Economics force social change in Israel

Hilary Krieger May 10, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Gas stations in the Palestinian territories started shutting down today. Their supplier, an Israeli company, said the bills weren’t being paid. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to intervene. Olmert’s coalition is in its first week. To get a governing majority, Olmert had to ask the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join him. Before agreeing to enter the coalition this time, it demaded Olmert restore welfare payments to big families. Large ultra-Orthodox households are common in Israel. And their rising expenses are bringing social change. Hilary Krieger reports from Jerusalem.

[Sound of swimming pool]

HILARY KRIEGER: When David Hoffman began his training course in hydrotherapy — that’s physical therapy in water — he couldn’t even swim.

DAVID HOFFMAN: I didn’t know floating. I was splashing. When I came in the water, I didn’t know how to move a meter.

It wasn’t just swimming either. Like the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Hoffman lacked basic job skills. But he had a stark choice, a kind of sink or swim proposition. He either had to learn a trade that paid enough to live on or face poverty.Hydrotherapy looked like a good profession. So he and some other ultra-Orthodox friends shed their dark suits and wide-brimmed black hats. Now their long beards and side curls swirl out around them as they glide through the water helping patients overcome their disabilities. The fact that Hoffman and his classmates decided to swim is a huge leap for a culture that shuns any kind of sport.

HOFFMAN: We don’t understand what a football means, what a ball means, we never played ball. We don’t do any exercise with the body. We most of the time sit and learn.

While ultra-Orthodox women usually have jobs, most men study Torah full-time. They are discouraged from working. They don’t watch TV, use the Internet, or mix with members of the opposite sex.

[Sound of school]

Two hundred men are studying Torah in pairs at this school here in Jerusalem. After the Holocaust, only a few hundred ultra-Orthodox scholars survived. So when Israel was founded in 1948, the new state paid stipends for every ultra-Orthodox man to study all day. The original idea was to keep this devout strain of Judaism alive. Later, the men were given extra welfare payments for their big families.

Now, about 10 percent of Israelis — or 650,000 people — are ultra-Orthodox. The subsidies cost millions of dollars each year. But the real cost to the economy is in unemployed able-bodied workers.

DANNY PINNS: We’ve seen a reducing of the level of various entitlements, welfare payments, which obviously affect the ultra-Orthodox community.

That’s Danny Pinns. His organization, the Joint Distribution Committee, subsidizes job training like the hydrotherapy.

PINNS: The fact that you now receive a lower level of entitlements and less payment from the government is acting as a factor to look for work.

In a nutshell, as men like Hoffman see their welfare benefits cut each month, they’re forced to seek employment.

HOFFMAN: My economic situation now is actually very hard. I live with seven children. I must have at least $2,000 and I don’t come to $1,000.

But many ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who are the guiding force in the society, oppose job-training programs. A lot of the new opportunities are in high-tech firms, where men mix with women and are exposed to the modern workplace.

[Sound of house]

Mordechai Plaut edits an English-language ultra-Orthodox newspaper at home, where he lives with his wife and several of his 10 children.

MORDECHAI PLAUT: The perception is that the policy is not just a purely economic move. It’s not trying to get them to work but it’s also trying to force these lifestyle changes. Religious people don’t want to secularize.

Pinns says rabbis simply don’t want ultra-Orthodox men to abandon their studies. But not many have. Less than a quarter work full-time. Hoffman, though, says that as more people within his community see that he works and stays religious, others will follow.

[Sound of swimming pool]

HOFFMAN: Because they saw that I’m learning well and I’m not falling from my level, so they support me very nicely. And the whole time they ask me, “When can we start coming to the pool? When can we start using what you’ve learned?”

In Jerusalem, I’m Hilary Krieger for Marketplace.

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