In wake of the coronavirus pandemic, IDI experts present a status report on the current state of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community as well as policy recommendations for how to better integrate them into Israeli society.
A. The Economic Impact of the Coronavirus on the Ultra-Orthodox Sector
The Covid-19 virus has generated the most serious pandemic the world has seen in the last century, and efforts to combat it have created the most serious economic crisis of the 21st century. As throughout the world, the economic aspects of the crisis have had a significant impact on Israel: between February and March, Israel’s unemployment rate rose from the lowest level ever recorded to the highestGal Zohar, The Emerging Crisis in the Labor Market Following the Coronavirus: An International Survey, Israel Employment Services briefing paper, March 25, 2020 https://www.taasuka.gov.il/he/InfoAndPublications/ReasearchAndReviews/Documents/coronalabormarket250320.pdf [Hebrew]., and forecasts for 2020 now predict negative growth and a dramatic rise in the national debtSee: Bank of Israel macroeconomic forecast, April 2020, https://www.boi.org.il/he/NewsAndPublications/PressReleases/Pages/06-04-20.aspx [Hebrew]..
Like major wars, the coronavirus crisis, has the potential to drive accelerated technological and social changes. World wars led to greater equality for women, and to the development of the jet engine. The turmoil experienced throughout the world in recent months may bring about worldwide changes in areas such as distance working, automation, consumption and leisure habits, and international relationsFor an example regarding distance learning, see: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/edutech/brief/edtech-covid-19..
Economically weaker populations are likely to suffer more dramatically from the crisis. They tend to be concentrated in temporary employment and more vulnerable economic branches and lack capital reserves, and thus are likely to experience financial turmoil when their financial resources are depleted.
In Israel, the epidemic has hit ultra-Orthodox society harder than any other segment of the population. More than 50% of Israelis diagnosed with the coronavirus were ultra-OrthodoxAuthors’ own calculations based on per-location infection data, as of May 12, 2020. https://www.clalit.co.il/he/your_health/family/Documents/city125.pdf [Hebrew]., and the number of ultra-Orthodox deaths has also been high.
The prevalence of the disease among the ultra-Orthodox is also likely to make the community more vulnerable to an economic crisis. Its economic situation was already fragile before the crisis, and it could potentially be dealt a severe blow. For example, the proportion of ultra-Orthodox families living below the poverty line stood at 42% in 2018, and the average (standardized) income per capita among the ultra-Orthodox was only 53% of that of other Jewish Israelis (NIS 3,805 compared with NIS 7,144 respectively)Lee Cahaner and Gilad Malach, 2019 Statistical Survey of Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2019).. Among ultra-Orthodox families, 62% of income comes from work, 20% from benefit and support payments, and 10% from capital, savings, and pensionsEitan Regev, “How Will the Economy of the Ultra-Orthodox Sector be Affected by the Coronavirus Crisis?” Israel Democracy Institute website, April 26, 2020, https://www.idi.org.il/articles/31399 [Hebrew]. . All three of these income sources are likely to be affected:
1. Layoffs and furloughing have particularly affected workers with relatively low incomes, including many in the ultra-Orthodox community. An Israel Employment Service report reveals that ultra-Orthodox locales lead the list of municipal unemployment rates for March 2020Shahar Ilan, “Israel’s Unemployment Map: Which City Has the Most Unemployed?” Calcalist, April 5, 2020, https://www.calcalist.co.il/local/articles/0,7340,L-3806191,00.html [Hebrew].. Moreover, there has been a particularly noticeable rise in unemployment among those who were working in jobs outside the ultra-Orthodox community, while those employed within the community (mainly in education) have largely remained in workSee footnote 11.. A report from the chief economist at the Ministry of Finance found that the proportion of those laid off or furloughed was 30% higher among the ultra-Orthodox sector than among the rest of the Jewish population of IsraelCharacteristics of Furloughed Workers, June 1, 2020, Ministry of Finance Briefing Paper, https://www.gov.il/BlobFolder/dynamiccollectorresultitem/periodic-review-01062020/he/weekly_economic_review_periodic-review-01062020.pdf [Hebrew].. The lockdowns imposed on ultra-Orthodox locales throughout the country also exacerbated the community’s situation.
