Former MK: A historic week for the haredi world... and Israel

©The Jerusalem Post

NOW THAT many rabbis have given their support, those who want general studies can proudly pursue their dreams. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

One of the most significant developments for the future of Israel took place a week ago, and it does not relate to the election, security or diplomacy.
MK Moshe Gafniof United Torah Judaism announced that he had met with the heads of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Independent Education system who told him that they will assist any group of parents who want to open a school with more secular studies than required.
This is nothing short of a revolution.
Seven years ago, when I first entered the Israeli political world and joined a party that was viewed as anti-religious with a goal of integrating the haredi world into Israeli society, a high-level haredi rabbi asked to meet. During his visit to my home he told me, “Ignore all the criticism that you are getting. Keep doing what you are doing. You are saving us from ourselves.”
I asked if he could announce this himself, but he replied that it was not the right time for the rabbis to openly support my efforts, which focused on haredim getting professional training, helping them find jobs, and creating a framework to learn general studies at an early age.
There were two problems that I was trying to tackle.
The first was the issue of poverty: Haredi parents often do not have the ability to provide their children with the most basic of necessities. They need assistance to prepare for the job market, and then to find jobs to enable them to support their families with dignity. Aside from trying to help fellow Jews get out of poverty, Israel itself would face an economic catastrophe within a few decades if this was not addressed, as the haredi communitycontinues to grow, with each family averaging seven children.

The second problem was the extremism that was being generated by the isolation of the haredi community and the polarization within Israel, and between Israel and the Diaspora. But all that tension is improved once haredim go to work; they become more moderate even while remaining fervently religious, and they and broader Israeli society have their first interface – and get along!
Moreover, when haredim enter secular society, they don’t follow demands that they vote for the haredi parties. The proof took place in Beit Shemesh last year when thousands of haredim voted for religious-Zionist mayoral candidate Dr. Aliza Bloch and not the two-time haredi incumbent, giving Bloch the votes she needed to win in a city which has a majority haredi population.
THE HAREDIM who voted for her are the ones who go to work, and the same will happen on a national level as more haredim enter the workforce. We will then be able to move forward on issues regarding religion and state, since the ultra-Orthodox parties won’t hold the same power they have now.
Which brings us to Gafni’s dramatic announcement.
For seven years I have been working hard with numerous partners to bring general studies to haredi schools and to increase haredi employment. Colleagues include such brave people as Avigdor Rabinovich, who has helped close to 60,000 haredim receive training and find work, and who brought English studies to thousands of ultra-Orthodox children.
Associates include the courageous Rabbi Menachem Bombach, who has established a network of haredi high schools that teach full general studies. They and many others did not wait for the official approval of the rabbis but moved forward – through great personal sacrifice – to show that general studies and employment not only don’t hurt the haredi community, they actually help it. Their number-one challenge was raising private funds, as the haredi parties fought against them receiving government funding, and the haredi school system would never fund such initiatives.
Now that their programs have proven to be successful – and the haredim who pass through them have remained religious and pursuing Torah study but also free to pursue career aspirations and support their families with dignity – the rabbis have given their official approval to funding these schools and programs.
This not only solves the financial challenge, it also eliminates the stigma created whereby those who wanted general studies and careers were seen as second-class citizens within their own community. Now that the rabbis have given their support for these initiatives, those who want general studies and employment can raise their heads proudly and pursue their dreams.
Just to prove the point: Soon after the announcement, a hassidic sect with thousands of children in its school system signed a contract with Avigdor to bring English classes into their hederim (elementary schools).
Years from now, when we see an Israel filled with haredi attorneys, accountants, hi-tech entrepreneurs and even IDF generals – and an Israel with much better relations between the religious and secular populations – we will look back at Gafni’s announcement as the major breakthrough that paved the way toward this success.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.
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