The Israeli hareidi population fascinates the average Israeli. Ideologically driven, but ignorant of political issues other than those about which their rabbis inform them. Serious about life, yet seeming to constantly be celebrating a simcha (festive family occasion) of one of their many friends and relatives. Far from wealthy for the most part, but willing to go to great lengths to support manifold religious and social needs. Repelled by social networking, but increasingly entering the high-tech work force with great success – and dressed in ways that make them stand out from the only other observant Israelis, the Religious Zionists, and certainly from the non-observant public.
What, asks the secular Sabra observer, makes "them" tick?
Contrary to standard Israeli misperceptions of a monolithic hareidi sector, observant Jews know that there is no one, unified hareidi community. The first division is between Hassidim and all the rest, once called Misnagdim, meaning "those who oppose," because what once united them was their staunch opposition to the hassidic movement.
Today, they are affectionately called Litvish. This is Yiddish for Lithuanians, as Lithuania (Lita in Yiddish) was the center of non-hassidic Jewish life. Hassidim, who are of Eastern European origin, are divided among tens of dynasties, each led by its own rebbe, while the Litvish too, consist of several distinct groups.
A second large hareidi divide is between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. It is not noticeable in day-to-day relationships, but marriages between the two groups, in contrast to marriages in the religious Zionist sector, are rare. The issue of discrimination in the school systems, though sometimes in the headlines, has not yet been satisfactorily solved.
How many Hareidim are there in Israel?
Informed estimates range from under 500,000 to nearly double that amount – up to 10% of the country's Jewish population. The reason for the confusion is that there is no precise sociological definition for the term "hareidi." Counting families whose children attend hareidi schools provides one number, asking parents if their sons serve or plan to serve in the army provides another, and checking religious beliefs results in a totally different bottom line.
There is one attempt by the Central Bureau of Statistics to quantify what it defined as the hareidi sector: 33% of those who called themselves hareidi were found to be Litvish, 29% Hassidim, 21% Sephardim, 10% unaffiliated, and 7% defined themselves as nationalist-hareidi (known by the acronym chardalim).
The hareidi sector is stigmatized by the rest of the Israeli public, which tends to view it with a jaundiced and prejudicial eye. When asked, many secular Israelis admit that they know nothing about Hareidim other than that "they throw stones on the Sabbath" and "don't enlist in the IDF". Some will add that the Hareidim don't work and live off Israeli government hand-outs.
The truth is somewhere else. The IDF recently announced that hareidi enlistment numbers have met the recommended goals. These numbers have been constantly rising: In 2009, 730 hareidi men joined the army; two years later, it was 1280; and in 2014, that number had doubled.
How many Hareidim have joined the work force? Again, an increasing number are gainfully employed. A poll published recently shows that 46% of the men work, while among the women, 24% work part-time, and 52% work full-time.
These findings do not depend solely on the Hareidim and their feelings about taking part in modern society. Former Economic Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged the existence of work-market prejudice against Hareidim: "Let's be quite open. If two candidates for a job arrive, one hareidi and one secular, in most cases the employer will choose the secular candidate." In addition, those who have not served in the army are limited by law regarding non-yeshiva study and work and that situation that can only change over the long term, as it is limited by the IDF's ability to absorb recruits.
Participants in Israeli talk shows often contend that Hareidim do not contribute to Israeli society. They have obviously never heard of the thriving gemach phenomenon. A leading religious-Zionist Rosh Yeshiva once stood at Shabbat Square in Jerusalem, where the famous hareidi neighborhoods of Meah She'arim and Geulah converge, and declared, if somewhat hyperbolically, "In and around this very spot, more acts of kindness occur every moment per square meter than anywhere else in the world."
He was referring to the very many gemachs – Hebrew acronym for "kindness organizations" – that exist in the hareidi sector, and only there, for the benefit of anyone who needs their varied services. Secular as well as religious Jews benefit from organizations such as Yad Sarah, which provides meals, equipment and emergency services for the sick and disabled, Paamonim which plans budgets for families on the verge of bankruptcy, Ezra LeMarpeh, the address for medical consultations, equipment, and medicines, Refuah V'chaim which feeds hospital visitors who stay over the Sabbath and provides activities for autistic children, and associations that lend anything from money to wedding dresses, pacifiers, medicines and equipment to those in need.
Some observers look down upon the "insular" communities in which Hareidim generally live. It can be imagined that this is one charge with which Hareidim agree, for it is precisely this phenomenon that gives them the communal strength to stand strong in the face of unwanted ideas.
It seems that this also makes them happy. In fact, a Central Bureau of Statistics survey released last month shows that nearly 90% of those living in hareidi neighborhoods, are happy with their apartments and neighbors, compared to under 87.5% for the rest of the population. (This number is 92.9% among those living in Judea and Samaria.)
In addition, 90% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem – where the hareidi population is significantly large and has been for generations – are "happy with their lives," as opposed to the slightly lower number of 88% in the rest of the country. (It may be something about the Holy City, for 85% of the city's Arabs are "happy," compared to 70% in other places.)
Other statistics typify this sector: The highest percentage of people who own deep-freezers, a sign of large families and the need for bulk food purchasing, is found in Israel's most hareidi city, Bnei Brak – over 34%. In nearby and more affluent Tel Aviv, only 8.8% own them.
On the other hand, Bnei Brak residents own the fewest cars: only 28.6% of the households own one. Bnei Brak is also Israel's most densely-populated city, with no fewer than 22,145 people per square kilometer – place 20 in the world! Union City, New Jersey places 35 on the world list, and 1st place in the United States, with 20,300.
Amidst the statistics and controversy, the main defining characteristic of the hareidi population must not be overlooked. its total and complete dedication to the study of Torah, seen as the only way to perpetuate the Jewish nation. No observer can avoid noticing the tremendous sacrifices made by hareidi families in order to provide the optimal conditions for both children and adults to study Torah for as many hours of the day as possible. The Jewish Sages taught that Israel was redeemed from Egypt "in the merit of its righteous women" and today as well, most hareidi women do everything possible – including holding one, two or more jobs while running their households – to ensure that their husbands are free to learn.
Instead of stigmatizing Hareidim, Israeli society would do well to appreciate their efforts on behalf of Jewish continuity, recognize the changes they are undergoing, and perhaps gain from internalizing certain aspects of their ethos and lifestyle.
Neriah Chaim is a much-read hareidi publicist, whose writings appear under various pseudonyms.