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Addressing Changing Needs in the Ultra-Orthodox Community

Illustration | Flash 90

Over 1 million Israelis—12% of the general population-- self-identify as ultra-Orthodox. Naturally, such a large population, is not homogeneous, and rather—is comprised of multiple subgroups, some of which have undergone changes in recent years, while still preserving characteristics unique to the ultra-Orthodox community, such as observance of Torah law and communal life. Many among the ultra-Orthodox are now choosing to work and to study in academic frameworks. Thus, sub-communities have been created, positioned on various points on the continuum between conservatism and modernity. As a result of these developments, the needs of some members of the community have changed, creating both new challenges along with new opportunities.

In as much as the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest growing social group in Israel, there is a growing understanding that its influence on the country's identity and in the public arena will increase in the coming decades and that services provided to the community must be adapted to its changing needs. The state is also making distinctions in the housing solutions it seeks to provide to the community, between those who want to live in a homogenous city and those who prefer to live in traditional and secular cities, or in neighborhoods close to and places of employment. Likewise, new curricula have been developed for some ultra-Orthodox schools.

What does the future hold? It will be shaped by different groups - first and foremost the ultra-Orthodox community and leadership; the political leadership and the professional echelons of government ministries; academics who research the topic and advise on policy; and finally--Israeli society as a whole.

The conference will bring together the representatives of all these groups to discuss the processes of change and the needs of ultra-Orthodox society and the policy solutions to address these needs in the areas of education, health, leisure and housing.

Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, gave an opening address, in which he said: “The future of Israeli society is dependent on how we cope with the tremendous challenge of a changing ultra-Orthodox community. These are not simply technical policy challenges, but also ethical and civic challenges relating to ultra-Orthodox citizens in a democratic state, challenges which are growing more and more acute. Every year, we are witnessing a rise in ultra-Orthodox Israelis’ sense of civic identity, with a growing majority expressing pride in being Israeli. On the other hand, as a group, the ultra-Orthodox community has the lowest level of affinity with democratic values than any other group in Israel. Our goal is to meet this challenge and to turn it into an opportunity that will drive us forward.”

Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of Research, Israel Democracy Institute, added: “There is a strong link between policy and the situation on the ground, in terms of how policy can change realities within a short period. Our 2018 Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel reveals significant changes from previous years and we see changing trends in—how many men choose to remain in full-time Torah study, how many are enlisting in the IDF, and how many are entering academia. This significant and salient trend emphasizes the fact that addressing this challenge in a strategic manner using public policy is the right course of action.”

Dr. Lee Cahaner, Israel Democracy Institute, co-chair of the conference: “Our goal in  this conference is to introduce another language into the world of decision-making and planning in Israel. The subject of health, for example, is not sufficiently discussed in relation to ultra-Orthodox society. We need to face this challenge and work in a coordinated and collaborative fashion, together with all the relevant government ministries, and to act now. Lives are at stake, and significant action is needed.”

Racheli Ibenboim, founder and CEO of Movilot, a program for ultra-Orthodox women’s leadership in employment, and co-chair of the conference: “The struggle over the narrative between the ultra-Orthodox community as a conservative society and as a changing society is very important. Most of the ultra-Orthodox community understands that it is becoming more open, and more Israeli. We need to make an effort to understand those groups who are bridging the divide, and to see why they have chosen to take part in moving towards modernity. Is it a reaction to the community’s isolationist way of life, or is it due to opportunities that have been offered elsewhere?”

Policy and entrepreneurship in ultra-Orthodox education: Main discussion points:

Meir Shimoni, director of the Ministry of Education’s Jerusalem District: “The Ministry of Education has created a nationwide Ultra-Orthodox Division that is responsible for 400,000 students. Its role is to provide professional support and to create significant pedagogical platforms to improve the quality and impact of ultra-Orthodox education, so that it can meet needs – in terms of preparation for employment and higher education, as well as welfare issues. If we don’t address the major issues of poverty, welfare, and health in the ultra-Orthodox community, children will simply be left behind and will require a far greater investment of funds by the state in the future. If we can create a strong support system in the fields of welfare and health, we can enable the ultra-Orthodox sector to thrive and to become more integrated into Israeli society.”

