Yakob Shoolman spent years studying the Torah, poring over ancient scripture like many boys in his ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. He lived a sequestered religious life, marrying early and having four children before he was 30.
But these days Shoolman is learning how to code in a high rise with a view of the sea and a copy of a Steve Jobs biography nearby. His faith remains the center of his identity, but, like a number of students from traditional yeshiva schools, Shoolman wants to join this nation’s vibrant technology industry.
His aspirations come at a time when ultra-Orthodox Jews face increasing resentment from a larger, secular society over religious school subsidies and other benefits, including exemption from compulsory military service for Torah students. Those tensions and a move to limit the role of the Supreme Court led to mass street protests last year as far-right nationalist and religious parties became prominent voices in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. Many Israelis regard the power that religious parties wield as a threat to civil rights and the country’s democracy.
That concern has been eclipsed somewhat as Israelis have united around the war with Hamas and a small but growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, have started to push beyond the bounds of centuries-old tradition. They represent a generational shift that may lead to wider integration of religious conservatives into Israeli life and its economy.
“I don’t believe in separation. The gap between the Haredi and the secular is closing,” said Shoolman, 31, a student at JBH, a school that trains Haredi men to become programmers and software developers at firms like Citibank and Mobileye. “In this school, we’re exposed to many different people. It’s important to understand these worlds.”
He added that the war and an increased reliance on technology since COVID have drawn more ultra-Orthodox Jews out of their enclaves. Haredim have attended shivas for those killed by Hamas and 4,000 have volunteered for temporary emergency service in the army since the war began in October.
But moderates and secularists view such limited integration as hardly notable when Netanyahu’s government is increasing spending on Haredi projects. The government coalition’s discretionary spending for yeshiva schools — which teach little science or math — rose from $322 million in 2022 to $456 million in 2023. Hundreds of millions of dollars more have been allocated for cultural, religious and education programs, along with thousands of government-funded jobs that benefit the ultra-Orthodox.
Haredim account for about 13% of Israel’s population of more than 9 million, but their average family size of about seven children is a drain on social welfare spending. The Israeli media have reported that poverty and low employment among Haredim could lead to a 16% tax increase on working Israelis and cost the nation’s economy $2 trillion over the next 40 years.
“The Haredim are the cornerstone to the clash of religion and state,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom and equality. “This problem predates Netanyahu. All previous governments bent to the will of the Haredim.”
He added that the ultra-Orthodox, about 45% of whom are poor, “are a great weight and burden on society.”
A 2023 survey done by Hiddush before the war found that 70% of Jews in Israel believe the country’s “most acute internal conflict” is between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. The study showed that those fault lines were deep when it comes to military and educational issues: 78% opposed a blanket exemption on military service for ultra-Orthodox and 69% of Jews “support complete cancellation or a significant cut in funding” for yeshiva schools. That latter figure jumps to 93% for secular Jews.
Some fear the Haredim and the extreme right Religious Zionist Party could upset the Middle East and further damage prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Best-selling author and scholar Yuval Noah Harari wrote an essay in July in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper under the headline: “What will happen to Judaism if Israeli democracy is destroyed by supremacist zealots?” He warned of “spiritual destruction” if a “messianic state” arises to persecute “Arabs, secular people, women and LGBTQ people.” What, he asked, “if that state were to embrace a racist ideology of Jewish supremacy?”
Haredim believe that God’s will shapes all destinies and that their devotion protects the state of Israel. They have long lived in segregated neighborhoods like Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv. Men wearing side curls and black hats walk with sacred books to religious schools while Haredi women are the main breadwinners and child-care providers. Their large families gather on the Sabbath to stroll amid closed shops and quieted tram lines.
This portrait was resonant in the TV series “Shtisel”, about a Haredi father and his artistic son as they confronted nosy neighbors and matchmakers on cloistered streets while navigating the clamor and temptations of an encroaching outside world. The show was widely popular in Israel and provided a common ground that — for less than an hour each night — went beyond suspicions and stereotypes to give secular Jews a glimpse of a world few were intimate with.
