The Unanticipated Crisis Looming in Israel’s Future

Photo courtesy Tracy Salkowitz

By Tracy Salkowitz, MSW

Visiting Israel, we have come to expect a modern, vibrant and thriving country and while understanding that Israel is far from perfect we can’t help but be proud of all that has been accomplished.

We know that violence in the region is still rife. We know that there are very real issues with Arabs, Israelis and Druze within Israel and their ability to find common ground. We also know that the role of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) in Israeli society is an ongoing dynamic dilemma.

An unanticipated consequence of all of these issues is the outlook for the future of Israel’s workforce and the projected dramatic increase in poverty. It doesn’t make sense as Israel is becoming the newest Silicon Valley and everywhere you look there are cranes building yet more luxury modern apartments. However, drilling down further into the educational segments within Israel an entirely different story is unfolding.

Israel has essentially three entirely different educational systems. One is for the majority, educating children who will go on to serve in the Israeli army and then to enter the university system. This group is currently the majority of the student population and has provided the bulk of the workforce in Israel’s history.

The second student body is that of the Haredim through yeshiva education. This educational system focuses on Torah study first and foremost. Secular studies are not taught and without math, science, computers and English, these students will not be able to enter university. For many there is the fear that studying secular subjects will, at minimum cause less focus on Torah study and at worst, cause some to drift away from the confines of the religious community. The result is that young Haredi men especially are not adequately prepared to even be accepted into University.

The Arab educational system, similarly, is challenged. Hebrew is taught as a second, not primary, language. This results in young Arab adults who are not adequately prepared to compete in the Israeli workplace let alone at university. Combine that with ethnic tensions and distrust and the problem is exacerbated exponentially.

A Reuters report, in Sept. 2015, noted that by “2059, people aged 65 and over will make up 17% of Israel’s population compared with 10% now. Without adjustments, such as raising the retirement age and increasing ultra-Orthodox and Arab employment rates, the debt burden will jump to 88 percent of the GDB by 2059 from (a projected) 65% in 2022.”

The birthrates underscore the issue with Ultra and Modern Orthodox women averaging 5.0 children; Arab women averaging 3.13 children and Conservative, Reform and Secular Jewish women averaging 1.5 children (Jerusalem Post, Nov 16, 2016).

What this means is that within the next 40 years, the majority of Israel’s workforce could be comprised of undereducated Haredim and Arab adults. This would have devastating consequences for Israel.

The effects are already being felt. Historically within the Haredi population parents have been able to step into to assist with down payments on homes and supplemental support. With the generations of large families begetting large families, the ability of parents and grandparents to keep up with the growing needs has disappeared. Consequently, we find more and more Haredi families moving to the West Bank for affordable housing and looking for alternatives to living in abject poverty and that, of course, creates a host of other problems.

A positive outcome of this economic distress being is that increasing numbers of young Haredi individuals are looking differently at securing higher education and entering the labor force. However, since the issue of core studies in high school is still very sensitive and faces much opposition from within, creative solutions must and are being identified to address the shifting dynamic. According to a recent study from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the number of newly enrolled Haredi students at university has tripled in the past six years, and the total number of Haredi students today exceeds 11,000 – a third of which are men. Without adequate preparation there is still a high dropout level, but new programs and efforts are hoping to change the outcome.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, identified this as an issue that needed support. This meant that we wanted to do what we could to begin to turn the tide and indeed are one of the first Jewish Community Foundations in the country to begin supporting new and innovative programs for Haredi youth. Our initial focus has providing funding for secular education.

It was not easy finding a mainstream Haredi yeshiva that offered secular studies, but find it we did. Hachmey Lev is a yeshiva in Jerusalem that does indeed offer English, Math, Computers and Science. Rabbi Betzalel Cohen decided to create a high school yeshiva as he wanted his children to have more choices than he had had, and found a partner and home in The Society for Advancement of Education. Since the establishment of the yeshiva, his family has faced ridicule, lost friendships and has even had to endure having their car tires slashed.

Hachmey Lev has had many challenges, not the least of which is securing adequate educational space for its students. Haredi members of the Jerusalem City Council have been setting up stumbling blocks for the school to meet its needs. In November 2016, they moved into a temporary building, after outgrowing their previous location were some classes were taught in a tent, and are hoping to be able to secure a permanent home in the near future.

In addition to growing the number of secondary schools that teach general studies, the success rate in academia can be improved by providing Haredi students with adequate support systems that can help bridge the gaps. These include stronger pre-academic preparatory programs, tutoring – especially in math and English – counseling, and scholarships can all improve their chances of success of this dramatic process of change that is now occurring within the Haredi society in Israel.

The programs are burgeoning and need our support.

To find out more, contact:

Taub Center: Eitan Regev – www.taubcenter.org.il

Society for the Advancement of Education: Shoshana Becker- shoshana.be@kidum-edu.org.il

Hachmey Lev: http://www.kidum-edu.org.il/en/hachmey-lev-yeshiva/ OR http://www.matanel.org/?s=hachmey+lev

Joint Distribution Committee: Michael Novick – Michael.novick@jdc.org

Jerusalem Foundation: Peleg Reshef- pelegr@jfjlm.org

Tracy Salkowitz, MSW has been the CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona since July 2012. After 20 years of service to the Jewish community in such roles as the Regional Director of the American Jewish Congress and Planning Director for the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, Ms. Salkowitz became a consultant providing organizational development coaching for nonprofits. Her blog can be found at www.tracystreks.com.