Kemach offers Haredim a dignified way out of poverty

In what is playing out as a revolution from within, tens of thousands of kollel students are applying for grants to study a profession

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Applicants at the Kemach office in Jerusalem (Courtesy)
Applicants at the Kemach office in Jerusalem (Courtesy)

Mordechai Feldstaine, the director of Israel’s Kemach Foundation, bristles when outsiders chastise ultra-Orthodox society.

“Those who fail to find a solution to the employment of Haredim went wrong or failed because they tried to integrate new things into Haredi society,” he wrote in an op-ed on the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabat. “Haredi society does not need things from the outside to be integrated into it. It is perfect and magical and that’s why those Haredim who enter the workforce have so many distinct advantages.”

What Feldstaine is referring to is the economic problem of Israel’s Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox society. Up until 1977, the rate of Haredi men who worked for a living was around 80 percent. Over the decades, however, a culture evolved in which married men were encouraged to spend all their time studying in kollel, or yeshiva, making ends meet with a combination of a small stipend, parental support, a wife’s income and welfare benefits from the government.

But as family sizes grow, this economic model is proving unsustainable. As The Economist put it, “according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredim were just under 10% of Israel’s population in 2009; by 2059 it predicts they will be around 27%. Israel cannot afford to keep paying them not to work.” This perceived lack of resources has led to a political backlash among secular Israelis accusing Haredim of not sharing the burden.

For haredi men, Torah study is the most exalted occupation (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
For Haredi men, Torah study is the most exalted occupation (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

That’s where Kemach fits in. Instead of having solutions imposed on them from the outside, Kemach prepares Haredim for the workforce on their own terms, in a way that is respectful of their values and doesn’t try to “fix” Haredi society. So far, the foundation has provided grants for professional and vocational training to about 10,000 ultra-Orthodox men and women. When The Times of Israel visited Kemach’s offices in Jerusalem in mid-November, about 20 men were in meetings, at computers and filling out paperwork, nearly all of them dressed in black suits, white dress shirts and black felt hats. The absence of women was intentional.

“We do have women here on Wednesdays,” Feldstaine said, “but someone who walks in here from Mea Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem], he needs to feel at home and open up. For some of our clients, this is the first time they’ve ever used a computer or opened email, so we do everything to make them feel at home.”

According to a recent poll by Seker Kehalacha, a Haredi polling institute, 54% of Haredi men either don’t work or study in kollel, while 46% work for a living (18% work in a job involving religion, 18% work in regular jobs and 8 percent have their own business).

Among Haredi women, only 24% don’t work, 24% work half-time, and 52% hold down full-time jobs. The average Haredi woman raises 6.5 children.

Staff members Tzvika Schreiber and Mordechai Feldstaine at the Kemach offices in Jerusalem (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
Staff members Tzvika Schreiber and Mordechai Feldstaine at the Kemach offices in Jerusalem (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

But if you ask Mordechai Feldstaine what’s wrong with this picture, he does not object to it on moral grounds.

“If I could do it, I would learn Torah all day. It’s the most exalted thing a man can do. But, technically, it’s a problem. I have six kids. I need to support them, I need to marry them off.”

In an op-ed in Israel Hayom, Modern Orthodox commenter David M. Weinberg explains what he describes as the mismatch between Haredi cultural expectations and reality.

There is an unwritten rule, he writes, “that bright and healthy young men cannot work or get professional training, at least not if they want to be respected. The ideal is to stay in yeshiva and study only Torah for as long as possible. Inevitably, this means that many Haredi families are impoverished and dependent on charity in one form or another.”

Second, if a man is a “good match,” he expects his father-in-law to buy him an apartment as soon as he is married. If a couple’s in-laws can’t afford it, Haredi society expects the government to subsidize housing at cut-rate prices as well as exempt Haredim from municipal taxes and fees for schools and healthcare. The result, says Weinberg, is “a Haredi world of dependency and crisis-level poverty in which Haredim live off the dole.”

The breaking point

Feldstaine says that when a Haredi man or woman walks through the doors of Kemach, it is always for the same reason.

“They have reached a breaking point.”

As if to underline Feldstaine’s words, a middle-aged man named Moshe pops his head into the conference room where Feldstaine is being interviewed to reminisce for a moment.

“It was Rosh Hashana and I was rushing to synagogue but I had to stop and thank you on the street,” Moshe recalls. “On Rosh Hashana, we remember before the Holy One, Blessed be He. Moti, I need to remember you.”

About seven years ago, Moshe tells The Times of Israel, his eldest son died suddenly at the age of 15. Moshe was a kollel student in his mid-30s when his family’s life started to self-destruct.

“My wife was broken, she couldn’t work anymore. We had no money. Finally, a friend told me to go to Kemach. Moti urged me to study, that they would pay for it, but I never came back. Moti kept calling. He didn’t give up.”

