In an article in Commentary Magazine by Evelyn Gordon, she noted that younger Charedim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation.
Officially, the rabbinic leadership still holds that men should study Torah full-time.
But the proportion of Charedi men entering the workforce is rising steadily, and last year, it exceeded 50 percent for the first time since Israel started tracking the data. It’s now 51.2 percent.
Today’s Haaretz has a fascinating profile of Yisrael Porush, the 36-year-old mayor of the Charedi city of Elad, whose father and grandfather were prominent Knesset members and deputy ministers. The elder Porushes focused on traditional Haredi concerns. But the young mayor has a different goal: In the words of reporter Meirav Arlosoroff, it’s “for as many of the city’s residents as possible to work.” To this end, he has not only brought business ventures like a software development center into town, but has negotiated agreements with two neighboring local governments–a secular Jewish one and an Arab one–to create joint industrial parks.
On education, the change is equally dramatic. Not only did the number of Charedim in college jump by 83 percent, to 11,000, from 2011-2015, but attitudes toward secular studies in high schools are also changing.
You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the older generation of politicians: On Sunday, at the Charedi parties’ behest, the coalition agreed to repeal a law imposing financial penalties on Charedi schools that don’t teach the core curriculum.
But the next day, the Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Charedi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Charedi girls’ schools already do. Another 10 percent would consider this option. Moreover, the article noted, the number of Charedi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.
On army service, too, change is apparent. In 2014, 2,280 Charedim enlisted – about one-third the number that would have enlisted if all Charedi men joined the army at 18. And in some places, the numbers are higher: In Porush’s Elad, about 40 percent of men do army service.
Moreover, the stigma against army service is rapidly crumbling.
Army service no longer disqualifies Charedim for prominent rabbinical positions. Today, you can serve and still be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, with the unanimous approval of a panel that includes the Charedi chief rabbis and a Charedi Knesset member.
Leading Charedi rabbis are in their nineties, and their replacements will be men of similar age. In other words, they are products of a very different world – one where the Holocaust had wiped out most of European Jewry, where Israel’s army and school system actively sought to create “new Jews” in the mold of the ruling secular elite, where rebuilding the Torah world was the overriding imperative, and where isolation from secular knowledge and secular society was deemed essential for achieving this goal. This is the worldview they imbibed in their formative years, and they won’t abandon it in their old age.
But younger Charedim grew up in a very different world–one where Torah study is flourishing, the religious population is growing, and state institutions from the army to the universities now welcome Charedim without trying to make them stop being Charedi. Consequently, this generation feels less threatened by the secular world; it’s confident of its ability to work, attend college and even do army service without losing its Charedi identity.
Bottom-up change is usually slower than the top-down version, but it also tends to be more lasting. And therefore, the headlines of recent months are misleading: Developments in Charedi society as a whole actually provide strong grounds for optimism.