Haredi women comprise 6.4% of all adult Israeli Jewish women (ICBS, 2007) and therefore they experience a double jeopardy – as women and as members of the ultraOrthodox community, with its discriminatory norms and practices. The essence of this derogatory attitude towards woman often cited in Haredi literature is expressed in the Hebrew saying “Kol Kvoda Bat Melekh Pnima” (Psalms 45:14), meaning that “king’s daughter’s beauty is internal” and/or “king’s daughter should turn her honor inwards” – be quiet, keep a low profile, occupy as little space as possible. The subject of modesty and submissiveness as woman’s key virtue is discussed endlessly in girls’ school classes, popular literature for women, and Haredi media. As a traditional society guarding its cultural boundaries and wishing for its continuity in future generations (Barzilai, 2003;

Caplan, 2007), Haredi communities reaffirm man’s place in the center of the public domain, with woman’s place in the periphery, and primarily in the private sphere (El Or, 1993, 1995, 1997; Friedman, 1988, 1991).

To secure this gender system, girls and young women are socialized into their future role as mothers, wives and homemakers, responsible for the smooth functioning of the household, while men are encouraged to pursue their advanced Torah studies, politics, and other masculine goals (Friedman, 1988). Haredi families typically have high numbers of children, reflecting the imperative moral value of fertility (in fulfillment of the Torah precept to “be fruitful and multiply” Genesis 1:28) and women’s place in the domestic sphere.2 The average is 7.7 per woman vs. 2.6 among Jewish women in general (Gurovich and Cohen-Kastro, 2004). This level of fertility exerts a heavy physical burden, a tremendous workload and psychological responsibility on the women and older girls in Haredi families.

Yet, despite this ideological principle, Haredi women increasingly participate in the public sphere: they study, work outside the home, and contribute to their family’s income (Ben-Porath and Gronau, 1985; Garr and Marans, 2001). Since women’s presence in the public domain ostensibly deviates from the gender ideology of ultra-Orthodoxy, information and commentaries on this topic from Haredi sources are few and far between.

The following is a brief summary on Haredi women’s external employment based on various historical and scholarly sources.

Over the years since the establishment of the state in 1948, Israeli society witnessed a gradual transition of Haredi men from the domain of gainful employment, to hevrat lomdim (learners society) engaged in the advanced Judaic studies in Yeshivas from youth till their 30s and 40s (Friedman, 1991; 1993). Under the leadership of Rabbi Karelitz (also known as Hazon Ish), the intense study of Gemara (Talmud) became the chief moral goal and career track for most Haredi men, for decades delaying them from engaging in vocational training and gainful employment (Heilman and Friedman, 1991). Besides the ideology of achieving excellence in Torah study, several historical, political and 2 One example is the Haredi town Beitar Illit, where children under age 15 constitute 63% of the population.

3 economic circumstances in the early years of the state caused the exemption of Yeshiva students from military service on the grounds that toratam omanutam (Torah scholarship is their calling)3. Since these young Haredi men had no occupations and were exempt from army service, they were in fact “recruited” to their Yeshivas for many years of study.

This life track for the men had direct implications for the women. In 1952, Rabbi Karelitz and his close associate Rav Wolf opened the first high school and teacher training seminary in Bnei Brak for Haredi girls. The ideology behind this project was based on the Talmudic agreement between the ancient Israelite tribes of Issachar and Zebulun, whereby the woman earned a livelihood while the man devoted himself to learning Torah. Thus, women were simultaneously given a chance for education and called upon to become chief supporters of men in their career of higher learning. Women were expected to learn marketable skills and earn a living wage for their families while their husbands were immersed in theological debates in their Yeshivas. The women’s chief aspiration was to become wives of talmidei chahamim (outstanding Torah scholars) and good mothers to their children, at the expense of great personal sacrifice and a double burden of working and maintaining a household full of children (Friedman, 1988). Thus, from the late 1950s on, many Haredi women entered the job market, often in the sphere of childcare and education – occupations they learned in religious teacher training seminaries (Dahan, 1996; Berman and Klinov, 1997).4 Work in education has multiple advantages for Haredi women: it has flexible hours, opportunity for part-time work, and long summer vacations coinciding with their own children’s school vacation. In terms of social control, the employment in Haredi kindergartens and schools keeps the women within the community, under close moral supervision of administration, parents and coworkers (Friedman, 1988).

According to Schwartz (2008), in recent years Haredi women’s employment has gone beyond the domains of childcare and education. The need to seek other forms of employment reflects the limited number of openings in the Haredi school system, which are far below the numbers of graduates seeking jobs. Other job opportunities for these young women come from their acquisition of financial knowledge from technological education courses offered at the seminaries. These courses became possible following the government’s recognition of the need to include Haredi women in the mainstream labor market, and the sponsorship of many special training programs by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and various NGOs that support Jewish education. Often these programs are based on the apprenticeship of young Haredi women in various workplaces run by Haredi staff members in compliance with the requirements of the Haredi life style and daily conduct. From 2006, Haredi sector employment centers have been operating in many Israeli cities, and 71% of those applying for the jobs via these centers are young women with post-secondary education.

The employment of Haredi women is causing many new issues and disturbances in the ultra-Orthodox circles, as a growing number of young women who graduate from teachers’ seminaries seek employment in the general job market, specifically in high-tech 3 The historic agreement between the State and Haredi leaders stipulated that Yeshiva students exempt from army service could not be gainfully employed up to age 41. After that age (or alternatively having six or more children) they were no longer recruited into the army and could be gainfully employed.

4 In 2005, 55% of Haredi women of working age were employed outside of the home, compared to 44% of Haredi men. The reverse proportion is typical for secular Israelis: 83% of the women and 95% of the men work outside of the home (ICBS, 2006).

4 and computer-related industries, secretarial work, etc., which are beyond the sphere of traditional Haredi social control. Many religious authorities fear these women may find too much interest and independence in their work and may wish to develop a career, at the expense of their traditional family roles. Therefore, the Haredi mass media often reminds their readers that women’s work is only the means to the end of their husbands’ excellence in Torah study, and not a goal in and by itself (Neria-Ben Shahar, 2008).

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