Chicago-born Rabbi Berel Wein made aliya 17 years ago — “because this is our home; because this is the only place you can really live a Jewish life; because the future of Jewish life is here.”

A former congregational rabbi in Miami Beach, and later the kashrut supervisor of the Orthodox Union, he founded and for 20 years headed Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey, New York, handing it over to his son when he moved to Israel. Just turned 80, he’s now the rabbi of a synagogue in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem where he’s made his home.

I wanted to speak to Wein after the Knesset last month finally passed a law ostensibly aimed at ensuring a fairer “sharing of the national burden” — intended to compel ultra-Orthodox Israeli males to serve in the army and then enter the workforce, with provisions for criminal penalties for draft dodgers. Hardly beloved even by its legislators, the law strikes many as a missed opportunity — an imposed solution that is unlikely to produce its desired result and is already being bitterly resisted. Central to the probable failure, critics argue, is the degree to which it was formulated amid resistance from ultra-Orthodox leaders, rather than via genuine consultation with them.

I figured Wein, a smart, original thinker who ran a yeshiva in the United States and who clearly regards himself as Haredi, might have some thoughts on how we could do better. Excerpts:

Where do you see the root of the Haredi-secular disconnect?

Most of the Haredi community has not made peace with the existence of the State of Israel: It shouldn’t have happened. It couldn’t have happened. The wrong people made it happen.

They’re still fighting the 19th- and 20th-century battles of Eastern Europe. This ignores the Holocaust and other changes that have affected the Jewish people.

‘This country began as a socialist, atheistic, anti-religious country. It has since moved away. But the scars still affect our society. As Nixon said, you’d be paranoid if the whole world was against you’

There was a period when it was a little different. When the state was founded, [the ultra-Orthodox newspaper] Hamodia headlined with a Shehechiyanu (blessing thanking God for the achievement) — even though they knew Ben-Gurion was not about to put on tefillin. But religion here became so politicized — it became a fight over the school system…

But the basic problem, again, is that the Haredi community — not to compare it to the Arab world — didn’t accept the state. If it did, the problems would be diminished.

Still, bottom up, acceptance is taking hold. Shas [the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox political party] has accepted the core curriculum in its schools…

Not so the Ashkenazim.

The Ashkenazim demean the Sephardim. Why aren’t there 15 Ashkenazi Haredi Knesset seats? Because many of their voters don’t vote Haredi. The community has grown but the number of MKs hasn’t grown. Too often, the politicians don’t serve the community; the rabbis follow them and not vice versa, and the politicians feed them [self-serving] information.

This country began as a socialist, atheistic, anti-religious country. It has since moved away. But the scars still affect our society. As Nixon said, you’d be paranoid if the whole world was against you. MKs pass a law — you assume it’s out to get you. We’ve spent 150 years battling just to eat kosher! [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai wants stores open on Shabbat? We won’t give in on anything. We’re not sending one guy to the army! We’ll bring out 300,000 people to demonstrations.

Hundreds of thousands gather in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 2, 2014, to protest the emerging draft law (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Hundreds of thousands gather in Jerusalem on Sunday, March 2, 2014, to protest the emerging draft law (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

So how would you fix all this, notably including the army and employment issues?

There needs to be greater acceptance of the Haredi public in secular Israel. I just read a poll that showed a large proportion of employers don’t want to employ Haredim.

Yair Lapid speaks from the Knesset podium. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yair Lapid speaks from the Knesset podium. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

We need to change the curriculum in Haredi and secular schools. Average Israelis are completely ignorant of Jewish history, tradition and faith. We have to meet in the middle. We can meet in the middle. Lapid the father [the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid] was anti-religious. [Yesh Atid party leader Yair] Lapid the son wants to be more gracious. He should have gone to [leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis such as the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi] Ovadia Yosef, to the Gerer rebbe, to Rav Shteinman.

‘If you’ve studied Talmud for six years, you’re not dumb. You sit for hours tackling problems. You have developed language skills. Analytical skills. It’s not all about two people fighting over an ox. ‘

As regards the yeshivot and entering the workforce adopt a US-style model: A young man studies in yeshiva till say 22-25, and then he decides if he wants to do that all his life or go out into the world. In the US, you can get a bachelor’s degree in Talmudic Literature and then you can go on to study law, medicine. The Association of Rabbinical Colleges is recognized by American universities. It gives a degree. Here that’s anathema — the interaction with the university world — to get a degree, go to Hebrew University, say. But the community needs this — it needs psychologists and doctors.

If you’ve studied Talmud for six years, you’re not dumb. You sit for hours tackling problems. You have developed language skills. Analytical skills. Apart from the spiritual. It’s not all about two people fighting over an ox. Most yeshivot here are serious.

The Talmud contains a great deal of worldly knowledge. It’s the best provider of psychological knowledge that I know of; it offers a breadth of knowledge. Yeshiva graduates can excel.

Haredim want to enter the workforce. And Haredi politicians know — they tell me privately — that the current situation is untenable. If Lapid had sat down with the Haredi leadership, they could have come up with something together.

Where should the army obligation fit in?

For one thing, most of the world’s armies are volunteer armies.

Not enough people would volunteer here.

‘Those who oppose the army as un-Jewish are misunderstanding Judaism’

People would serve. What is the IDF today? 250,000 to 300,000 people? (Actually some 175,000 in the standing army, with 450,000 in the reserves.) You’d get that without a problem, especially if there were inducements.

The IDF performs a social function too, as an integrator, offering opportunities…

It did. I don’t know that it does today.

There’s no point in forcing Haredim to go in. The IDF, though it has bent over backwards, is not able to meet the lifestyle demands of the Haredim. And the IDF doesn’t want 40,000 Haredim. The IDF is seen as a straw man to put the Haredim in their place, which is not what the IDF sees itself as doing. And the Haredim see it as being out to convert them, which it isn’t.

Head of King David, ca. 1145. France, Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Head of King David, ca. 1145. France, Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

But those who oppose the army as un-Jewish are misunderstanding Judaism. Those in the Haredi world who say it’s the yeshivot that save and protect Israel? Through all of Jewish history from Joshua to the Second Temple, there was an army. The Maccabees were an army. King David.

God helps those who help themselves. God gives us opportunities.

How do you think the draft and employment issues will play out?

More Haredim will join the army — a slow, but steady trickle. The Nahal Haredi [unit] is a success, beyond what was imagined.

Some sort of core curriculum will be negotiated. More Haredim will join the workforce and general society, the rest of society, will be less afraid of them, will start to see them as people rather than black-hatted caricatures.

That’s very optimistic.

The Lord has a plan for us. It takes time. Sixty-six years is not long in historical terms. It took the United States 200 years to tackle slavery and work toward equality. Here we’re integrating people from all over the world, all backgrounds. We’re a miracle.

In 1900, there were 6,000 Jews here. By the 1920s, it was 60,000. In 1948, it was 600,000. And last census was 6 million. If Herzl woke up to this, he wouldn’t believe it.