2. Though benefit payments were not cut during this period, donations from abroad are expected to drop due to the epidemic’s severe impact on the ultra-Orthodox community in the United States, where it has inflicted a high mortality rate and considerable economic damage.
3. While the impact on incomes from capital and pensions is relatively small for the ultra-Orthodox, these will still drop due to the falls in the stock market and in capital sums held by investment funds.
The economic damage is likely to be more pronounced for ultra-Orthodox households with unreported incomes, as these incomes were likely to have been severely cut back during the epidemic (as was the case with other households), but these families are not eligible for state compensation. However, the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus is not limited to households, and is likely to hit various institutions in the ultra-Orthodox community as well. Schools, especially the schools entirely unaffiliated with the state education system (known as “exempt schools”) and the “recognized but unofficial” schools for boys, are dependent on co-payments from parents, many of whom will struggle to make these payments due to the financial crisis. Yeshivot and kollelim (Torah study institutions for married men) rely on financial support from abroad; the expected drop in this support will mean that kollelim will be unable to pay stipends to their students, who will then be fully reliant on state stipends. Some institutions may even close down as a result. Seminaries (post-secondary educational frameworks for girls) depend on income from high tuition fees paid by parents, who may struggle to meet these demands or may find less costly frameworks for their daughters. Meanwhile, community charities providing interest-free loans are likely to face defaults on loan payments from their borrowers, with no possibility for making up the difference with donations from abroad or from other sources in Israel, thus putting their financial stability at risk.
Despite all the above, the current crisis also has the potential to facilitate changes that will improve the economic situation of the ultra-Orthodox community for the medium and long term. Below, we review the possible implications of the greater legitimacy now being granted to entry into the workforce; greater influence wielded by local ultra-Orthodox leadership, higher internet usage rates, and increased adoption of distance learning and distance working, as well as other potential changes.
B. Potential Changes in the Ultra-Orthodox Sector Deriving from the Epidemic
Around half of ultra-Orthodox men were employed before the coronavirus struck, and the vast majority of those not working were kollel students. As the data presented by the Chief Economist at the Ministry of Finance indicate, ultra-Orthodox men have less financial incentives to work than other Israeli men; nevertheless, there is still a clear economic benefit to going out to workKfir Batz and Ze’ev Karil, The Importance of Financial Incentives for Increasing Employment Among Ultra-Orthodox Men, Ministry of Finance report, December 10, 2019, https://www.gov.il/he/departments/publications/reports/article_10122019 [Hebrew].. The prestige attributed to studying Torah carries great weight in the decision on entering the work force, with such a decision often driven by financial considerations. Previous economic crises such as in 2003 and 2013 led to an increase in the number of Haredi men and women entering the labor marketGilad Malach, Doron Cohen, Haim Zicherman, A Master Plan for Ultra-Orthodox Employment in Israel, Israel Democracy Institute Policy Study 111, 2015 [Hebrew]., and we can now expect a similar rise among men. Among ultra-Orthodox women working in part-time jobs, we may see attempts to increase the number of work hours.
In a recent “Israeli Voice” survey conducted by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, 20% of ultra-Orthodox respondents reported that either they or their spouse would now seek employment due to the financial crisis, and 26% reported that one of them would increase the number of hours they work. In total, 42% of ultra-Orthodox respondents anticipated a change in their employment status: entering the workforce, increasing work hours, or undergoing vocational training), and 28% reported they would enter the workforce (they or their spouse) or undergo vocational training)Tamar Herman and Or Anabi, “Implications of the coronavirus for ultra-Orthodox society in Israel,” Israel Democracy Institute website, May 7, 2020, https://www.idi.org.il/articles/31526 [Hebrew]..
