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Happy with Their Lot

Maayan David

A new study examines common myths about the chareidi sector while pinpointing areas of concern

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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“This is a society that chooses poverty consciously and with awareness, in order to live according to religious morals. It has its own order of priorities and that is reflected in the fact that the consequences of poverty are different”

Yes, chareidim are poor, but for the most part they are happy. 

That is one result of a new survey of the chareidi sector, conducted by the Jerusalem-based Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, which found that one in two chareidi families in Israel lives below the poverty line but only 7.7% of respondents reported feeling poor. This response rate was similar to the results in the non-chareidi population.

“Poverty in chareidi society is unequivocally different from poverty in other sectors,” says Nitsa (Kaliner) Kasir, deputy chairman of the Haredi Institute and coauthor of the study, along with Dr. Dmitri Romanov. “This is a society that chooses poverty consciously and with awareness, in order to live according to religious morals. It has its own order of priorities and that is
reflected in the fact that the consequences of poverty are different.” 

It would be reasonable to suggest that most chareidim don’t feel poor because most people around them are also poor, but that’s only part of the story. For one, Kasir and Romanov found that chareidim are better managers of their poverty than the general population. Communal organizations like gemachim, which provide a wide range of items, along with a network of discounted sales, make it possible for a chareidi family to do more with less. Indeed, the survey found that 71% of respondents were satisfied with their general economic status compared to 63% in the general Jewish population. That means that almost half of the poor chareidim are happy with their lot. 



Poor but Healthy

The study looked at a number of other areas, including health, education, housing, employment, and charity. Researchers culled their data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, working with a sample of 1,026 respondents who were surveyed between July 2017 and January 2018.

Interestingly, while other studies have found that wealthy individuals live longer than poor people around the world, that’s not true in Israel. Not only is life expectancy higher among chareidim (Jerusalem and Bnei Brak are among the cities with the highest life expectancy in Israel), an array of objective and subjective indicators shows that the average chareidi enjoys good health despite low income levels.

Take, for example, body-mass index (BMI), which divides a person’s weight by the square of his height and arrives at a score normally ranging between 18 and 25. Average BMI among chareidi men is 26.1, almost identical to the average among non-chareidi Jewish men. Among chareidi women, by contrast, the average BMI is 24.7, lower than the average among non-chareidi Israelis and within the normal range. The percentage of those who are overweight in the chareidi sector is also very similar to the rate in the general Jewish population, slightly more than 50% among men and around 40% among women.

Perhaps the most remarkable data relates to smoking. The rate of chareidim who smoke is the lowest among all population groups. Only 9% of chareidim smoke, compared to 23% in the general Jewish population and 25% among Arab-Israelis. Analysis of the smoking rate among all populations between 2003 and 2013 found that there was a decline in the smoking rate across the board, most likely as a result of mounting public awareness on smoking’s dangers. In the chareidi world, however, the decline was even more dramatic, the likely result of the force of halachic decrees, along with the view that smoking was a less desirable trait among the shidduch-dating population. 

Chareidim also perceive themselves as healthier than others, with 96% reporting that their health is good, compared to 85% in the general population and 76% in the Arab sector. Even though there are more young people among the chareidi population (and young people tend to be healthier), researchers believe that the finding also results from a “happy with one’s lot” attitude, along with faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Moreover, 53% of chareidim engage in physical exercise, compared to 55% among other Jewish sectors.

When it comes to nutrition, the situation is a bit different: Two-thirds of the chareidim take care to eat fruits and vegetables, similar to the rate in other sectors. But when it comes to eating healthy food (such as whole grain rice or whole wheat flour) there are clear differences in the genders. Thirty-three percent of chareidi women are strict about eating healthy grains, fruits, and vegetables (similar to the rate of women in other Jewish population groups) but only 20% of men are careful about eating healthy foods, significantly lower than the 31% rate among Jewish men generally.

Likewise, the chareidi camp falls behind the general population when it comes to undergoing medical procedures. More in the chareidi sector forgo medications or dental work due to their poverty (13% and 53%, as compared to 8% and 32% in the general Jewish sector), and far fewer chareidim receive early screening tests to detect common illnesses. For example, only 49% of women over the age of 40 have undergone a mammography, compared to 75% in the general Jewish sector, and one-quarter of those do so less frequently than recommended.