Michal Zernovitski, chair of the Ir Ve’Em movement for the advancement of ultra-Orthodox women: “It was a historic mistake not to bring ultra-Orthodox education into the state education system; now is the time to correct it. Every child in Israel has the right to public  education, and this should be the default option in every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and city.”

Adv. Yoav Lalum, founder of the Noar Kahalacha nonprofit for the advancement of citizens’  rights in the ultra-Orthodox community  “Ultra-Orthodox education is the only arena in the Israeli education system in which there is a free market —in fact, it is so free that there is no legal enforcement. The Ministry of Education and (Minister) Bennett are scared of (MK Moshe) Gafni, as I would be if I were the minister of education. The Ministry is concerned with what the ultra-Orthodox political fixers want, rather than focusing on the needs of ultra-Orthodox society itself.”

Haim Erlanger, Israel Democracy Institute: “Positive incentives are the only way to address the problems in ultra-Orthodox education and make it more efficient. Trying to enforce solutions is a futile pursuit. I wouldn’t want my own son to start the day by learning math and English, but it’s perfectly possible in the afternoon, as long as it’s not done through coercion.”

Dr. Lotem Perry-Hazan, head of the Jewish Education Research Center at the University of Haifa: “Every child should have the right to study the core curriculum, but in ultra-Orthodox society there is a significant gap between the growing demand for these studies and the very limited supply available, which in some places is non-existent. We need to come up with incentives that will increase the availability of study tracks that include the core curriculum. We need to think about how to support existing options and to encourage new grass-roots initiatives.”

Health needs of the ultra-Orthodox: Main discussion points:

Dr. Emma Averbuch, Ministry of Health coordinator for reducing gaps in health: “We are doing a great deal of work in the ultra-Orthodox community   on adapting services to the ultra-Orthodox community culture, but there remains much to be done. There is considerable ignorance in the large hospitals on how to deal with ultra-Orthodox patients, and students in the medical professions receive no training on this issue.”

Efraim Rosenstein, director of marketing in the ultra-Orthodox sector, Leumit Health Services: “While the general community  is more mobile and has greater access (to centralized medical treatment), among the ultra-Orthodox r there are many more medical centers because of the difficulties faced by this population in terms of transportation and accessibility. Additionally, the ultra-Orthodox ‘medical consultants’ have a powerful influence. People call their rabbis to ask them to recommend doctors, and so we arrange meetings between rabbis and doctors.”

Netta Gilboa-Feldman, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University: “The ultra-Orthodox community can be seen as a society that seeks to create a safe space for its members, to protect them both culturally and halakhically. The field of health and medicine is an interesting test case regarding the community’s capacity to be a partner in modern life, and also in running and leading public services.”

Sarah Libby, founder and director of the Association for the Advancement of Sport and Women’s Health, Beit Shemesh: “There are three main challenges in the area of physical fitness in ultra-Orthodox society: awareness, physical infrastructures, and accessibility. Awareness of the importance of physical fitness is not a given, as it is in other communities. We need to enhance awareness through change agents who are members of the community, so that change comes from within.”

Housing and the ultra-Orthodox community: Main discussion points:

Dr. Eitan Regev, Israel Democracy Institute: “While ultra-Orthodox families are larger, the apartments they buy tend to be smaller and older, and are in cheaper neighborhoods. The movement of significant numbers of the community to the Negev may present an opportunity in that it will create change in the ultra-Orthodox community’s employment patterns and will create a stronger market force that could serve as a catalyst for development.”

Dr. Nitsa (Kaliner) Kasir, vice chair of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs: “It is imperative that municipalities adapt their services for the ultra-Orthodox public and train their employees accordingly. They need to learn the community’s language, codes, and key figures; otherwise, we will not be able to provide suitable solutions.”

Yaakov Gutterman, mayor of Modi’in Illit: The ultra-Orthodox periphery is long gone. The housing prices in Beitar Illit, Modi’in Illit, and Elad are now higher than in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. It’s also important to remember that it’s almost impossible for ultra-Orthodox cities to function with such low revenues.”