2. Vocational Training and Academic Studies
Embarking on vocational training or higher education requires that the individual or household has a degree of financial leeway and is able to plan for the longer term. Participants’ financial situations suffer during the period of training or studies because the student must devote his or her time to the program, rather than working. Consequently, the immediate economic pressures currently being experienced may make long-term training or study programs unviable at present, while more short-term programs may be more in demand. However, if appropriate policies are implemented, longer training programs and degree programs may also see a rise in demand.
In the “Voice of Israel” survey, 10% of ultra-Orthodox respondents reported that they intended to undergo vocational training in the wake of the crisis—fewer than those planning to enter employment, but far from a negligible proportionSee footnote 11..
3. Internet Use
The rapid spread of the coronavirus in the Haredi sector was due in part to gaps in information. Information provided by the Ministry of Health on the location of confirmed virus carriers and on restrictions to prevent infection was disseminated mainly online, as was information about the severe impact of the virus in other countries. Many Haredi families suffered as a result of the lack of access to this information. In addition, being at home for such a long period of time due to the lockdown highlighted the advantages of internet use for work or distance learning, as well as for accessing news, for shopping, and leisure activities for all the family. The sudden rise in the percentage of ultra-Orthodox families connected to the internet will not be a fleeting phenomenon, and it is possible that with the new legitimacy afforded to subscribing to the internet, we will continue to see an increase in the number of internet users in the coming months.
An internet poll conducted by Kantar Media at the beginning of April, found that 8% of ultra-Orthodox internet users were new users. It also found that 40% of ultra-Orthodox internet users, access information from general news websites, and 25% use social media, while 12% were using internet at home for the first time for work purposes. Average daily internet use was reported to be five hoursGad Peretz, “The Haredi public embraces the internet: The crisis has created record demand,” Globes, April 6, 2020, https://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001324652 [Hebrew].. Data from the Bezeq communications company revealed that 8% of its new subscribers during the first month of the epidemic were ultra-Orthodox, three times the usual percentageNati Toker, “The coronavirus has created a Haredi internet boom, which might just lead to fundamental social changes,” The Marker, April 27, 2020, https://www.themarker.com/advertising/.premium-1.8801015 [Hebrew]..
4. Fortifying Local Leadership and Community Organizations The coronavirus crisis has both boosted the standing of the formal local leadership in the ultra-Orthodox community, and demonstrated the significant capacity of community organizations to contribute to communal resilience. Among others, charitable funds, communal employment mechanisms, and ultra-Orthodox emergency response organizations have emerged as having the capacity to communicate with the ultra-Orthodox public, disseminate information, and help it through the crisis.
A comparative study of ultra-Orthodox society and Arab society in Israel conducted by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the NegevStudy conducted by Tehila Kalagy, Sara Abu-Kaf, and Orna Braun-Levinson. See https://in.bgu.ac.il/fom/pages/news/Tehila_Kalagy_Culturally-Adapted__Methods_Health_Message.aspx. at the height of the crisis, found high levels of ultra-Orthodox compliance with the directives of rabbis and community leaders, perceived as authoritative figures when it came to providing information about the crisis. It also found that messages were most effective when communicated via traditional ultra-Orthodox media (community newspapers and loudspeakers in neighborhoods).
5. Changes in Attitudes Toward State Institutions
The ultra-Orthodox public has responded in different ways to what is unprecedented government intervention in its way of life, including in religious matters. At first, the prevailing attitude was one of suspicion and skepticism, but when the extent of the epidemic in the ultra-Orthodox community became clear, the majority of the population responded with understanding to the authorities’ actions, including those of the Ministry of Health, the IDF Home Command, and the police, even when it came to strict lockdowns. On the other hand, extremist groups rejected the government’s instructions, and on occasion engaged in physical confrontations with the authorities It is difficult to assess whether the government interventions will have a long-term impact on attitudes toward state institutions and the sense of collective engagement with the general population, but for the short term – the effect seems to have been positive.
