Walking Among the Faithful: A Look At The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community in Israel

By Thursday, August 10, 2017

In a busy market in the heart of Jerusalem you will find a kaleidoscope of nationalities, dressed in many different fashions, shopping at a variety of establishments which sell everything imaginable. If you cross the street you walk into Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, and you entered a different world. The women dress conservatively, covering their hair and wear long skirts and long sleeves. All the men wear some variation of a white shirt and black coat and black trousers with hats of different sizes and shapes. Some with trousers tucked into socks. Some with fedoras tipped forward. Others set their hat far back on their heads. Some with payot that hang down in curls. Others with full beards. In the seemingly endless variety there is continuity as each follows the specific dress code of their sect. Even at nine o’clock at night, this neighborhood has busy streets. Men walk quickly to and from prayers and Torah study, while women are out walking children in strollers. You may even see some very conservative women dressed in burkas that will remind you of Muslim women in full black flowing garments that cover their face with a veil and hang down to brush the ground. If you are a women not dressed to their standards, men look away out of respect as they pass you.

This neighborhood has a unique history. The ultra-Orthodox Jews were not pro Zionist in the early days of Zionism. Originally, ultra-Orthodox Jews viewed Zionism as secular Jews attempting to force God’s hand. They believed that he would bring them back to the land in his own time, to rush would be against his will. But out of necessity, pushed by the Holocaust and pogroms in Russia, conservative Jews eventually fled to Palestine as a final refuge from genocide.

But even there they would not integrate with Secular Jews remaining in their own isolated communities, distinct in their beliefs and lifestyle. When founding father and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion instituted mandatory conscription in Israel in 1949, it was seen as a great challenge to the ultra-Orthodox way of life. While many decided that they would serve their country, 400 young scholars went to the Prime Minister and asked him to allow them to be exempt from military service to dedicate their lives to studying and preserving the Torah. Ben Gurion agreed for cultural and political reasons—even as a secular Jew he saw the value in keeping the tradition and the culture of Orthodox Judaism alive. But, he stipulated that they could not do outside work. Orthodox men who wish to live this lifestyle sign a contract with the state saying that they will dedicate certain amount of their time to prayer and study and not seek outside employment or income. For this the government supplies a welfare system for them to sustain themselves and their families.

Now so many years later, these ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are exploding in population. The birth rate is significantly higher than secular Jews: the average birthrate for Israeli women is 3.13, while ultra-Orthodox communities have a birth rate almost double that, near 6.2. They now represent a fast-growing 12 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. More than one in 10 Jews in Israel are members of this ultra-Orthodox community.

While some might feel the women in these communities live an oppressed lifestyle forced to focus on home life by tradition, ultra-Orthodox women don’t necessarily see it this way. The women are rulers at home and often referred to as queens of the house. Also, they are more often the ones who go and work outside the community. Many of them have more outside engagement than their husbands do. Even so the separation of the genders for purification purposes and the strict modesty dress codes do lead to women living a reserve lifestyle in these communities.

You cannot walk in this community without being struck by depth of commitment these people have to their faith. There is a nobility to their rejection of modern cultural and luxuries. Here, men and women alter their lives and forgo the many pleasures readily available to them to live simply in devotion to God, the Torah, and their families. But such rigorous devotion to a demanding faith does not come without a cost.

You don’t have to be an economist to see the coming conflict between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. A growing minority with political influence living on welfare for deeply religious reasons will become a real issue in the near future. While these communities is endemic to Jewish culture, there is a limit to the percent of your population that can live on welfare and the work of others. It is not sustainable. Israel Finance Ministry senior economist predicted the state will go bankrupt by 2059 if the continued trajectory is not changed. This projection includes the strain of the rapidly growing portion of the population over 65 years of age.

For secular Jews who live under mandatory conscription, or do national service, work, and pay high taxes, this community represents a conundrum. The nobility seems suspect. Does Israel need 1.3 million Haredi Jews focused on preserving the Torah? And at what cost?

These communities can only exist because of the sacrifice of their secular neighbors on a daily basis. Because 18-year-old boys and girls go off and trained to be soldiers and learn to fight and do violence in defense of their way of life. They exist because men and women work in the tech and research sectors to develop innovative products that increase the wealth and prosperity of their nation.

This community is not a zoo and the people do not live here to be gawked at, but ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods do not like having visitors. During a recent visit to Mea Shearim an elderly lady looked out a window and told my group we had better separate the men and women. Moments later, an elderly gentleman began yelling through a door that we were defiling the purity of their community by standing together. He repeated this accusation over and over through the door until we moved on. Of course, they deserve the privacy and respect of any other quiet neighborhood that just wants to live in peace. But a community that lives on the charity of the state and is quickly growing can ill-afford to be isolationist.

If ultra-Orthodox wish to preserve their way of life and build support in the general population they will need to actively look for opportunities to reach out to secular Jews and show them they’re adding indispensable value to their society.

Peter Burns

Peter Burns is a member of the Philos Leadership Institute class of 2017. A graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Peter is the policy analyst for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Peter worked as operations manager for The Forge Leadership Network, coordinating the yearly conference and managing the organization’s operations. He is a chronic optimist, and never passes up a local barbecue place. Follow him on Twitter: @peterburns_1861