JERUSALEM ““ At Israel’s first college for the charedi Orthodox, lectures on social work and computer programming are conducted just down the hall from a pair of classrooms transformed into a nursery for the students’ babies.

The average female student here – women compose a majority of the 1,100 student body at the Jerusalem Charedi College – will have two babies in the course of her four years of study.

It is one of many indications of Israel’s large and rapidly growing charedi population. Now comprising nearly 10 percent of Israel’s residents, the community is expected to double its numbers in the next decade.

“I want to do something I love and go into the world with it,” says Brachi Nir, 23, a psychology student and mother to a baby girl. “And here I don’t have to be a trailblazer. I can simply study.”

The unique circumstances and growth of Israel’s charedim pose a significant challenge for the country – one this college is attempting to answer. There are a few factors keeping charedim out of the workforce: charedi values, including wariness of the secular world; government subsidies for yeshiva study; and the rules of the Israeli army draft, which mandate yeshiva study for those seeking to avoid military conscription.

Some 65 percent of Israeli charedi men do not work. As their numbers continue to swell, so does a growing sense of alarm that the rest of the Israeli population will not be able to shoulder the country’s economic or defense burdens if state-subsidized full-time Torah study continues.

“If we continue to give benefits that the government gives and don’t give the charedim a proper education, then why would other Israelis stick around?” asks Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist and executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, named after its major benefactor, the late northern New Jersey philanthropist Henry Taub. “There will be wide-scale secular flight, which we have already seen in some professions like doctors and professors.”

Israel’s ‘greatest threat’

Ben-David argues that the absence both of many charedi and Arab Israelis from the workforce is perhaps the greatest threat to the country’s survival.

“But when you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom, because if we are able to capitalize on it, we have a brighter future than most Western countries, which are growing old,” he says. “We have tons of children. The problem is what will we do with them?”

Sitting in the audience during a lecture by Ben-David on the subject several years ago was Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party. The lecture helped spark her idea to launch Israel’s first-ever charedi college.

It was not easy to get support from the charedi community – or her father – for the idea. Charedi Orthodox Jews long have viewed higher education as suspect, something that since the Enlightenment period has been viewed by more rigorous segments of the Jewish world as a potentially dangerous road that could lead to assimilation and secularism.

“But I thought that academia gives a person confidence, it opens doors for work, and we need it most for our society,” Bar Shalom said in an interview.

Efforts like the college Bar Shalom founded are part of a new wave of private, public, and government initiatives to move more charedi Israelis into the workforce.

The Finance Ministry says it has invested some $88 million in the effort. Some of that money is being spent to increase the small number of charedim who serve in the army; 400 were recruited in 2010. Some are assigned to units in which they are trained to provide technological assistance, which can give them skills for civilian jobs later in life.

The air force, for example, trains charedi recruits in computer programming and electrical work, while providing an all-male environment with strictly kosher food and time for prayer and even some Jewish studies.

Seeking ‘transformative’ change

With 14,000 charedim turning 18 each year and only 1,500 students per class of specialized charedi academic programs and colleges annually, plus approximately 1,000 in the army, the challenge is how to make a significant and transformative change, according to Shahar Ilan of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious pluralism and diversity in Israel.

Tevet, a partnership between the government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is working on several major initiatives to help charedim transition to the workforce. The organization, which is focused on setting charedim on career paths, not simply getting them low-level jobs, claims to have made 16,000 job placements.

The idea is to develop career programs so people can promote themselves within the labor market, says Yossi Tamir, Tevet’s director general.

“We are not doing this just for the sake of the ultra-Orthodox,” he says, “but to increase the resilience of society in Israel.”

Within the charedi world, Torah study is considered sacrosanct, and rabbis and communal leaders have been reluctant to speak publicly about the problem of growing poverty in the community.

Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor in chief of the leading charedi newspaper Mishpachah (it means “family”), says the problem has been overstated.

“Not everyone studies at kollel,” he said, using the term widely used for subsidized Torah study. “Today there is an understanding that some men need to find other professions, and the charedi community understands it needs to help them do that. People are trying to stir up panic because they hate the charedim.”

Jack Schuldenfrei, one of the founders of Kemach, an organization to train and place charedi men in jobs, said there is growing openness within the charedi world to the idea of working for a living. He says, however, that it is difficult for community leaders to publicly endorse the idea because the notion of working for a living is still frowned upon.

Evolution, not revolution

The word “kemach” means flour in Hebrew. The organization took the name from a mishnaic saying, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” which is another way of saying that work (“flour,” something that puts food on the table and helps sustain the family) and Torah study must go hand in hand.

Since it launched in 2007, nearly 10,000 men have applied to Kemach for help in finding work. Kemach has matched charedi men with jobs as locksmiths, plumbers, engineers, and physicians’ assistants.

One man from a strict charedi sect dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot, and Kemach is now funding his studies, according to Schuldenfrei.

“We see this as an evolution, not a revolution,” he says. “Because we have kept a low profile and never made any noise, rabbis don’t feel threatened by us.”

Menachem Friedman, a sociologist and one of Israel’s pre-eminent authorities on charedim, says the situation is too dire for anything but a heavy-handed approach.

“Things cannot continue this way,” he said. “I hear people saying we need to proceed slowly, gently, to understand them, but each year their numbers go up and the math just does not add up.”

Friedman says a large percentage who do venture into the workforce do not succeed because they lack the necessary education.

Recently, there has been a public backlash against the charedi school system over officials’ refusal to teach boys (most of them in Ashkenazi yeshivot) a core curriculum that includes science, math, English, and civics. Charedi figures say they do not want outsiders interfering in the “purity of Torah learning,” which many charedi fear could pave the way toward a secular lifestyle.

While men have stayed in the yeshiva, a growing number of charedi women have gone to work – some 60 percent, according to the Bank of Israel. With an average of eight children per family, however, it is hard for the women to work full time in well-paying jobs.

A matter of survival

Yisrael Schulman is one of several charedi men trained by a company called Verisense to be verification engineers for the semiconductor design industry and placed in well-paying jobs. Schulman works as one of the company’s project managers in an office with mostly secular co-workers in Herzliya, a high-tech hub outside of Tel Aviv.

Raised in the strictly religious neighborhood in Jerusalem where he still lives, it took Schulman, 30, some time to adjust to daily exposure to secular Israelis.

“At first it felt like we were coming from two different worlds, but soon we realized we actually are from the same place,” he says.

One of the things that surprised him most, he notes, was how little he knew when he began. He lacked even such basic math skills as algebra, which is key to his work as a computer programmer. Now Schulman supplements his work with university studies in computer science and economics.

While Schulman’s 28-year-old sister, who has five children, has had her water and electricity cut off several times because she and her husband could not afford to pay for them, Schulman, a father of two, is able to support his family and drives to work in a company car.

Within the charedi community, however, Schulman says he is considered second rate because he works. Of his nine siblings, two brothers work in low-paying jobs selling shoes, and his other brothers are kollel students.

“Now people are living a very low quality of life,” Schulman says. ” I don’t think the community can survive without education and work. Ultimately more people will have to work, and you can feel a shift toward that. Change will come because people do want to work.”

JTA Wire Service