Charedi Women Increasingly Having It All

Growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox women postponing marriage to pursue a career path, new study finds

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Growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox women postponing marriage to pursue a career path, new study finds.

Jerusalem — After graduating from an ultra-Orthodox high school in central Israel, Rivka, then 18, asked her parents whether she could postpone dating — and marriage — to pursue a degree in occupational therapy.

“At first they were concerned that I would miss out on the dating scene and be too old to find a good shidduch [match] by the time I finished my degree,” said Rivka, who asked that only her first name be published. “But they agreed after I pointed out that I have several younger siblings, and that they can’t possibly afford to help buy all of us an apartment, as much as they would like to.”

Now in her early 20s and with a job in her field, Rivka said she has been dating for a few months and feels hopeful she’ll soon find her “bashert,” the man she is meant to marry.

“While a couple of the guys I’ve gone out with didn’t want a girl who is too educated, others seem to appreciate that I have a solid career and a good steady income.”

Rivka is one of a growing number of Israeli charedim who are postponing marriage, at least for a year or two, to pursue post-high school studies and a career path.

The marriage age among charedim has risen during the past decade, and so too has the number taking matriculation exams and getting a higher education, according to a new survey published this week by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

The high rate of poverty in the charedi community and a desire not to modernize charedi society appears to be the driving factor, say observers both inside and outside the community.

Among the findings of the “2017 Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society”:

  • In 2016, 44 percent of charedi young adults aged 20-24 were married, compared to 61 percent in 2005;
  • In 2016, 67.5 percent of charedim aged 20-29 were married compared to 75 percent in 2005. Women accounted for most of the difference: In 2005, 80 percent were married by age 29 compared to 67 percent last year;
  • Over the past decade, the number of charedim studying in the higher education system rose from 1,000 to 10,800 — a “ten-fold” increase. Of these, 69 percent are women and 31 percent are men;
  • Today, one third of charedi students are taking matriculation exams at the end of secondary school, up from 23 percent in 2005.

“This increase can largely be attributed to the fact that the share of ultra-Orthodox girls taking matriculation exams rose during this decade from 31 percent to 51 percent,” the report says.

Gilad Malach, one of the study’s co-authors, attributes the shift to economic reasons.

“A decade ago it was easier to afford to raise a family, especially if a charedi couple’s parents were helping them financially,” Malach told The Jewish Week. “The fact that the government has cut funding, particularly child allowances, and the price of apartments has skyrocketed means that parents can no longer buy every child an apartment. Many couples now have to pay back their own mortgages and have come to the realization that one spouse has to work.”

Malach thinks government initiatives and incentives designed to promote greater workplace participation by the charedi sector is also having a big impact.

“There are gender-segregated frameworks that allow ultra-Orthodox Jews to study for a profession and to enter the labor market” without sacrificing their religious principles.

Furthermore, the fact that yeshiva students can enter the workforce at 24 rather than 28 without being drafted “is allowing them to think about their future, and some are postponing marriage,” Malach said.

Shaindy Babad, director of Temech, a nonprofit organization that helps charedi women enter the workforce and/or become entrepreneurs, said more young charedi women than ever before are pursuing advanced education and careers, but that “most are married and having their first or second child” while they’re doing it.

“We’re seeing a big shift. A decade ago nearly 100 percent of the girls were getting teaching certificates. Now at least 60 percent are doing something else in addition to or instead of teaching. But it’s important to note that they’re doing it in a charedi framework.”

Babad said charedi society recognizes that “if we want to be able to support ourselves, we need a solution. Women see themselves first and foremost as mothers. What’s changed is the recognition that it’s possible to do both” — be a mother and have a profession.

But Babad cautions against broad generalizations about charedi society.

“The community isn’t one demographic. There are many shades of gray. I do think some of the margins widened over the past 10 years. There are Orthodox families that aren’t charedi but who send their children to charedi schools. Their children may work because their parents work. They’ll be included in the charedi demographic but weren’t included last time,” something that could skew the statistics.

Chevy Weiss, an American-Israeli shadchanit, or matchmaker, agrees that some, though far from all, charedi women are postponing marriage.

“It’s happening in more modern circles, but in what you would call ultra-charedi circles, I’m not seeing any delay. They start dating at 18.

The only times they postpone marriage is if they have an older unmarried sibling, Weiss said.

“But what I’m seeing in more open charedi circles is that a lot of the girls want a profession because they want financial security. This is especially true if they want to buy an apartment. Unless the parents are giving them the money it’s virtually impossible financially,” Weiss said.

Ultra-charedi young women have fewer options because even charedi schools and colleges are not acceptable in many charedi circles. Weiss said that her daughter, who attended a strict charedi high school, is in this position.

“Her school didn’t allow the students to apply even to all-girl programs and colleges. So they continue in a post-high school track within the system. Most become teachers.”

When young charedi women don’t start dating when they hit 18, their families may start to panic.

“I get a lot of phone calls from the mothers of 19- and 20-year-olds. They feel pressure because come April or May there will be a whole new crop of girls graduating from high school.

“They don’t want their daughters pushed down the list for shidduch purposes,” Weiss said.