Israel's army is a subject of fascination to many Americans, primarily because they draft not only male civilians, but women as well. There's a group of Israelis though who, until recently, were actually exempt from conscription: ultra-Orthodox men and women. And it's their lack of inclusion in the draft, similar to that of historically conscientious objectors like the Quakers, has changed that nation in ways that many see as incredibly damaging – and spreading in the United States as well.
A piece in the New York Times explores how in Israel, a growing ultra-Orthodox population is struggling because, according to their religious tradition, men don't work. Studies show that due to "their commitment to full-time Torah study and a fear of assimilation," only 4 of 10 ultra-Orthodox men hold jobs in Israel. This means their families often live in extreme poverty, supported only by low-wage jobs held by their wives.
Israel is trying to fix this problem by including ultra-Orthodox young men, who are exempt from service because of their devotion to religious study, in the draft. In the eyes of the government, this would give these men a wage and skills, not to mention silence the voices that have sounded for years from other groups of Israelis who believe that by allowing only the Haredi to avoid the army, the Israeli government was allowing inequality to exist. With recent legal reforms, all men will have to sign up when they're 17.
Other Israeli men are going back to school, encouraged by the government to get an education they were not given at yeshiva, which focuses – especially for men – on purely religious study. This lack of education in topics like reading, writing and math (not to mention computer studies) is not isolated to Israel, and is happening in the United States as well, where the population of Orthodox and reform Jews is growing rapidly. In fact, because of high birth rates, by 2050 the population of ultra-Orthodox Jews is expected to be larger than that of reform Jews. In Israel, Haredi families will make up over 25 percent of the nation's population in less than 40 years.
In New York City, the level of education most yeshivas provide is far below state standards, which means there are students who cannot read and write English properly, a problem that DNAinfo investigated earlier this year. This week, an organization made up primarily of former yeshiva students tried to draw attention to an issue that the Department of Education appears to be ignoring by putting up a billboard in Gowanus that reads, "It's your mitzvah. It's the law," in an attempt to target religious families who send their children to these schools.
But it's an article from New York magazine from April about a community north of New York in Rockland County that's the best example of the tensions involved here. Once a diverse middle-class community, Ramapo, New York has been taken over – through representation on its school board, of all things – by the growing Hasidic community there. Faced with increasing special education needs for their children (limited gene pools, remember), Haredi school board members have funneled money away from the public schools and put it towards forming yeshivas and granting more special education placements for needy students. The tensions between the secular and non-secular families living in Ramapo and its surrounding towns might make the issues between Williamsburg hipsters and Hasidic Jews look quaint, but they end up being the same problem: a group slowly takes over a neighborhood and wants it to be dictated by their way of living. The preexisting community says, "Hey, no."
Where are the women in these communities? In Israel, they're often silently supporting the families, though they're also the only women in the country exempt from the draft. In the United States, they're actually getting a better education than their husbands. Even in very religious schools, the girls receive a more well-rounded secular education than the boys, because the boys are expected to be the religious authority figures in the community. They're still married off early though, and expected to start a family.