Orthodox leaders reject claim of haredi population crisis in Israel



In February 2016, Rabbi Shimon Badani gives a lesson to young haredi men at the Nehora De'oraita yeshiva in the central Israeli city of Elad. Credit: Yaakov Cohen/Flash90.

By Ariel Ben Solomon/JNS.org

Orthodox Jewish leaders are challenging the claim made in a recent report by Israel’s Channel 10 broadcaster that the country’s strictly Orthodox sector is “in the process of disintegration.”

The Channel 10 program ran a two-part video report in October which quoted a researcher as saying that one in 10 haredi Jews in Israel are leaving the haredi community on an ongoing basis. Citing survey data, the program concluded that due to the current trend of many Israeli Jews choosing to leave religiously observant lifestyles, haredim will never represent a majority of Israel’s population despite their relatively high birth rate. 

Baruch Rochamkin, a supervisor at a youth center in the central Israeli city of Elad that caters to youths who have drifted away from religious practice, said he rejects the analysis offered by the Channel 10 report. “Haredim have opened their eyes and are dealing with the problem” of some community members decreasing their religious observance, he told JNS.org.

Channel 10 used footage from its visit to the Elad youth center for its program. Elad is a religious city whose residents come from a variety of streams of Orthodox Judaism.

“Because the haredi population grows bigger, more people are leaving, but the community has recently begun to pay more attention to this and treat it,” said Rochamkin, who explained that some youths have left the haredi community because they do not desire to study in yeshiva, but that this problem is being addressed by offering other options such as vocational education. 

“Today the community goes towards the youth’s needs,” he said.

Rochamkin said that in Elad, there are some youths on the fringes who are drifting away from religion, but that this phenomenon does not even come close to affecting 5 percent of all local youths. Moreover, he noted, many non-religious Israelis are becoming religious.

A knowledgeable source in Israel’s religious sector, who asked not to be named, criticized Channel 10 for seeking “shocking, exaggerated, and bombastic” titles to get the public’s attention. An Israeli rabbi who also did not wish to be identified responded to the report by saying, “There have always been those that leave the religious way of life, but this is not something new.” 

“Whenever there are problems, it needs to be dealt with…Everyone needs to worry about their family, friends, and their surroundings and help,” he said.

“There is no specific anxiety about the haredi population,” added the rabbi. “We worry about the entire Jewish nation. If there is a problem in the haredi population, it needs to be dealt with just as if there is a problem in the non-religious public.” 

The national-religious perspective

Rabbi Naftali Schonfeld, a national-religious Orthodox rabbi teaching in the pre-military academy in Nave, located near Israel’s borders with Egypt and Gaza, believes it does not matter how many national-religious or haredi Jews become secular or how many secular Israelis are becoming religious. 

“The question is, what is the ideology that can move Israel forward?” he told JNS.org.

“Haredim say we are in galut (exile), so they think the state can’t help much,” but the national-religious camp doesn’t see it that way, said Schonfeld. “The national-religious see the secular culture going bankrupt, that they are unable to move the country forward,” he said.

The secular Israeli public, argued Schonfeld, lacks a clear ideology. “In history, the nations such as Rome that had no ideology fell,” he said.

Schonfeld continued, “The only public that has an ideology based on the fear of heaven combined with [loyalty to] the state is the national-religious sector. Just look at the many national-religious officers in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), police, or as advisers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” 

Asked about the conflict between state and religion in Israel, Schonfeld asserted that there is no clash between the two since “the state is part of the religion. The Torah said to create a state.” 

“For over 3,000 years, the Israeli nation has existed and no one succeeded in getting rid of our religion,” he noted, adding, “Every time they tried to destroy us they didn’t succeed—with the sword or by assimilation. So why would they succeed now?”

Posted on December 13, 2016 and filed under Features, Israel.