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How the study reveals a gulf between U.S. and Israeli charedi Jews

Charedi Orthodox Jews in Israel watch the funeral procession of the prominent Rabbi Eliezer Hager in Haifa on July 8. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
Charedi Orthodox Jews in Israel watch the funeral procession of the prominent Rabbi Eliezer Hager in Haifa on July 8. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Did we need the Pew Research Center to tell us that American charedim are different from other Jews?

It’s no surprise that American charedi Orthodox Jews marry young, have big families, care more about religion, and skew further right politically than the rest of the American Jewish community.

But when compared with similar data from Israel, Pew’s “Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” which was released last week, did illuminate another gap — not between Orthodox and secular, but between charedim from global Jewry’s two poles, Israel and America.

In a few obvious ways, American and Israeli charedim are much alike. Both communities believe in God and keep traditional Jewish law, or halachah. They both have high birthrates and younger populations. They both generally send their kids to religious schools.

Beyond that, though, they begin to diverge. America’s charedim are richer, more educated, and more politically conservative than their Israeli counterparts.

Israeli charedim are poor. American charedim, not so much. Charedi Orthodox Jews aren’t only Israel’s most religious community, they are also its poorest. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, charedim have the lowest average household income of any sector in Israeli society, at approximately $2,500 per month.

That’s largely because Israeli charedim have a low employment rate, with many young men opting to study full-time in yeshiva rather than work, although that trend is changing. Charedi Americans work at higher rates, and it shows in their bank accounts.

The Pew survey found that while American charedim are less affluent than non-charedi Jews, they’re still doing better than Americans overall. A majority of American charedim make more than $50,000, as opposed to just 45 percent of Americans overall. And about a quarter of charedi households make more than $150,000 — the same rate as non-Orthodox Jews and far above the 8 percent of Americans generally.

More American charedim get advanced degrees than Israeli charedim. Israel has one of the highest college attendance rates in the world, but its charedi community is among its least educated. As of 2012, according to Taub, 47 percent of charedim had only a primary school education, and only approximately 15 percent had a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

American charedim have lower college graduation rates than the rest of U.S. Jews, but they’re doing better than their Israeli counterparts. A quarter of American charedim have bachelor’s or graduate degrees, only a bit below the 29 percent of Americans overall. And more than 60 percent of American charedim attended at least some college, while only a third of Israeli charedim graduated from high school.

Israeli charedim are less right-wing politically on some issues. Charedi political parties in Israel are famous — or perhaps infamous — for being socially conservative on issues like marriage, Jewish conversion, and gay rights. On those issues, to the extent that they are political issues in America, the two charedi communities might agree.

But Israeli charedi politicians have been agnostic on questions of diplomacy and defense, and decidedly pro-big government when it comes to social services. Shas, the Sephardi charedi party, ran an election campaign this year calling for raising taxes on the rich, increasing the minimum wage, and providing more funding for public housing.

In terms of the size of government, American charedim fall on the other end of the spectrum. According to Pew, 57 percent of them “prefer smaller government with fewer services.”

In that sense, Israeli charedim match up better with Reform American Jews, only a third of whom want smaller government. Just don’t tell that to Israeli Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.

JTA Wire Service

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