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Ultra-Orthodox women fuel change in traditional communities

Ultra-Orthodox demographics are changing, with less children per family and more educated and employed women.

Reuven K., who is about 30 years old, is an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic man who lives in Betar Illit, one of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox localities. Reuven studies in a yeshiva, a Jewish school for Talmudic learning, but works half of each day as a wholesale merchant selling religious ritual supplies. His wife, Bracha, works as a bookkeeper in a governmental institution.

Many of Reuven and Bracha’s contemporaries are already raising five, six or even 10 children. Reuven and Bracha have only three — two girls and a boy. Work is important to them not only because they have to make a living. As Reuven said, even though they are not a large family (in ultra-Orthodox terms), their three children fill their home and their hearts.

“Don’t you feel different from your friends in the yeshiva? The neighbors?” I asked. Reuven, who asked that his full name not be divulged, answered, “I’m not the only one anymore. About a third of my yeshiva friends have two to three children, and many others haven’t even married yet. It’s no longer so strange or different.”

At 3.1 children per woman, the fertility rate in Israel is the highest among the developed nations, much of it due to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population. According to the Yearbook of Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel 2017, the ultra-Orthodox growth rate leads in Israel with 6.9 children per woman. The average in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries is only 1.6. The ultra-Orthodox community follows the religious commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), as well as other Jewish traditions and culture. Add to the mix modern medicine, including fertility treatments, and we understand why Israel’s fertility numbers have skyrocketed to more than four times the average of developed nations.

And yet, analysis of the yearbook’s data shows us that the fertility rate of ultra-Orthodox women has been dropping moderately but consistently. In 2004, there were almost 7.5 children per women. A host of additional statistics in the publication clearly show where the ultra-Orthodox population is heading: integration in the general Israeli public. The proportion of unmarried men in ultra-Orthodox society rose from 11% in 2004 to 13% in 2017. The rate of married ultra-Orthodox youths in the 20-24 age bracket fell from 61% in 2004 to only 44% in 2017.

The ultra-Orthodox population today numbers more than 1 million souls, versus 750,000 in 2009. Its growth rate is currently 4.4%, in contrast to the yearly growth of the general population at slightly less than 2%. We can predict that the fertility rate among the ultra-Orthodox will continue to fall in the coming years as well, due to the rise in the percentage of bachelors, the rise in the age of marriage, modernization processes and increasing influence of Western culture. In addition, quite a number of youths in ultra-Orthodox families are distancing themselves from the pious ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.

Fewer youths are learning in ultra-Orthodox institutions, as more parents are sending their children — mainly their daughters — to schools outside the community. Girls are encouraged to take courses that will help them enter the labor market in fields such as mathematics and English, while the boys study in yeshivot. The rate of ultra-Orthodox girls who took graduation exams jumped from 23% in 2009 to 51% in 2015.

The number of ultra-Orthodox people who work, especially the women, is rising. The increasing employment rates among men leveled off only in the last year, when the stipends given to yeshiva students rose and additional funds were directed to the yeshivas by the demand of the ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition.

In the last seven years, the number of ultra-Orthodox students studying in universities rose by 147%. Most of them are women.

Ultra-Orthodox women have been undergoing several connected social changes, such as falling fertility rates, a rise in the age of marriage, sharp improvements in education, increased participation in the labor market and increased contact with general Israeli society. Women are bringing the outside world ­— information, innovations — into the ultra-Orthodox family, while strengthening their position in the family unit. It is a slow process. In some of the ultra-Orthodox communities, the community heads impose limitations on women working, such as forbidding women to work outside the home or outside the specific locality. Several companies have built production facilities and projects in the ultra-Orthodox localities to overcome this obstacle, but they still pay ultra-Orthodox women less than other women. And they aren’t the only ones: According to the Yearbook of Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel, the average salary of ultra-Orthodox women (about 6,000 shekels or about $1,700 a month) was 32% less than the average salary of a woman in Israel.

In a Knesset committee discussion in August 2016, ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Yakov Asher said that the reason for this disparity is that the women want to preserve the ultra-Orthodox way of life. Perhaps this is the main stumbling block facing ultra-Orthodox women: The community expects them to support their husbands who study in yeshiva, while simultaneously raising the children and coping with numerous religious restrictions.

Speaking at a 2012 legal convention, Moshe Gafni, the ultra-Orthodox chairman of the Knesset's Financial Committee, said, “The contemporary ultra-Orthodox woman is more precocious and intelligent than the ultra-Orthodox man.” It was his response to a question regarding the exclusion of women in ultra-Orthodox society. Coming from the mouth of one of the two most senior ultra-Orthodox Israeli politicians, who are careful not to be too encouraging of women to work, the comment is very significant.

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