Chareidi men show similar patterns: only 23% of chareidim over the age of 50 have undertaken early screening for prostate cancer, compared to 41% in the general Jewish population. 



Skills Without Core Curriculum

The chareidi population in Israel is often characterized as lagging behind in reading and math abilities. But the Haredi Institute study found that chareidim have scores similar to those of the general population.

A 2015 OECD survey evaluating basic skill sets in the adult population found that on reading and math tests, chareidi men and women achieve results similar to those of non-chareidi Jews. Still, there was a clear gap between chareidim and non-chareidi Jews on a test that examined problem solving in a highly computerized environment — a reasonable gap, taking into consideration that the chareidi population is less exposed to computerized information technology.

At the same time, the study noted that young chareidim perform less well on these tests than older chareidim. Chareidi men over the age of 40 displayed skill levels more or less identical to other Jewish men, but in the 16-40 age group, the skills and proficiency of chareidi men were significantly lower than those of the same age cohort in the general Jewish sector.

When it comes to the number of years spent in an educational environment, chareidi men lead the way in Israel. The average chareidi man studies for 21.4 years, compared to 14.4 years for non-chareidi Jewish men. Among women, the average is almost identical between the chareidi women and non-chareidi women: 14.5 years of schooling.



Chareidim Don’t Work?

Another common characterization of chareidim is that they “don’t work,” but the official figures paint a different picture. The employment rate among chareidim is 62%, lower than the 85% employment rate among the general Jewish population — but far from idleness. The study found, however, that there is a large gap in workplace participation between chareidi men and women. In 2017, 51.7% of chareidi men worked, compared to 87.8% in the general population and 77.5% of men in the Arab sector. By contrast, 73.4% of chareidi women work, compared to 82.1% of non-chareidi Jewish women, a number far higher than the female Arab employment rate, which stands at 34.9%.


In recent years, there has been a sharp rise in employment among both chareidi men and women. For example, between 2004 and 2017, the number of chareidi women who work spiked 201%. The rate of chareidi men who work rose a similar percentage, 211%, between 2002 and 2017.

The rise in employment rates, regretfully, has not brought about a similar rise in wages. Since the beginning of the decade, there has been a noticeable rise in the average hourly earnings of chareidi women: their average hourly wage is now only 6% lower than that in the non-chareidi Jewish sector. Among men, however, the gap is 31% when compared to other Jewish men. The average chareidi wage earner earns NIS 53 ($15) per hour, compared to NIS 66 ($19) per hour in the general sector and NIS 43 ($12) per hour in the Arab sector. Kasir and Romanov say the difference results from a lack of skills among young and inexperienced male chareidi wage earners, many of whom take jobs in the education field or at low-paying entry-level jobs.

Notably, the primary wage gaps are in the 24–44 age group. Among chareidim aged 45 and older, the gaps are minimal. The researchers say it’s possible that older chareidi men acquired secular skills as youngsters and therefore their skill set is similar to other population groups. It’s also possible that with the accumulation of seniority and experience, the gap in the salaries between the chareidi and the non-chareidi Jews is shrinking.

Another notable statistic is the rate of chareidim who are employed part time, reflecting the trend of “learning and earning.” About one quarter of chareidi men work part time, compared to just 6% of Jewish non-chareidi men and Arab men. More than one third of chareidi women work part time, compared to 20% of other Jewish women. Moreover, the trends among chareidi men and women are pointing in opposite directions: the rate of women who work part-time has declined in recent years, while the number of chareidi men working part time is rising. As more men go out to work, the rate among working chareidim who integrate learning and earning rises as well.

Chareidim are also generally satisfied with their work, the survey found. Despite the dramatic gaps in their wages, chareidi men are more satisfied with their work than chareidi women — 91% to 86%. These rates are similar to those found in the general Jewish population. 



Carrying the Burden, but Not Alone

While media programs like to portray chareidi women as tragic figures who carry the burden of household chores and child rearing while also supporting the family, the reality is very different, the study reports. Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2016 found that a little more than half of employed Israelis are satisfied with their work-family balance. The rate of people who are satisfied is similar for chareidim and non-chareidim, and there are no differences between men and women.

