Avodah and Avodat Hashem in Israel

by Dr. Ruth Westheimer
exclusive to eJewish Philanthropy

When we hear the loud, angry political battle regarding the ultra-Orthodox (“Haredim”) in Israeli society, it is hard to square it with the calm, hand-in-hand cooperation that is developing between Haredi men and women and the secular employment market. I returned this summer from Israel where Haredi men and women opened their hearts and their homes to me and showed me how common sense can win over demagoguery.

Let me tell you more about it:

Yes, my name, “Dr. Ruth,” is usually associated world-wide with my expertise as a sex-therapist. But this time, I came to Israel as a sociologist, as a TV producer who visits Israel every year, and as a family expert. My mission? To explore the silent changes that have been taking place in the Haredi community in Israel. What I found is so impressive that I ended up producing a brief TV documentary that will air on various channels in the U.S. this year.

The revolution is happening under the guidance of organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Israel. With the consent of top ultra-orthodox rabbis, JDC launched vocational training programs for Haredi men and women who struggled with poverty. “We have much in common: we all cope with issues of family and income – and we all struggle to give the best to our children,” says Reuben Korbat, a secular JDC professional who is the director of one of these programs. To ensure the right environment, the organizers made sure that the vocational training will be according to strict Halachic demands: separate but equal gender training, glatt kosher food, time for praying, and the use of culturally-sensitive materials.

While working on my film, I visited the busy headquarters of a software company in Jerusalem where Ultra-Orthodox women studied computer literacy. What a fascinating site! The women, modestly dressed, with access to a kosher kitchen, told me their husbands fully support their venture into professional education. “Ninety eight percent of them study – so they welcome the prospect of higher income to the household,” one told me.

How was that achieved? A lot has to be credited to the fact that this is a united effort – secular and Haredi, NGO, government and private enterprise. Mrs Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of one of the Haredi world’s most admired authorities, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was very clear about it when speaking with me. She told me, “It was important to our leaders that our people will be able to earn income and lift their families up from poverty.” She pointed out that the Haredi women who learn a modern vocation, such as computers, are the most devoted workers in their jobs. “It is a win-win for their employers and for the women,” said Bar-Shalom.

And that is not all: Haredi men join the army, as a way to learn a trade and enter the employment market.

To that end, I interviewed Shlomo, a 24-year-old Haredi Navy sergeant who is married and has a daughter. He admitted it was a hard decision, but eventually his own wife told him, “we need to put bread on the table!” He joined the Navy, is earning a salary, and most importantly, he has found a profession that will enable him to be gainfully employed once he gets out of the service. He confessed that at the beginning his neighbors were sure he was going to leave the Orthodox world. But once they saw that he maintained his strict halachic life-style: “After me came tens of followers from my group,” he confided.

Next was a Haredi family – husband and wife and their ten children (yes, ten!) – who invited me to their home in the Haredi community of Beitar Illit. Both parents are employed, keeping a strict schedule to deal with all their family needs. The wife, who works in the Knesset, told me that she was one of the first married women to depart from the traditional close-to-home women’s job – a teacher.

“For every employed teacher, we had 50 who could not find a job,” she said. And though her Knesset job is away for home – it offers pay and professional opportunities – and, most of all, a significant contribution of the wife to the family budget. (Ten kids, did I mention? and they are all beautiful and happy and well dressed and well-learned. It was a pleasure to be with them at their home.)

So what can be gleaned from the various examples I found in Israel?

One fact is very obvious to me: while Israeli politicians are busy debating the issue of Haredi responsibilities – like work, army service, etc – the reality is that Haredi families are realizing on their own that the situation can not continue unchanged. For me, as an expert in family affairs, it was very clear that the drive for change comes from within the family. What we call “bottom up” change – coming from families in this case – is more effective than “top down,” imposed by laws and regulations.

Another fact is clear: in this work, trustworthy agents of change ignite and lead such a process. They can help construct a tolerant approach by bringing all the players to the table, negotiate the rough patches, and ensure the goal is reached amicably and successfully.

As a Hebrew speaker, I know that the word avodah means both avodat hashem (worship of GOD) and avodat kapaim (Employment). What I discovered now proves that the two can dwell under the same roof.