I spent the day today with the “Inside Israel” JDC-Entwine Young Professionals trip, learning about employment issues in the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community in Jerusalem. We began the day with a briefing by the Executive Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy, who explained to us in general terms the economic situation in Israel, and in particular the economic impact of the Haredim. In brief, the Ultra-Orthodox community has an exceptionally high birth rate, but a very low rate of employment, meaning many families rely on welfare and charity to support themselves.
We then went to the Belz Yeshiva, a massive complex (it has flying buttresses!) in the northern part of Jerusalem that is the center of the Belz Haredim (a sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews), and heard from a member of the Belz Hasid who works with JDC-Tevet (JDC-Israel’s employment program). Herschel, our guide in the yeshiva, explained to us the basics of Haredim and began to explore issues of army enrollment and employment amongst Haredi men. My last activity with the group was a panel discussion at the Jerusalem “Mafteach” center, a JDC-Tevet supported employment training and job placement center in Jerusalem for Haredim.
Throughout the day, the participants on the trip were encouraged to ask questions of our presenters; the presenters, all members of the Ultra-Orthodox community, did their best to explain the community’s outlook and way of life. I’ve been reading about the Haredi community in Israel a lot recently, and am becoming increasingly intrigued by the issues the community faces and that Israel faces in incorporating and supporting the Haredim, so it was really nice to have a chance to interact face to face and see some of JDC’s work.
Listening to the questions of the trip participants about Haredi life, and hearing the responses from members of the community, I was continually struck by how little knowledge there is outside the Haredi world of what goes on inside, and vice versa. It’s tempting to say that there’s a lot of ignorance, but I don’t think that’s the case. The Haredi community is ideologically committed to remaining as separate as possible from the rest of society; the lack of knowledge stems not just from not knowing but from being prevented from knowing. Opinions about the integration of the Ultra-Orthodox in to the secular world, in particular the army and the workforce, and the opposition of many Ultra-Orthodox communities to being integrated, seemed based on what we can read in the news. Unsurprisingly, most mainstream news sources push an agenda that supports the secular side of the picture– something along the lines of “these people are taking advantage of the welfare system”. Whether or not this is true or fair is beside the point here. I am just interested in understanding how and why “we”, non-Haredim, think what we think about the Ultra-Orthodox.
I think what was most compelling to me, watching the two groups interact, was understanding that both opinions and world views seemed to be mostly reactionary to the other side. “Knowlege” and conclusions about the “other” stem from what we have previously concluded or heard through hearsay. This makes sense, given that the Ultra-Orthodox deliberately remain separate from the rest of Israeli society. Anthropologist Deena believes that if you can’t interact, you can’t really know or understand.
Which is why, all day, I was reminded of something one of my favorite anthropology professor’s would write on my papers when I drew a conclusion without explaining how or where I had gathered information: “HDWKWWK?” Which stands for “How do we know what we know?” In other words, what experiences, interactions and, heaven forbid, assumptions have we made that led us to conclude X, Y, or Z about the community we are studying. In the anthropological world, our knowledge comes from fieldwork, which involves relatively sustained periods of time living within a community and getting to know people, and reading the work of other anthropologists. To use another one of the professor’s favorite sayings, anthropology is about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, which we accomplish by looking at a community with new and open eyes.
In the “real world”, knowledge comes from our lived experiences as well. We learn from what we see, who we meet, what we read and so on. So when we are talking about a community that lives apart from the rest of the country, obviously opportunities to see, meet and talk to each other are severely limited, resulting in an equally obvious lack of knowledge. And, in the absence of knowledge, we make assumptions.
Slowly, slowly, things are changing. As greater numbers of Haredim enter the workforce, more people are exposed to their culture and way of life, and are able to see that they are real people. Conversely, part of what is done at the Mafteach Employment Center is teaching Haredim how to interact with the secular co-workers, and giving them tools to be successful in the workplace.
The statistics are clear– it is economically unfeasible for the already-large and continually growing Ultra-Orthodox community to keep themselves excluded from the workforce. As the speaker at the Taub Center made clear, supporting the Haredim while they remain outside the workforce will cause the Israeli economy, and with it, Israeli society, to collapse. However, as the TEVET program emphasizes, it is important to bring Haredim in to these positions without causing them to lose or abandon they lifestyle. I believe that society is richer when it is composed of different types of people. From what little I know about Haredi ideology, there is a belief in the goodness of people and the beauty of the human soul that would be tragic to lose.
The rate of change is slow, and the challenges are immense. But as my very brief encounter today showed, every conversation and interaction is a step forward on our quest to know each other, which I believe leads us to accept each other.