The number of women who had trouble functioning at work because of obligations to family is almost identical to the rate of women in the general Jewish population: 24% to 22%. The researchers surmise that chareidi women perform as well as women from the general population because they receive significant amounts of help from their spouses and older children.



Poor but Contributing

About one-third of chareidim, 32%, report taking part in volunteer activity, compared to 23% in the general Jewish sector and 6% in the Arab sector. Researchers found, however, that the perception of volunteering varies from sector to sector. A non-chareidi Jew will classify volunteering only as official activity in the framework of some organization or another, while chareidi Jews will include acts of assistance within the community. Looking at volunteering in an organizational framework, chareidim and non-chareidi Jews both volunteer at a rate of about 10%. By contrast, within the community, chareidim volunteer at a rate of 17% versus 10% in the general Jewish population.

As for contributing money to charity, more than 74% of chareidi households donate, indicating that half of those who live under the poverty line make charitable contributions. That compares favorably to the general population, where the rate is 26.7%. In addition, a chareidi household contributes an average of NIS 548 shekel a month, while a non-chareidi Jewish household gives an average of NIS 199 per month. Non-chareidi Jewish donors, it emerges, donate 1.2% of their net income while chareidim donate 4.6% of their net income.


President of Israel Reuven Rivlin: “Today, we understand that each group must preserve its own distinctive features.”

In addition to publishing the survey on chareidi life, the Haredi Institute photo: APF/IMAGEBANK

Photo: AFP

for Public Affairs also held a second-annual conference last week in Jerusalem, where a number of prominent speakers commented on the deep ties between Israel and chareidi society.

In his comments, President of Israel Reuven Rivlin harkened back to his childhood to describe the early days of the state and the founders’ determination to create a “new Israeli,” an effort he said had failed.

“Despite the warnings, the leaders of the state and of Zionism were convinced that we must create the new Israeli through erasing all the systems and traditions of various communities, such as the Yemenites, Romanians, those who came from western Europe or the US. They were all put into a single system — and the experiment was not a success.

“Today, we understand that each group and subgroup, each system, each and every chassidic group, must preserve its own distinctive features. All of this brings us to the understanding that a melting pot must permit the existence of the past together with the future, and the building of a present that will lead to a future where we can all live together yet separately, with understanding and agreement that we can be very similar yet very different.”



Mishpacha Publisher Eli Paley: “The institute’s credo is to preserve the distinguishing features of each sector.”

Mishpacha publisher Eli Paley, who is the founder of the Haredi Institute, likened contemporary Israeli society to the 12 Tribes of Israel arrayed in the desert, each standing by his tribe’s flag.

“The Torah commands the Jewish People to be ‘each man with his own camp; each man with his own flag.’ Each Jew retains his individuality, while remaining under his distinctive tribal flag, and together they comprise the concept called Am Yisrael.

“This is likewise the institute’s credo: preserving the distinguishing features of each sector and each group within Israeli society. The distinctive feature of the chareidi sector can be summed up as living according to the principles of Torah and halachah, and it’s truly incredible to discover, in the various surveys we conduct, just how that model has fashioned the chareidim into such a unique society.”


Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked: “The greater representation the [chareidi] sector will have, the more trust it will have in the system.”

In her remarks, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked commented on the treatment of chareidim in the court system and the appointment of chareidi judges.

“I have personally invested great efforts to discover potential chareidi judges — and indeed we’ve recently appointed a chareidi woman judge, Chavi Toker, as well as Avner Yifrach.

“The greater representation the sector will have, the more trust it will have in the system. Today, there are chareidim in every department — in the Supreme Court, the bailiff’s office, everywhere. I believe that affirmative action for chareidim is very good and important, and I hope other government ministries follow our lead.”

Shaked also expressed her hope that a new version of the draft law would be acceptable to all sectors of Israeli society.

“Currently, the Defense Ministry is working on legislation that I’m confident everyone will be able to live with. Chareidim will not be drafted by force. There will be a social process. I have a positive relationship with chareidi MKs, and Defense Minister Lieberman also consulted with me. The Defense Ministry also understands that it’s impossible to spearhead processes through coercion.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 712)  


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