Asaf Cohen, chief communities’ officer at the OR Movement for developing the Negev and the Galilee: “As one component of the rate of population growth in Israel, a huge socioeconomic gap is set to develop between the periphery and the center of the country. We need to change our way of thinking from center versus periphery, and start talking instead about three strong, independent areas—the center, the Negev, and the Galilee. To this end, we need to create an innovative ultra-Orthodox community to develop the areas of housing, transportation, and environment, and stimulate natural demand, rather than depending on artificial incentives.”

Dr. Gilad Malach, Israel Democracy Institute: “The trend of ultra-Orthodox migration to the periphery is a cause for concern. . Ultra-Orthodox Jews have mainly lived in central locations in Israel and in other countries—they can be found in New York, London, and Brussels. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox cities (such as Bnei Brak) are also mainly in the center of the country. The movement to the periphery may have very serious consequences.”

Dr. Nissim Leon, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, and the Israel Democracy Institute: “Whether we like it or not, ultra-Orthodox society is changing. While 30 years ago we could summarize the debate about ultra-Orthodox society using the term ‘a society of Torah scholars,’ there are now multiple types of ultra-Orthodox societies. In addition, there are also attempts to renew ultra-Orthodox conservatism among those in the community who are afraid of change.”

9:00 Gathering

9:15-10:15 Opening Session

Chair: Dr. Gilad Malach, Director, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, Israel Democracy Institute

Yohanan Plesner, President Israel Democracy Institute

Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President for Research, Israel Democracy Institute

Dr. Gilad Malach: Presentation of the 2018 Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel

Dr. Lee Cahaner, Presentation of Research Findings 

Researcher, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, Israel Democracy Institute; Head of the Research and Evaluation Authority, Oranim Academic College

10:15-12:00 Policies and Initiatives in Ultra-Orthodox Education

Chair: Dr. Asaf Malchi , Researcher, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program and Center for Security and Democracy, Israel Democracy Institute

Dr. Lotem Perry-Hazan, Head, Management of Educational Systems Program, and Head of the Center for Department of Leadership and Policy in Education, Faculty of Education; Head, Jewish Education Research Center, Faculty of Education, Haifa University

Meir Shimoni, Ministry of Education, Head, Jerusalem District 

Michal Zernowitski, Chair, Mother and City for the Advancement of Ultra-Orthodox Women

Haim Erlanger, PhD. Candidate, , Tel Aviv University; Researcher, Israel Democracy Institute

Adv. Yoav Lalum, Founder, Noar Kehalakha Against Racial Discrimination in Ultra-Orthodox Education System

Open Discussion

12:00-12:15 Break

12:15-13:45 Changing Needs – Health, Culture and Leisure

Chair: Racheli Ibenboim, Founder and CEO, Movilot Occupational Leadership for Haredi Women; Head, Ultra-Orthodox Department, Shacharit Institute

Netta Feldman, PhD candidate, , Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bar-Ilan University

Dr. Emma Auverbuch, Coordinator, Narrowing Gaps within the Health System, Ministry of Health

Maishi Keidar, Marketing Director for the Ultra-Orthodox, Meuchedet Sick Fund

Dr. Diana Pepper, Bishvilaych, for the Advancement of Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Health

Rabbi Arie Munk, CEO, Bayit Cham

Sara Lebby, Founder and CEO, Society for Advancement of Women’s Health and Sports in Beit Shemesh

Open Discussion

13:45-14:15 Lunch Break

14:15-16:00 The Ultra-Orthodox Community – Its Uniqueness and its Challenges

Chair: Dr. Lee Cahaner

Dr. Eitan Regev, Researcher, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel and Labor Market Reform Programs, Israel Democracy Institute

Dr. Nitsa Kasir (Kaliner), Vice Chair, The Ultra-Orthodox Institute for Policy Research

Yizhak Moldavski, Senior Coordinator Program and Environment, Ministry of Housing and Construction

Yaakov Guterman, Mayor, Modiin Elite

Assaf Cohen, Deputy Director of Settlement, Orr Organization

Open Discussion

16:00-16:30 Summary

Dr. Nissim Leon, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bar-Ilan University

Dr. Lee Cahaner and Racheli Ibenboim