In the “Voice of Israel” survey, 39% of ultra-Orthodox respondents reported that the IDF’s involvement had positively affected attitudes toward the military, while just 14% believed it had a negative impact, and 29% –that it had no effect one way or the otherSee footnote 12.. Thus, a large proportion of the ultra-Orthodox population believes that these actions had a positive impact on attitudes toward the IDF.
C. Policy Recommendations
Times of crisis offer opportunities to advance changes, that in routine times are likely to take much longer. The actions proposed in this section aim to respond to anticipated demand in the areas described above, and thus to intensify the process of change. They are based on two principles developed by policy planners with regard to ultra-Orthodox integration: harnessing community cooperation, and creating models of success.
The community’s cooperation can be harnessed through identifying local leaders, NGOs, or institutions within the community and working with them effectively to bring about a significant rise in participation in the workforce. This model of action can be a basis for success in working with conservative ultra-Orthodox groups as well as with more “modern” groups. Examples include the “Chen” programs in seminaries (post-secondary frameworks) for women, the “Chanoch” program in alternative yeshivot, and the “Derech Eretz” program working with charitable funds.
The second principle is to create models of success and foster aspiration toward high-quality employment, alongside efforts to encourage entry into the workforce. Past examples include programs promoting ultra-Orthodox integration into higher education, the “Mashpi’im” program promoting entry into the civil service, the “Movilot” program for ultra-Orthodox women’s leadership in employment, and more.
Employment Guidance Centers
In the coming months, employment guidance centers are likely to have to contend with much of the demand for employment. They will provide initial assistance in several aspects: assessment, initial job referrals, and referral to vocational training, basic courses, advancement in employment, and more. If demand for the centers’ services increases, the scope of their service should be increased accordingly (including increased staffing), and if necessary the centers’ model of incentives should be adjusted for the coming year. Guidance centers can also engage in PR and marketing efforts to explain the benefits of entering reported employment, particularly in light of the effects of the coronavirus crisis. Expanding guidance center activities alongside a campaign to advertise their services has a good chance of success, given the strong desire and the need within the ultra-Orthodox sector to enter the workforce.
Charitable Funds and Internal Community Organizations
Another channel for ultra-Orthodox integration into the workforce is that of the charitable funds and other community organizations (mainly of Hasidic and newly ultra-Orthodox communities). In recent years, some of the community charitable funds have created departments that refer families to employment, and these will likely now experience much greater demand than in the past. JDC’s activity with these charities can be expanded so as to transform them into civil society organizations that help people find work. The advantage of these funds is that they serve conservative ultra-Orthodox groups who do not access other employment integration services and do not turn to employment guidance centers.
2. Vocational/Academic Training
The demand for vocational training courses is expected to grow over the coming year. However, the lack of any sources of income for participants during training will mean that many of them can be expected to take only very short training courses, which provide a low return in the labor market. At the same time, it is possible that the labor market will be saturated by jobseekers in the coming year, and thus there may be an advantage to delaying entry into the workforce for ultra-Orthodox jobseekers. We therefore recommend setting up boot camps to provide short training programs, offer loans or financial support to trainees during their studies, or guarantee trainees that they will be employed by the company providing the training. These subsidized vocational training courses should be offered in the rapidly growing areas of employment in which trainees can be employed after a fairly short training period (3–6 months).
Support for Men—Conditional Loans
Growing economic difficulties and the financial crisis expected to be experienced by many ultra-Orthodox families may drive many men to seek vocational training, but at least some will be deterred by the fact that leaving the kollel means losing their benefit payments. Different options should be explored for providing conditional loans to kollel students to replace their income from the stipends provided to kollel students. This will make it possible for ultra-Orthodox men seeking vocational training to make it through the training period, during which it is almost impossible to gain an income.
