200,000 Jewish Men Told: 'Trade Torah for Tech Jobs'

Reforms in The Jewish State

Two years ago, this balmy city near Tel Aviv was headed for bankruptcy, spending more than it was taking in from its 140,000 low-income residents.

Nearly all its inhabitants are ultra-Orthodox Jewish families led by mothers who typically bear about eight children and fathers who spend much of their lives studying in religious seminaries.

But then the state dismissed the city council and hired investment professionals to temporarily manage the city, make spending cuts, and balance the budget.

The gutsy tax lawyer who recommended such an overhaul was Yaakov Neeman, now Israel's finance minister. And if Mr. Neeman has his way, that kind of fiscal responsibility will be forced upon ultra-Orthodox Jews throughout Israel, about 20 percent of the state.

After a half century of state support for every man who wants to study in a yeshiva, or religious academy, Israel's new finance minister has all but declared an end to free lunches for those who want to spend their lives immersed in Jewish learning.

"We're at a crossroads," Neeman says. "We need in Israel to adjust ourselves to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century."

The adjustments he is proposing include removing the automatic exemption from the military draft that yeshiva students are afforded and pushing students living on government grants into the worker-hungry, high-technology sector.

He says that since the religion students honed their logic and analytical skills on the Talmud and Torah, ancient Jewish texts, they would be well-suited for a training program that would turn rabbinic hopefuls into computer engineers.

Such proposals are unprecedented here, and come as even more of a surprise because the messenger is himself an Orthodox Jew.

"If you have a business, profitability depends on cutting down your overhead each year," Neeman says. "I will try to convince the religious parties that it's to their benefit to reduce the overhead expenses and to put the money into programs." His suggestions that the ultra-Orthodox are "parasitic" are seen as blasphemous by the ultra-Orthodox.

Rabbi Menachem Porush, the head of one of Israel's largest ultra-Orthodox movements, dismisses the plan. "This is a great mistake, and it will not be achieved. We are not interested in change. Those who are sitting and learning give us our spiritual power. Even Ben-Gurion was convinced that we had to give support to those who learn," Rabbi Porush says.

It is true that David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, instituted a system in which those studying in yeshivas would receive state support and would be exempt from the draft.

But historians say he did it mostly to receive the political support of the religious parties in forming a government and to ensure that a few scholars could serve as guardians of Jewish religious knowledge.

Since then, however, the number of people studying in seminaries has expanded. Now Israel has close to 200,000 men in yeshivas - more than the small state could ever absorb as rabbis and teachers.

The ultra-Orthodox have higher birth rates than secular Israelis, and in recent years many sects have begun accepting state money, once viewed as taboo.

Now the nation supports a class of perpetual students, a situation many nonreligious Israelis resent. That contempt hit a crescendo recently when the media reported several scandals: Some religious schools allegedly claim more than their actual number of students to get more money from the state; some students register at two yeshivas to get money from both; others continue to get state grants even though they work.

Amos Mar-Haim, the businessman hired as mayor of Bnei Brak, says many people hide income for fear of losing subsidies. As a result, they don't pay taxes.

"There is a whole unseen economy here. It's totally under the water," says Mayor Mar-Haim. "The amount of people working here is higher than one would think. The question [Neeman] put on the table is the right question - how to improve their standard of living and reduce their dependence on public support."

It is not as though those who choose a life of study are living in luxury. The Religious Affairs Ministry says that students get monthly stipends of $170 a month.

But Naphtali Falk, who has studied at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva for 10 years, says he gets a $250 a month subsidy. It's not enough for him to support his wife and five children, so he supplements it with $1,300 he earns off-the-books as a tutor.

"It's hard to get by," Mr. Falk says. "All my friends at the yeshiva do quite a few jobs on the side, like I do."

Inside his yeshiva, young men are crammed into study rooms. If Neeman's plan succeeds, houses of learning would not be so packed. He also says that if the ultra-Orthodox were forced to serve at least one month in the army, they wouldn't try to stay in the yeshiva to avoid service.

The black-garbed Haredim - which means trembling, as in God-fearing - have traditionally shunned the army on the grounds that it engages in unholy work, doesn't keep the laws of the Sabbath, and allows a mixing of men and women.

But Neeman says it is possible to absorb fundamentalist Jews without forcing them to compromise their beliefs.

"I think it's inconceivable that we should continue with a system where students can go on and on in yeshiva, rather than going out to work, and they get government support," Neeman says.

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