Israel’s Mossad Is Recruiting More Ultra-Orthodox Men

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For the past dozen years, Yossi has followed a simple routine: rise at 7 a.m., prayers and breakfast until 8, then 14 or more hours studying sacred Jewish texts, with breaks for meals and more prayers. But since September, Yossi has replaced most of his religious readings with math and programming textbooks as he works toward a computer science degree. He hopes to ultimately land a job with an Israeli security agency—perhaps even Mossad, the country’s equivalent to the CIA. “Of course I have dreams,” says Yossi, 29, whose family name has been withheld for security reasons. “I wanted a purpose, to contribute to Israel, and this allows me to do that, especially serving in defense.”

Yossi participates in a program called the Pardes Project, which seeks to better integrate Haredim—as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Hebrew—into the economy while preserving their identity. Under Jewish tradition, a man’s holy obligation is to learn, and for Haredim that means studying ancient texts to forge a closer relationship with God. The ultra-Orthodox represent more than 10% of Israel’s population, but roughly half the men devote their lives to religious scholarship while their wives work to support the family. The government has said it wants to get 63% of working-age Haredi men into the labor force by next year; there’s little chance that will happen, even as economists say that with growth slowing, Israel needs a greater contribution from them. If all Haredi men were as productive as other Israelis, the economy would get a boost of more than $5 billion a year, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. “These people are geniuses, and they have no opportunities,” says Moshe Kahan, the founder of Pardes. “We’re trying to give them something to look forward to.”

Kahan followed religious studies similar to Yossi’s for years but eventually veered off into academia, earning a Ph.D. in Semitic languages. He soon concluded that rigorous study of religious texts isn’t that different from sifting through intelligence intercepts for clues that might boost Israel’s security. A couple of years ago he started developing Pardes, which launched in September. He has caught the attention of Mossad boss Yossi Cohen, who is seeking to attract more Haredim to the agency in a tight labor market. “We are working to widen the social circles that the people of Mossad come from,” Cohen said at a conference in July, calling out Pardes by name. “The intention is to integrate Haredim into every part of the organization.”

Israel’s Mossad Is Recruiting More Ultra-Orthodox Men

The Haredim have long been isolated from secular Israeli society. Around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion offered concessions to religious leaders to gain their support, including an exemption from the military draft for young men in seminaries. At the time only 400 scholars were eligible for the exemption, but these days some 30,000 Haredi men each year skip military service. Haredim typically live in segregated neighborhoods; in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim, groups of men in dark hats, long black coats, and sidecurls wander the streets past signs warning of a dress code, and boys have stoned cars that dared enter on the Sabbath. They successfully led a campaign to shut down most public transportation and business in Israel from Friday sundown into Saturday, and they often spurn secular subjects such as science and English in schools.

With an average of seven children, vs. just over two for nonreligious Israeli Jews, the ultra-Orthodox are the country’s fastest-growing demographic, on track to represent about a fifth of the population by 2040. Many secular Israelis resent the free pass the Haredim have on the draft, the subsidies they get for their large families and their schools, and their outsize voice in religious and political life. The latter was highlighted last spring when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to form a government with ultra-Orthodox allies foundered over demands that more religious men serve in the army. After a do-over election in September, the country remains in a political deadlock.

Pardes is one of at least a half-dozen programs working to integrate Haredim into society as more ultra-Orthodox look for work and employers seek untapped talent pools. The nonprofit Kemach Foundation provides scholarships and job placement services to Haredim. The Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a group that researches the community, this year began a program to bring more ultra-Orthodox women into tech companies. And an organization called KamaTech has created a coworking space for religious people with a layout similar to WeWork—but men and women are segregated and the kitchen is kosher. “A lot of young Haredim want an opportunity to be part of the workforce,” says KamaTech founder Moshe Friedman.

The roughly 50 Pardes students were selected from 2,000 applicants drawn to the program for reasons ranging from a desire to find purposeful work, to the need to earn more for their families, to wanting to contribute to Israel’s security. At first, Yossi was uncertain whether he should sideline his religious studies, and even if he pursued a profession he didn’t know what field to choose. But after consulting with his rabbi, Yossi prayed for an hour atop Mount Meron in northern Israel, where a noted Jewish mystical sage is entombed, and decided to sign on. “Some people are bothered by this,” Yossi says. “But it’s not sustainable for only women to support the family. And a man wants to do something with himself.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Rocks at drocks1@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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