‘I want to be a doctor, not a rabbi’: how Israeli ultra-Orthodox are being drawn into work
His education was limited to religious study, first at a private school that barely taught mainstream subjects and later at a yeshiva, a religious school, where he spent 14 hours a day studying Jewish texts. Sabiner, a bright boy and an outstanding student, was earmarked to become a leading rabbi.
But he never forgot his dream. When he was 21 he confessed his ambition to his new wife. She was horrified: she had married him on the understanding that he would be a rabbinical leader. Also, he had no knowledge of science. But Sabiner’s yearning would not go away.
Now 28, Sabiner is embarking on the final year of his medical degree. He will be the first person born and raised in a Haredi community in Israel to become a mainstream doctor, and he plans to specialise in internal medicine.
Sabiner has benefited from a pioneering scheme at the Technion university in Haifa to draw young ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews from largely closed communities into mainstream education and then into the workforce.
The numbers are still tiny – about 60 out of a total student population of 10,000. “But the idea is to bring the number to 200 within five years, and to 400 within 10 years,” said Prof Boaz Golani, a vice-president of the university. “Engaging the Haredi community is important for Israel. Having a civil society where entire segments live in their own world and with little interaction with others is not healthy. It’s a recipe for tension and animosity.”
In 2017 the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel rose above one million for the first time, accounting for 12% of the population. By 2065 they are expected to make up a third of Israel’s population.
Traditionally, Haredi men are not economically active. Many spend their time in religious study, relying on state benefits to support their large families, which average almost seven children. But in recent years the Israeli government and educational institutions have taken steps to integrate the Haredi population into colleges and workforces.
“There was a concentrated effort launched a few years ago by the ministry of transport, which needed more engineers,” said Golani. If the Technion could get Haredi students on to its courses, jobs could be guaranteed.
“We knocked on the doors on yeshivas in Bnei Brak [an overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv]. We found a few rabbis ready to talk to us. The idea was to take young men who had the brain and intellect to meet the scientific admission criteria, and who were not perceived as chief rabbis of the future.
“We said we would not try to force any change of lifestyle of students, such as [strict] dress codes or praying. We kept a low profile.” Continue reading