Contribution, Integration, and the “Learn and Network” Program

This week the Haredi community in Lakewood hosted a first-of-its-kind job fair. Although only 1500 or so people were expected to attend, the fair attracted over 5000 people, Despite strong pressures to learn all day even in the American Haredi community, there clearly is a strong interest in employment.

The job fair was an offshoot of the “Learn and Network” Kollel program started by Duvi Honig, a member of the Haredi community in Lakewood, New Jersey. The “Learn and Network” program provides a framework where Haredim can combine job search skill development, networking, and Torah learning. Begun at the end of 2010, by May 2011 it had branches operating in four communities in the USA: Lakewood, Monsey, Flatbush, and the Five Towns area.  There are now plans to expand to  Israel as well.  Talks are already under way in both Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak.

In Monsey, participants meet in the morning for Shachrit. This is followed by an hour and half of chevruta study at 9AM. From 10:30AM on, participants attend a variety of lectures on job hunting skills, small business development, networking, and of course Torah topics. Networking is encouraged both during study and lecture times. Other local program have slightly different schedules or run in the evenings, but the basic format is the same: a blend of Torah study, networking, and practical skill development.

From the Haredi point of view, there are two important advantages to this program over job training programs for the general public. The first and most obvious is that it avoids an either-or dichotomy between Torah and work. Secondly, by encouraging job networking within the Haredi community, there is a greater likelihood that job seekers will find a work place that can accommodate their religious needs and has other like-minded workers. Much of the Haredi fear of the world of secular work comes from concerns about unwanted assimilation and integration.

The program has support from some notable figureswithin the Haredi community. Before the start of the first two programs, Duvi Honig travelled to Israel in Novemeber, 2010 to get the blessing of two prominent Israeli Haredi rabbis: Chaim Kanievsky and Aharon Leib Shteinman.  Both rabbis are among the possible successors of Rabbi Eliashiv’s authority when he passes.

In July of 2011, after four successful US programs, Duvi Honig travelled again to Israel,.  This time he met with rabbis in two cities that have high concentrations of Haredim, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak. He also met with Knesset members and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Meir Lau to explain the benefits of the program and explore how it might be implemented in Haredi communities across Israel.

Beit Shemesh already has plans to start a similar program.

The success of the job fair and the “Learn and Network” Kollels show that there is an unmet need for work within the Haredi community. However, they also underscore a point that is often ignored in the Israeli discussions about the Haredi contribution to society: contribution is not the same as integration.

Very often Israelis conflate the two. Nearly any discussion about army service and Haredi employment levels quickly turns into a discussion of integration: if more Haredim work and serve in the army, if more Haredim go to school and have internet, then they will become more like the rest of Israelis. However, becoming more like the rest ofIsraelis is exactly what the Haredim are afraid of.

Interestingly, removing the overtones of forced integration from the army service can even soften strong opponents to army service.

Rabbi Shteinman organized the joint Shas/UTJ meeting to discuss Haredi reaction to the supreme court’s decision to overturn the Tal Law. That meeting resulted in a joint statement that Haredim would fight to the death to defend their definition of a Jewish lifestyle. However, Shteinman was also one of the people that gave his blessing to the “Learn and Network” program. Although he later withdrew his public support due to pressure within the Haredi community, he also was one of the initial advocates for the Nahal Haredi Netzah Yehudah batillion, a battilion that serves in the difficult area of Jenin and runs according to Haredi halachah.

One reason non-Haredim stress integration is that many Haredi values run strongly counter to non-Haredi religious and secular values.  One fear is that accommodation to those values will destroy the surrounding society’s own value system.  However, this can be countered by adding terms and conditions.  For example, any soldier offered a leadership position that requires working with the larger army and hence contact with women and secular officers would be required to agree to operate by the conventions of mainstream haredi society. If that was against the soldier’s conscience he could be free to turn down the promotion.

A second reason why integration is so important to non-Haredim is that their values are positive assertions.  They are rooted in Jewish thought and careful reflection.  For example, equal opportunity and access to leadership for both genders is not just some by product of secular humanism taken from gentile society.   It has deep roots in the Liberal Jewish understanding of core Jewish texts on the dignity of human beings.    It is also rooted in practical experience with justice.  It is “halacha l’maaseh” , the integration of Jewish principle and the reality of life in action.  In keeping with Hillel’s words “If I am not for myself, then who?”,  a silent hidden group cannot effectively advocate for justice towards themselves.  They are always at the mercy of others to be their spokespersons, although the  “others” are simply normal human beings who rightly have their own agendas to defend.  Reality also recognizes that making a woman stand behind husband, father, or brother as spokesperson makes the sufferer of family violence a double victim since her natural advocates have proven themselves to care only for their own benefit.

However, changing a societies in-built prejudices is a long term process.  Such change comes best through dialog and internal advocacy, not force.  One of the precepts of religious pluralism  is that individuals have to follow their own moral compass.  Minds and hearts change through moral suasion, not fiat or authority.

It may be time to separate the two ideas: contribution and integration.   It may be time to look at finding mutually agreeable structures that allow shared support without integration.   If we can’t have both, what do we really care about more?  A shared burden of support for society or making a minority group more “like us”?  What really makes a single community: sameness or mutual responsibility?

With mutual responsibility comes love, and with love comes the potential for dialog.  We’ve had it backwards.  We’ve been chasing the rainbow of integration hoping it will lead to shared responsibility.  The chorus has gone like this:  Just give the Haredim more time.  Let them integrate more.  Then they will naturally want to join in the shared burden of society.

We need to turn it around.   N’aaseh v’nshmah.  We will do and we will hear.  Non-Haredi need to say a strong “No” to one sided relationships, even if there are loud complaints at our withdrawal.   Non-Haredi society needs to make it clear that they are perfectly able to pray for themselves.  Non-Haredi society needs to make its needs clear.   Whatever the value of prayer,  what wider society needs most is practical help: work and service.    We need to start building facts on the ground that encourage shared responsibility, even if the process requires that we carve out self-contained spaces that let Haredim live out values that are in conflict with wider society.

The ability to hear from each other and respect each other will flow naturally from the practice of doing for each other.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Diaspora and Israel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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