“The other side needs to know that we are Israelis just like everyone else,” said Yitzhak Pindrus, a Knesset member of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, who blamed employers and the army for not doing more to integrate the Haredim. “We have a different culture and different traditions, but you don’t always need to come down on us.”
Computer students like Shoolman, whose wife founded a virtual reality production company, aspire to modern lifestyles and bigger incomes. That desire, however, is considered a threat by religious conservatives who worry such enticements may lead to liberal beliefs around marriage and civil rights — Haredi leaders have long opposed women praying at the Western Wall — and pull the young away from their faith.
“The Haredim are concerned that a person will become his work,” said Aaron Fruchtman, vice president of JBH, which has trained 500 Haredim since 2013, many of whom received government funds and private donations for tuition. “The question is, ‘How do we get a Haredi guy into the Israeli Defense Forces or into high-tech without him losing his religious identity?’ The Haredi idea is first you’re a servant of God, a Torah Jew. But integration in the workforce will break down barriers.”
The early days of Shoolman’s training were difficult. Like most students from yeshiva schools, Shoolman, whose family income is too high to receive public subsidies, knew no English and only a little math. “You’re starting from zero,” he said. “Literally from A,B,C.” He added that since the start of the pandemic, more younger Haredim have turned to technology, using email and rabbi-approved smartphones. His long hours of studying the Torah for years, he said, will help him with the rigors of coding and software.
“We have the ability to sit and learn and be dedicated,” Shoolman said as students played video game tennis on a big screen while others typed on keyboards. “The process of change is speeding up.” He tried to express the contradiction — the navigating of two unreconciled worlds— by joking, “I’m a mainstream, hardcore Haredi.”
The war with Hamas has led other Haredim into the military. Rabbi Ram Moshe Ravad, a Haredi who served for 29 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel and chief rabbi for the Air Force, helped enlist Haredi volunteers for short service after Oct. 7. Most had studied in yeshiva until age 26, which had allowed them military exemptions. Some volunteers went into basic training but many took nonfighting roles like mechanics, cooks and drivers.
“The Haredim are not against the army,” Ravad said. “What’s happened over the years, especially the last few years, is people have been coming out against Haredim. All these [political] movements were saying that Haredim are against the army. So the Haredim avoided serving in the army. Now we’ve come with a different approach. Whoever wants to learn the Torah should learn, and whoever isn’t learning should come [to the army].”
Chemi Trachtenberg is a 21-year-old Haredi who enlisted three years ago. “It doesn’t matter if you like Bibi [Netanyahu] or not, if you like the Haredim or not,” he recently told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an international news service. “At the end of the day they [Hamas] want to kill us and we need prayers and weapons.”
The “Israelization” of the younger generation “of Haredim was already well underway when this war began,” Anshel Pfeffer wrote in a November opinion column in Haaretz. “It was only natural that those who were already less committed to cutting themselves off from society would feel shame as they saw hundreds of thousands of men and women their age being called up on the day of the [Hamas] massacre.”
He added: “For now, though, they remain a minority in their community. Aside from praying for Israel’s salvation, most of the Haredi groups have continued life as before.”
Regev, the rabbi, said to suggest the ultra-Orthodox are joining society is “an overly rosy characterization” when so many Haredim don’t have well-rounded educations that would benefit the nation’s economy. “The Haredi’s attitude of spiritual strengthening is anathema to the larger secular society,” he said, adding that the ultra-Orthodox oppose secular marriage, civil rights and using public transportation on the Sabbath. “They rely on the public coffers to perpetuate their own poverty.”
Regev said Israel faces two existential questions: the relationships between religion and state, and between Jews and Arabs. The one between religion and state, he said, often appears irreconcilable as the ultra-Orthodox place the sacred above the temporal even when it comes to immediate threats — from COVID to war — against Israel’s future.
Pindrus, the legislator, disagreed: “Haredim are part of the State of Israel,” he said. “What hurts the State of Israel hurts Haredim. Right now we’re in a period of pain, and we’re all feeling this pain.”
Fleishman is a Times staff writer and Lidman a special correspondent.
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