From the World of Torah Study to the World of Work: Social Challenges and Employment Potential Among Haredi Yeshiva Students

Summary From a Draft Research Study

| Written By:

This study was designed to assess the level of satisfaction among students in higher yeshivot (ages 17 and above), their personal and social challenges, and their attitudes toward possible alternatives to yeshiva studies, such as vocational training and employment.

Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

This study was designed to assess the level of satisfaction among students in higher yeshivot (ages 17 and above), their personal and social challenges, and their attitudes toward possible alternatives to yeshiva studies, such as vocational training and employment.

The study entailed a combination of research activities that included:

  1. A quantitative survey of around 530 yeshiva students aged 17–23 from a range of Haredi sub-communities
  2. A qualitative component comprising in-depth interviews with 15 Haredi educators and rabbis, along with two focus groups of 16 yeshiva students from both Lithuanian and Sephardi backgrounds

In the study, we differentiate between two sub-populations of yeshiva students: The first group comprises the majority of students in regular yeshivot in the Haredi mainstream, in which timetables for Torah study are strictly enforced, as are Haredi dress codes, norms, and practices (“regular yeshivot”). The second group contains around 8,320 students (approximately 17.5% of all Haredi yeshiva students) in some 130 “alternative yeshivot.” These institutions are designed for young Haredim who find it difficult to engage in religious studies throughout the entire day. There is less academic pressure, and additional classes and social activities are provided which are not generally accepted in the regular yeshiva world. The distribution of the respondents to the quantitative survey (which focused on these two population groups) was designed accordingly.

The main study findings are as follows:

  • Satisfaction with yeshiva studies: Only around one-third (36%) of those studying in alternative yeshivot are satisfied with their yeshiva, compared with 58% of those studying in regular yeshivot. Overall, around one-half of students in higher yeshivot are very satisfied with their institution of study.
  • Difficulties and challenges: More than half (55%) of those studying in alternative yeshivot reported experiencing difficulties with their Torah studies, compared to just one-fifth (22%) of students in regular yeshivot. Overall, around a quarter (27%) of all those studying in higher yeshivot report difficulties with their studies. The challenges faced by students in regular yeshivot, and to an even greater extent by students in alternative yeshivot, are related to feeling overburdened with studies, to difficulties with disciplinary standards, religious difficulties, homogeneity of study materials, treatment by their rabbi-educator (the main religious and educational figure for every yeshiva student), and more. In addition, the qualitative study found that some yeshiva students find it difficult to dedicate themselves solely to the study of Talmud and to overcome their desire to explore other (non-religious) avenues of study.
  • Paid employment while studying in yeshiva: Around one-fifth (21%) of those studying in regular yeshivot reported working in various jobs alongside their studies. Most of these are part-time, occasional, and non-professional jobs. Among students in alternative yeshivot, the vast majority (75%) work alongside their studies. Of these, almost half reported that they work in occasional and part-time jobs, while a third said that they are in regular employment. Overall, around a quarter (24%) of all yeshiva students in the survey work infrequently, while around a tenth (9%) work frequently or in regular employment. However, it is important to note that these are usually non-professional jobs that do not require occupational experience or formal training, and they do not usually confer high-quality employment skills and experience that could help these young people in the future. This state of affairs is due to the fact that the rabbis and heads of the regular yeshivot are strongly opposed to other forms of employment that might draw students away from Torah study.
  • Motivation to enter employment and secular studies: The majority (72%) of those studying in alternative yeshivot, and 52% of those studying in regular yeshivot, estimate that most of their friends will not continue in full-time Torah study after marriage. The Haredi educators and students in yeshivot who were interviewed for the study estimate that the majority will not succeed in continuing for more than a couple of years as students in a kollel (a yeshiva for married men) and will enter the labor market in some way or another within a few years of marriage. This assessment is joined by another finding, according to which the majority of yeshiva students (84%) are interested in gaining knowledge about the labor market, training and education tracks, and in-demand occupations.
  • In-demand occupations and professions: In light of their constant dedication to Torah study and their refrainment from any other form of activities, the majority of yeshiva students do not have a particular employment orientation, and lack knowledge and understanding of the capabilities, talents, and skills that could serve them in succeeding in the labor market. As noted, even those who already work while still studying in yeshiva are mainly employed in low-quality jobs that do not equip them with necessary employment skills. For this reason, and in light of the high status given in Haredi society to occupations within the community, such as religious positions or employment in the Haredi education system, there is high demand for these occupations among all yeshiva students. More than half our respondents said that they would be interested in working in these fields in the future. There is also high demand among students in regular yeshivot for work in the fields of management and computing, presumably because of the recognition that these occupations provide high salaries and good working conditions. At the same time, because they also demand strong employment experience and formal qualifications from academic institutions (qualifications not possessed by students in regular yeshivot), it is not clear how many of them will actually succeed in realizing this ambition.
  • The age of exemption from military service and the labor market: The issue of the age of exemption from military service for yeshiva students who declare that “Torah is their occupation” is closely related to the labor market, and it has wide-ranging political, legal, social, and economic implications. The higher the exemption age, the lower the likelihood of being able to successfully integrate into the workforce, due to family obligations (as a spouse and a parent) and to the increasing difficulty of addressing educational lacunae and acquiring the necessary general knowledge at an older age. Thus, lowering the exemption age could encourage young Haredim to enter employment at a younger age, and to this end, to complete their core curriculum studies and invest in gaining foundational soft skills. The study shows that around two-thirds (67%) of students in regular yeshivot think that lowering the age of exemption from military service would cause them to enter the labor market earlier, while the equivalent share of students in alternative yeshivot stands at 87%. It is therefore apparent that the exemption age and military service constitute a substantial barrier to early entry into the workforce by Haredi men—a barrier that requires systemic treatment and suitable legislation.

The study conclusions show that there are indications of change in the way in which young Haredi men think about and plan for their future. Despite the fact that the majority of yeshiva students are satisfied with their studies, in the future around one-fifth of them will need employment counseling and support and will need to complete foundational studies and gain additional tools that will help them enter high-quality employment that might match their talents and capabilities.

The transition from the world of Torah study to the world of work is neither a simple nor natural one for yeshiva students. Haredi education idealizes engaging in Torah study a lifetime pursuit. Even when yeshiva students consider going out to work, or are forced to do so, this process is usually undertaken gradually and cautiously so as not to jeopardize their social status as Torah scholars. Usually, they are only faced with the real needs and challenges of the world of employment after they marry. This exposure to some harsh truths is often a traumatic one for young Haredi men who are used to their needs being cared for by their families, their yeshiva, and their community. Once they are married and a have a family, the material needs of the secular world, including the question of making a living, become all too apparent.

While in the past, it was possible to find Torah-based employment that provided both material compensation and symbolic value, today—as a result of the rapid growth of the Haredi community—there are not enough such positions to go around. Thus, yeshiva students are forced to find work in non-religious jobs, outside the Haredi community. The study shows that many young Haredi men are already aware, while studying in yeshiva, that in order to earn a decent living in the future, they will have to prepare themselves as early as possible.