Some grantees have never used a computer (Courtesy)
Some grantees have never used a computer (Courtesy)

Moshe finally gave in to Kemach’s exhortations and enrolled in a religious teacher’s college where he could study in an all-male environment while obtaining a bachelors degree in education. The move changed his life.

“I had no desire to leave the house, but I had to get out and take tests, go to classes.”

Today, Moshe teaches Torah in a state-recognized Haredi school. He works about 6.5 hours a day and earns NIS 7,000 ($1,834) a month after taxes, plus benefits.

“My situation is much better,” he says with smiling eyes. “Kemach helped me rebuild my family.”

‘Something happens’

Feldstaine says his typical applicant is a married man in his early to mid twenties who has been studying in kollel for several years.

“Then something happens. Either the family has a new child, or the kollel stops giving them money, their parents cut them off, or his wife is having a hard time with her job.”

Many applicants have no idea what they want to do. They take an aptitude test and meet with vocational counselor Tzvika Schreiber to decide on a course of study, which can be anything from a 3-month course as a payroll calculator to a full academic degree in physics or engineering. Kemach graduates have become therapeutic horseback riding instructors, crane operators, doctors and founders of their own high-tech companies. Ninety-three percent of graduates are working, says Yael Simon, a philanthropic consultant to Leo Noé, one of the Kemach Foundation’s main benefactors.

One big difference between Haredi job-seekers and secular ones, muses Feldstaine, is their stability.

“Imagine a secular guy named David. He goes to the army, then he spends a year in Thailand, when he gets his first job he only has to think about supporting himself. A Haredi guy named David is no longer a kid at age 23. He has a wife and child. He doesn’t have time to play.”

Another difference between Haredim and secular Israelis, says Feldstaine, is that work is not a means of self-fulfillment. They want to enjoy their jobs, but it is not the purpose of their life.

Feldstein says that Kemach is a household name in the Haredi world and that it is broadly accepted, even if many people’s first choice is to study Torah full time.

Nevertheless, there are three concerns that make him lose sleep at night.

“I want all Kemach students to find work; I want them not to be exploited [because they’re Haredi] and to get a good salary with raises; but the thing that worries me the most is, say they found a job 2-3 years ago, I want them to look the same. If he starts to trim his beard or take off his hat at work, I know I failed. The reason the rabbis don’t turn against us is because they know we want to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Feldstaine turns to Moshe, who is employed in a Haredi school.

“If someone offers you work in a place that’s not Haredi, would you accept it?”

“Yes, as long as it’s a place where I can preserve my identity.”

Kemach by the numbers

Kemach was founded in 2007 by a group of philanthropists headed by Leo Noé of Great Britain, Aaron Wolfson of New York and Brazilian Elie Horn. The foundation provides a grant directly to students’ bank accounts which turns into a loan should they fail to complete their studies. Students can enroll at accredited universities, in which case the Israeli government covers up to 80 percent of the cost, or various vocational colleges, in which case Kemach covers the entire cost.

About 23,000 people have applied for scholarship grants with Kemach. Feldstaine says this actually means 100,000 people are reached if you count the applicants’ families — meaning that a significant portion of Israel’s Haredi population, which is estimated at close to a million people, is interested in vocational or professional training. This is not just a nonprofit, but a movement, he says. About 9,000 people have graduated from the program so far.

While there are other scholarship programs for Haredi students, Kemach is the largest and is evolving into a centralized agency, says Simon. The Joint Distribution Agency used to have job centers called Mafteach that are now fully staffed by Kemach.

Twenty-five percent of grant recipients are women, although Simon says that the goal is actually to help men enter the workforce.

Yael Simon (YouTube)
Yael Simon (YouTube)

“Haredi women are not underrepresented in the Israeli workforce,” she points out.

Feldstaine says that the women who seek training at his office often have a husband who is an important Torah scholar or yeshiva head, so she wants a profession that will help her earn more. “Women often get grants for social work, occupational therapy, psychology and speech therapy.”

Kemach also tracks its students during their studies and after graduation to see whether they’re adjusting to and advancing in their careers. While the Haredi college dropout rate nationwide is over 50 percent, Simon says Kemach has less than 5 percent attrition.

“We check up on the family, we make sure there’s no malnutrition and that they’re paying taxes. There’s a holistic approach, as opposed to letting them wing it and go back to bad practices,” says Simon, who sees a side benefit of Kemach as improving family life.

“When there’s money, money solves a lot of things. Money pays bills, it pays yeshiva bills, it pays for food, it pays for a nice pair of tefillin. Without money, it’s difficult to operate.”

But Kemach also thinks its graduates have something unique to offer.

“Haredim in Israel have so much to offer,” says Simon, “in terms of culture, diversity, family values and Torah learning. We just need to make it sustainable.”

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