Distance Working and Distance Training
Given the characteristics of the ultra-Orthodox, distance learning and working may provide a particular opportunity for the community. In the past, many refrained from entering training programs and employment due to difficulties stemming from being in mixed-gender environments or to limitations on working hours. However, with the recent sharp rise in ultra-Orthodox internet use, new possibilities present themselves. We recommend increasing the number of specialized vocational courses for the ultra-Orthodox, and expanding and diversifying the technological vocations offered and on distance learning, and also exploring incentives for employers who make it possible to work from home via digital means.
The economic crisis may increase the number of those seeking to pursue academic studies, albeit smaller numbers than will enter vocational training due to the extended period of study required. The Council for Higher Education’s (CHE) recent decision to increase the number of special exemptions for higher education institutions targeted to the ultra-Orthodox community may also lead to a rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox students. In order to meet the projected demand, the CHE should encourage the opening of new study tracks at various institutions, and consider expanding scholarship programs to include all those studying subjects that are in demand in the labor market, with an emphasis on study tracks for men. We would also recommend expanding the programs being developed in cooperation with employers which open the path to employment for students, and investing in distance learning platforms and online courses.
Seminaries for Women (post-secondary educational institutions for women)
Seminaries for Women are highly popular in the ultra-Orthodox sector, but they are not sufficiently adapted to the demands of the labor market. While in recent years the Ministry of Education has reduced its support for the tracks training for teaching, and alternative training tracks have been expanded (the “Chen” program), reforms are needed to the subjects offered in the seminaries and to the teaching methods used. The financial pressures experienced by parents may force the seminaries to institute necessary changes, with financial support from the Ministry of Labor. These changes will include increasing the number of students in each institution; adding Open University courses to the curriculum; expanding the choice of subjects offered (particularly in the fields of health, engineering, and technology); and cutting back on study programs that offer a double diploma (in teaching and one other subject). Similarly, other tracks for professional advancement for women should be strengthened and expanded as an alternative to the seminaries.
The impact of the coronavirus on educational institutions may be more of a long term nature and less immediately evident. However, we believe that economic pressures combined with an appreciation of the need for higher quality training may open the door for the advancement of initiatives that will provide financial incentives to schools and other educational institutions that invest in training.
Elementary and Secondary Schools for Boys
The Ministry of Education’s Haredi Department should promote a recommended curriculum for boys for all elementary-school ages, backed by recommended textbooks and teacher training. Financial support should be offered to schools in the form of discounts for purchasing books and for training teachers in the recommended curriculum, as incentives to encourage schools and parents to support this reform. Similarly, financial support should be given to educational institutions that are willing to introduce computers and technology-based studying.
JDC’s “Chanoch” program has led to the integration of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox young people into vocational training programs and into the workforce in the course of their yeshiva studies, from age 14 through to marriage. We believe that it will be possible to expand the “Chanoch” program to many other institutions in the coming months.
High Schools for Girls
Recent years have seen the introduction of matriculation (Bagrut) studies into girls’ schools. Parents’ desire to give their daughters the best possible vocational training (which is strongly supported by ultra-Orthodox leadership) together with growing financial pressures may motivate more schools to transition to a curriculum which will enable graduates to obtain matriculation certificates. This should be supported by providing incentives to these schools.
Expansion of State-Haredi Institutions
A study of state-Haredi schools (a relatively new category of schools created by the Ministry of Education in 2015) found that many had made the move into these schools due to severe financial pressures – the move made them eligible for state budgetLotem Hazan-Perry and Shai Katzir, State Haredi Schools: A New Educational Option for the Ultra-Orthodox, Israel Democracy Institute Policy Study 119, August 2018, https://www.idi.org.il/media/11182/state-haredi-schools-a-new-education-option-for-the-ultra-orthodox.pdf [Hebrew].. We can expect that a large number of institutions from the “recognized but unofficial” and “exempt” education streams will seek to become state-Haredi. Local authorities and the ministry’s Haredi Department should work together to develop a transition process that will include incentives for these schools, but which will not require major changes in terms of the schools’ management, teaching, and oversight.
