DENVER ““ People who promote bringing Israel’s charedi into the workplace and the army point out a subtle, yet important distinction between integration and inclusion.

Although more than 50 percent of Israeli charedim live in poverty, according to the most recent surveys, the society of male “learners” and female “earners” is experiencing major change, said Chaviva Eisler, director of planning and overseas partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Tevet employment initiative.

The topic of charedi employment was a focus at several sessions of the recent Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly in Denver. The issue has become a major one following the release earlier this year of a report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which warned that Israel’s economy may become unsustainable unless the growing charedi population and Israel’s Arab sector become part of the country’s economic life. The Taub Center is named for its onetime board member and major benefactor, the late northern New Jersey philanthropist Henry Taub.

“Promoting employment is also a way of helping Israeli society become more inclusive,” Eisler said at a session entitled “Culture Clash: Engaging the charedim in the Israeli mainstream.”

However, inclusion is not the same goal as integration, experts noted. Joe Rosenbaum – a Lakewood-based businessman who opened offices to employ charedim in Jerusalem, Modi’in, and Beitar – cautioned against starting a “revolution” by integrating charedim into the Israeli mainstream. Rather, Rosenbaum stressed “including” charedim in the workplace while recognizing “the sensitivities of where they’re coming from” and not ignoring their ideology.

David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People for UJA Federation of New York, said it is important to remember that “Israel is not the United States.” In Israel, various groups – secular, charedi, Zionist, and others – do not feel the need to mesh, he said.

“Social integration is not part of the Israeli narrative of anybody,” Mallach said. “It is a different view [than the United States has] of how communities should interact in terms of creating the whole Israeli polity.”

Israel Hofrichter, director of a program called Shahar Chadash that deals with the needs of the charedi in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF), said the army “made the calculation that in 15 years, the charedi sector is going to be half the Jews” in Israel, and accordingly, the IDF needs more charedim to serve. Instead of striving for an integrative “melting pot of Israeli society,” Hofrichter said, the army aims to be more about inclusion – a place where anyone can serve and keep up his own way of life.

The Shahar program, starting at age 22, is meant for charedi men who do not want to continue studying in yeshiva. Working with Tzahal, Shahar offers them a vocational program, glatt kosher food, and one hour of Torah study per day.

Hofrichter said the program began in 2007 with between 30 to 40 men and has grown to nearly 2,000. The rate of employment for the charedi is 90 percent after they complete Shahar, he said. The “main value” of the initiative, however, he said, is “bringing together people from the general sector with charedim.”

The JDC’s Eisler said the Joint’s staff works to help IDF soldiers “in all echelons” develop cultural sensitivity for the charedi. Shahar was initially designed for men who could not find their place in the yeshiva system, but recruiting “was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Eisler said. Now, however, he is surprised to see a large number of charedi men from “mainstream families” – not just yeshiva dropouts – taking advantage of Shahar.

Rosenbaum, founder of the Lakewood-based Madison Commercial Real Estate Services, explained how it bothered him that a few thousand families in the charedi hub of Lakewood (home to Beth Medrash Govoha, North America’s largest yeshiva) were able to sustain themselves with men learning Torah and women working, while a similar model was not successful in Israel.

In 2003, Rosenbaum went Israel to see if his firm could open a pilot project for charedi employment. He asked his cab driver where the nearest charedi town was, and the journey took him to Kiryat Sefer. There, Rosenbaum met the mayor, who helped him conduct a feasibility analysis and open a small office.

Rosenbaum’s team collected résumés, sent out a job advertisement, and found a computer school going out of business that was willing to host an open house. Three hundred women showed up at the event, he said, and many even brought their husbands along. Rosenbaum said his charedi employees exemplify dedication and honesty; some send e-mails asking for forgiveness when they feel they have not worked enough.

“There’s a tremendous value proposition in hiring charedim,” Rosenbaum said.

The charedi community in Israel “is always viewed from the prism of the media,” Eisler said, with a focus on its conflict and culture clash with the secular community. She explained the charedi narrative, of rebuilding the culture of Torah study that was destroyed during the Shoah.

Charedi men believe that studying Torah full-time is their major contribution to the welfare of the Jewish people, Eisler said, while women support their families as the primary breadwinners.

Though most charedi “dress in black and white,” the community is not as simplistic as outsiders make it seem, Eisler said. Each charedi sector – including Ashkenazic, Sephardic, chasidic, non-chasidic (Lithuanian), and others – “has a very nuanced look both on employment and how they want to live their life,” she said.

UJA-Federation’s Mallach said Israeli society “mainly considers a charedi ‘the other.'” He said that his federation partnered with the Shahar program specifically because it encouraged charedi to serve in Tzahal and to enter the mainstream Israeli workforce.

If there was a different program that simply brought 150 charedi women to work exclusively with one another, for example, Mallach said UJA-Federation would not be on board. It wanted to work with Shahar to help alleviate the social fissures of Israeli society, which Mallach called “a global Jewish responsibility.”

“If you believe, as we like to say, kol yisrael avrevim ze la’zeh [all Israel are responsible for each other’s actions], then we have to act accordingly,” Mallach said.

JointMedia News Service