Subsidy cuts send students from yeshivas to outside jobs

April 29, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,sun foreign reporter

ASHDOD, Israel -- Growing up as a member of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, Eli Louzoun had a life as traditional as his conservative black hat and dress. Cloistered in his yeshiva, he spent his days poring over religious texts and supported his family with a small government stipend. He never earned a high school diploma or held a job. So dedicated to his spiritual life, he shunned television, sports and exercise. He never even learned how to swim.

But these days you're more likely to find Louzoun at a swimming pool than in the yeshiva. He's a newly trained aqua therapist, a type of physical therapist specializing in water exercises to help treat patients with physical disabilities.

His journey from the yeshiva to the swimming pool is part of a quiet revolution among the haredim - or the "God fearing," as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Israel. After decades living outside mainstream Israeli society, the haredim, out of economic necessity, are joining the Israeli work force and training to become computer programmers, bus drivers, entrepreneurs, tax advisers and other professionals.

Israel's haredim could once depend on government welfare programs and stipends to support their way of life. But sharp government cutbacks to all welfare programs in recent years have forced them to look for work - in many cases, for the first time in their lives.

"There is a change in the haredi community regarding work. There is an understanding in the haredi community that they cannot rely on the government anymore," says Roni Strier, a professor of social work at the University of Haifa who studies the ultra-Orthodox community. "And there is more exposure in the haredi community to what is happening to non-haredi society. They see the cars. They see the clothes. They see people going out to dinner. They want to improve their level of life, and there are many internal pressures to open a new path."

Israel's haredim are thought to number between 600,000 to 700,000, making up roughly 10 percent of the population. With large families often dependent on government welfare, they also constitute some of the poorest members of Israeli society. About 46 percent of haredi men are employed, compared with 87 percent in the general public.

Often living apart from mainstream Israeli society in their own neighborhoods, the haredim cling to old ways of life and adhere to strict Jewish laws that govern their dress, social interactions and spiritual life.

Many secular Israelis view the haredim with scorn because they are often exempt from military service and their large families have grown dependent on government assistance.

But slowly haredi communities are changing. While haredi women have served as breadwinners, supporting their husbands' religious studies, economic realities are forcing many men to leave their yeshivas for the work force, too.

They often leave without telling friends or neighbors, afraid that they will be criticized. Some rabbis frown on the exodus of yeshiva students to the work force, afraid they will lose future religious scholars to the free market. Other rabbis privately encourage their congregations to seek employment, mindful of the extreme poverty in some families.

"There is no clear, top-down policy of allowing men to go and work. There is only silent consent," Strier said.

It was poverty that drove Louzoun to seek work two years ago. He was a 50-year-old father of five who was struggling to make ends meet after scaled-back government child allowances reduced his income to less than $300 per month.

The problem was that he had no high school degree or job skills other than his stamina for arguing over the finer points of Jewish law.

Then he heard about a new program training haredi men to become aqua therapists. Funded by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides relief and social programs for at-risk communities in Israel and throughout the world, the program was designed for men with few job skills. Louzoun was skeptical, but with no other choices, he signed up.

"Louzoun knew nothing. He was one of the weakest students," recalled Tzvi Hendeles, 33, a rabbi who organized the course.

But a year later, after a crash course on swimming instruction, biology, psychology and physical therapy, Louzoun passed his exams and started seeing patients. His income has more than doubled.

"We can buy more food. I can give my children what they need, but it's not like we are buying a new car," he said.

Trading his black overcoat, black pants and black yarmulke for a pair of gray swimming trunks, Louzoun has a growing client base in this Israeli seaside city and ambitious plans to pursue advanced degrees in his field.

"It's more than money. It opens your mind," says Louzoun, a reed-thin 52-year-old with side curls and a long, spade-shaped beard.

Still, the change has been jarring, he says.

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