Encouraging the Adoption of Technology for Various Educational Needs
The significant increase in internet use in the ultra-Orthodox sector could also result in greater use of technological tools in teaching. Tools developed by the Ministry of Education’s Haredi Department could be used for teacher training, curriculum planning, and even in the classroom. This will make it possible to also reach teachers in schools that receive little ministry oversight and have little interaction with the ministry. Online study programs should be developed and adapted to the ultra-Orthodox sector in many subjects which children will be able to study alongside their Torah studies.
The sharp rise in internet use in the ultra-Orthodox community has various potential implications for integration into the workforce. It may enable much wider use of online platforms as a marketing tool for employment guidance centers, military service, civilian or national service, vocational training, and higher education. It can also facilitate distance learning and working from home. Distance learning can help with the provision of full Bagrut matriculation tracks, and assuming that there will be a general increase in working from home in Israel, this will help many ultra-Orthodox men and women to enter the workforce. In addition, greater internet penetration will provide more access to information in various other fields, such as health, transportation, access to government services, and more.
Service in the IDF
One of the main motivations among ultra-Orthodox conscripts to the IDF is the vocational training and experience that are part of military service. In the wake of the coronavirus, the IDF has seen an increase in the number of soldiers (not ultra-Orthodox) interested in becoming career officers after their mandatory service. In a similar vein, we can expect growing interest among ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the IDF as a means to successfully entering the job market. The fact that the IDF gained new appreciation and respect in the ultra-Orthodox community during the recent crisis is only likely to strengthen this trend.
Civilian or National Service
Israel’s civilian or national service system recently began developing a pilot service program that includes a vocational training component. Current financial pressures coupled with the benefits for participants in terms of their future employment and income may lead to an increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox applicants to civilian or national service. Appropriate techniques for marketing vocational service programs in the IDF and in the civilian or national service system are likely to lead to an increase in participants for the near future.
Civic and Local Leadership The recent crisis highlighted the importance of local leadership in the ultra-Orthodox sector and the power of local entrepreneurs to lead processes of change in the areas of health, welfare, and communications. Efforts should be made to strengthen training frameworks for local leadership, as these leaders are poised to implement initiatives to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce, along with educational initiatives, and more. Investment should also be made in capacity building for organizations operating within the community which will contribute to its resilience. Similarly, support should be provided to organizations that promote awareness of proper financial management among ultra-Orthodox families and to organizations focused on protecting workers’ rights.
D. Policy Recommendations: Summary Table
|Employment guidance and counseling centers||Expand and market activities, change the system of incentives, and develop a model for distance working|
|Charitable funds/community employment organizations||Expand activities|
|Vocational training and higher education|
|Vocational training||Bootcamps; expand options for distance learning|
|Financial support for men||Conditional loans for former kollel students|
|Seminaries for women||Encourage provision of subjects in demand, and promote Open University studies|
|Academic studies||Open new study tracks; expand scholarship programs|
|Boys’ schools||Pedagogical program for programs in core curriculum subjects in elementary schools; expand the “Chanoch” program in secondary schools|
|High schools for girls||Provide incentives for Bagrut matriculation studies|
|State-Haredi schools||Create a program for transferring to the state-Haredi track|
|Use of technology||Make teaching content and pedagogical knowledge accessible over the internet (to teachers and students)|
|Internet||Disseminate information on ultra-Orthodox integration; distance learning|
|Military service||Promote and market service tracks that include vocational training (“Shachar”)|
|Civilian or national service||Expand the civilian or national service pilot program which includes vocational training|
|Civic leadership and community organizations||Provide support for initiatives that include civic leadership training and strengthen community organizations|