Reflections on JFN Meeting on Israeli Haredi (Ulta-Orthodox) Society

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On July 1, 2015, we gathered for a special learning opportunity, organized by JFN, dedicated to Israel’s Haredi society.

This was the first of a series of meetings that aim to provide JFN members with an up-to-date look that would help them understand the dilemmas facing the Haredi community and discuss the role of philanthropy in promoting change within it. As someone who has been deeply involved with the issue of employment in Haredi society and has witnessed the changes it has been going through, I was delighted to be part of this meeting. While I joined the meeting out of personal interest, I was also deeply intrigued by its prominent list of participants. It was a fascinating, exciting, emotional, and extremely important gathering that helped us understand the processes that have been taking place in front of our eyes, and I am certain that those who were not able to attend the meeting – foundations or private funders interested in the Haredi society – missed a great opportunity to learn about the issue.

The meeting began with a captivating lecture by Dr. Lee Cahaner, a social geographer who specializes on the Haredi community, which included a rich presentation (click here to download it) with the most up-to-date data on the issue. The lecture was followed by an intense debate that provided a rare and painful glimpse into the depths of Haredi society and the gaps within it.

Racheli Ibenboim, a Haredi social entrepreneur, moderated the panel, which also included Mrs. Naomi Perl, director of programs for leadership development in the Haredi community at the Mandel Institute, Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, the head of Hachmey Lev Yeshiva, and Rabbi Benny Rabonovitz, a senior Haredi journalist and writer/editor for Yated Ne’eman.

Israeli Haredi society is not homogenous. It has many shades and opinions, and the intense debate exposed the different approaches that exist today within the community itself, ranging from a keen desire to maintain the old traditions to an aspiration for change and integration into Israeli society. It was clear that the pressure for change has created painful moral gaps and a deep fear of losing the identity and the internal values that define Haredi society. On the other hand, tempers flared during a dialogue between secular audience members and panel members. Racheli (the moderator), along with JFN staff who helped run the debate, asked some tough questions about the role of philanthropy in the process of change, and with whom philanthropists should work in the Haredi community.

Personally, I had a difficult time when part of the dialogue turned into a “we and you” exchange. I believe that in order for all of us to move forward together, the debate should be unifying and not divisive. However, I must admit that the meeting – without a doubt the most intense meeting of philanthropists I have ever attended – was eye-opening, especially with regard to the rising emotions within the Haredi community. I believe all those who attended the meeting came out of it feeling that they were part of something important, and felt the need to share it with others. I think there is a clear understanding of the need to integrate Haredis into Israeli civic society, but the ways to achieve it and the many approaches to it are thought-provoking.

I came out of the meeting even more determined to be involved in the changing processes that the Haredi society has been through. At the same time, I became even more aware that this change will not be achieved through radical actions, but by supporting complex processes with the necessary sensitivity - and certainly not condescendingly.

I feel I was privileged to be part of this meeting, which despite its tense moments, touched some raw nerves regarding the society in which we live and act as philanthropists. I believe that anyone who cares about our society should listen to the many voices rising from the Haredi society. I already can’t wait for the next meeting…

Michal HerzogMaurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation

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