Magazine article The Christian Century

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Men Break a Taboo by Working

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Men Break a Taboo by Working

Article excerpt

At the age of 36, Michael Luc realized he needed to find a good job.

Until then Luc, an ultra-Orthodox Jew and father of four in Bnei Brak, Israel, spent his days studying Torah. This entitled him to a small government stipend and an exemption from mandatory military service. His wife, a kindergarten teacher, helped put food on the table.

Within the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, stream of Judaism, the daylong study of Torah and other rabbinic works, such as the Talmud, is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy in Isaiah--"for the land will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord."

But 52 percent of Haredi families lived below the poverty line in 2014, compared with 19 percent of the population overall, according to Israel's National Insurance Institute.

"What my wife was earning wasn't enough, and she was exhausted," Luc said. "That's when I decided I needed to work."

Like the vast majority of graduates from Israel's insular schools for Haredi Jews, Luc lacked the academic background to pursue a career. He had barely studied subjects such as math and English, prerequisites for most good jobs in Israel. And he had to confront the stigma many in his community attach to men who work, believing that they are betraying their faith commitments.

Determined to feed his family, Luc enrolled in a program at the Bnei Brak Employment Center, which offers intensive, culturally sensitive job training to Haredi men and women, many of whom have never held a full-time job.

During a two-year course of study, Luc learned English, math, and technology and received both vocational training and help finding a job. Today he is a computer programmer.

The employment center is funded by the Ministry of the Economy and works in conjunction with the municipality of Bnei Brak. The government has a five-year, $125 million employment plan for ultra-Orthodox men, and the ministry offers financial incentives to employers who hire these workers.

"If these groups don't participate in the economy in larger numbers, Israel's economic growth will go backward," said Michal Tzuk, senior deputy director-general at the Ministry of Economy and Industry and head of employment. …

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