Israel’s ultra-Orthodox subculture is in the throes of profound change. Faced with grinding poverty in the midst of the country’s rapid economic growth, ordinary Haredim have begun in recent years to quietly rebel against the social and religious pressures forbidding work and secular higher education.
Many rabbis, aware of the growing tide, have sought ways to grant limited approval to the shift toward employment.
One notable example: in 2008 the Belzer Rebbe, head of one of the largest Hassidic groups in Jerusalem, used his annual Simhat Torah sermon to urge ultra-Orthodox men who were not learning successfully in yeshiva or other frameworks to find work and support their families. Though the speech was less than a full-throated endorsement of employment for haredi men, it gave some measure of rabbinic sanction to the decision to join the workforce. It was noted by some observers of the Haredi street as a harbinger of a new age.
Now, an ultra-Orthodox political movement seeks to take the shift a step further, to give voice to those of its constituency who work or wish to do so, or who pursue professional degrees in institutions of higher education — and consequently find themselves ostracized in their communities and their children denied entry to the better ultra-Orthodox schools.
“Tov” isn’t a formal registered political party, but it is competing in five cities in the nationwide municipal elections on October 22: Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Beitar, Emanuel and Elad.
Its goal, according to the movement’s founder and the head of its Jerusalem list, Chanoch Verdiger: “We are an address for people [who are] involved in society while not compromising their Haredi identity.”
The movement’s campaign literature explains that “in recent years, there [are] a growing number of Haredim in academic institutions, in the job market, in the media and in other venues. As more Haredim are involved in general Israeli society, there is a demand for a Haredi framework and voice that represents them.”
And representing them means empowering them, according to Verdiger, who spoke with The Times of Israel this week.
“Tov has existed for just six years. That’s no time at all. It’s a political infant,” says Verdiger. “There are parties that came from nowhere and burst onto the scene and became large political parties in the Knesset, like Shas. But Tov is a movement that came from the street, is rooted in the street, is responsive to it. It doesn’t have a Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [Shas's late influential spiritual leader] at its head, or any such leader.”
Tov, he continues, is made up of “Jews who define themselves — and don’t wait for anyone to tell them if they’re Haredi or not. Their identity is strong enough for them to decide who they are for themselves.”
To those who wonder if Tov’s espousal of empowered ultra-Orthodox individualism isn’t by definition a non-ultra Orthodox phenomenon, Verdiger offers a correction.
“Instead of seeing it as a non-Haredi phenomenon, it’s good to see it as changing Haredism. These changes are happening at a very deep level. It’s a healthy phenomenon.”
One campaign gimmick in Jerusalem speaks volumes about the party’s new focus on the individual Haredi resident. Tov activists are wandering ultra-Orthodox sections of the city with a portable voting booth in which passersby are being asked to select the two municipal issues most important to them, from high property taxes to discrimination in schools to investments in parks in their neighborhoods.
Verdiger’s background, which lies deep within the ultra-Orthodox world, may nevertheless also explain his activism. He is the son of Avraham Verdiger, the famous former MK who for three decades represented a moderate Haredi faction, Poalei Agudat Israel, in the Knesset.
Even as he speaks of change, Verdiger’s views on social and religious questions fit squarely inside the Haredi consensus. He refers only obliquely to such ills of society as crime and pornography — refraining in the traditional Haredi way from calling them by name — and believes the ultra-Orthodox view of modernity is essentially correct.
“We’re really Haredi. We’re not modern,” he says. “But our ability to integrate [into secular society] is complete. This generation [of Haredim] has reached a point where it can live lives integrated into offices and workplaces without building walls. We can be part of the texture of Israel’s service economy, whether as professionals or as businesspeople. Our Haredi [social and religious] infrastructure has been built up for the past 60 years. We can now sustain it without creating borders that keep the world out.”
That belief comes with a warning against those who seek to keep themselves physically apart from secular society. Simply put, it won’t work.
“When someone lives in isolation, a virus that penetrates is far more harmful and damaging. If we maintain the walls [around ultra-Orthodox society], bad things from the outside will penetrate through technologies available to all: Internet, phones. We have to develop vaccines for those things we fear. The old artificial walls won’t protect us, and once these things penetrate we will be defenseless.”
The vaccine: engagement with modernity. “We have to use modern tools to be inoculated against the things that can cause damage. An academic degree makes you better vaccinated, not worse.”
As many Haredim seek increased engagement with the larger society, they have met with resistance and sanctions in their communities.
“There are those who want someone to fit very exactly to a particular image of being Haredi: an absolute commitment to study in the kollel [religious seminary] and nothing else,” according to Verdiger.
Those hardliners “are able to prevent my kids from going to school, and can keep people from joining communities. Those kinds of sanctions lead people to organize. [Tov] is a response to the attempt to sanction those who don’t fit.”
Tov members openly speak about themselves as blowback to the attempts to penalize members of the community who seek work, especially by refusing to accept their children to schools.
In Beit Shemesh, Tov threw its support behind the secular mayoral candidate, Eli Cohen, in mid-September. The party’s price: the establishment of a municipal appeals committee “with authority to stop discrimination in local school acceptance procedures.”
Tov’s campaigns have not gone unnoticed. When posters went up in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods calling Haredim who enlist in the IDF “insects,” Tov activists campaigned openly against the comparison. Slowly, tentatively, Haredi rabbis and newspapers began to side with the activists against those who sought to delegitimize soldiers.
“Our activities included a poster campaign and public warnings about the violence that would follow the [insects] campaign,” Verdiger recalls. “When we started talking about it, there was total silence. These soldiers walked in our streets, but nobody whispered about it.”
After they began to speak out, “Haredi newspapers, which don’t write anything without being instructed to do so, started writing against the campaign against soldiers. It created delegitimization from within against the campaign that tried to delegitimize soldiers.”
Yet alongside its defense of Haredi soldiers from demonization in the haredi street, Tov has also campaigned against plans to forcibly draft Haredi young men.
It is committed to enabling religious studies. “Learning [Torah] full time is a tremendously important and valuable endeavor and Tov supports it for any person who undertakes it,” the campaign literature reads. The movement even founded three kollels in Jerusalem for men who wish to learn part-time while pursuing higher education or a career.
During the last few months of the last government, Tov activists pitched tents outside the Knesset to protest the Plesner Committee, a Knesset group that was considering criminal penalties against ultra Orthodox young men who don’t serve.
While it supports the choice to serve, “we oppose drafting by force,” says Verdiger.
Tov has high hopes for the upcoming elections.
“Tov isn’t different in our Haredi philosophy [from] other Haredi parties,” its campaign literature explains. “However, when you listen to the Haredi community, it is obvious that the real needs of the community are not being met. We are going to change this. From the feedback we receive from Haredi voters we hear repeatedly about the need for improved schools, better parks, cleaner neighborhoods and a job market which is more accessible and fair.”
“If we do well in all the places we’re running,” Verdiger adds, “it will do something to the Haredi street. The leadership of the Haredi world will understand something has to change.”