Until late 2014 I headed the advisory services division of JFN Israel, its role to help funders navigate the Israeli landscape, connect with like-minded funders and become better informed on their areas of interest. In order to serve JFN’s membership, our responsibility was to have a varied referral database on various issues.
And then a JFN member asked to connect with funders and experts on giving in the Haredi community, and I quickly realized that our fountain of knowledge in this area was limited.
Can an advisory services division that helps funders navigate the Israeli landscape have such limited familiarity with what defines 10% of the country’s population? Moreover, as informed funders in Israel, in order to be effective, should we have, at the very least, a basic understanding of most of society’s big issues, whether we fund those issues or not?
In order to fill the gap that some of us secular funders and professionals have, for the past two years JFN has been convening educational meetings on the Haredi community. For novices such as I, now a member and not staff, these meetings have been transformative.
This week, JFN organized a study tour into the Haredi community in Jerusalem. We began by visiting a "Talmud Torah" Beit Raban Cheder/elementary school, where we engaged in a candid, and sometimes agitating, conversation with their educators on (1) why Haredi systems that extend to core studies must to do so quietly and without fanfare and (2) for the same reasons, why they hold classes on Israel’s Independence Day.
Our next stop was the elitist "Hebron – Knesset Yisrael" Yeshiva. Even the most cynical cannot remain indifferent to the over 1,000 young men who self-study in “hevruta” (pairs), arguing excitedly on Biblical texts from morning till night. I must admit I never saw my children study with such self-driven interest or passion. I was envious. And I was upset, that while both my boys of the same age are combat soldiers, these youth have the privilege to study in the impressive air-conditioned hall. And yet, I was also impressed that they truly believe they equally serve our people with their prayers.
We then had lunch at the home of a Haredi woman, who started a home business catering to tourists who are curious about the Haredi home. There I had a first-of-its-kind open conversation with a 34 year old career Haredi woman, now pregnant with her seventh child. We spoke of home budgets, birth control, juggling career and family. We had so much in common, and yet when she spoke sincerely on how her husband serves their family so much better by studying Torah all day, rather than augmenting the family’s income, for the first time I didn’t see the Haredi woman as a victim of her circumstance.
We concluded our tour at the Bukharan Quarter’s community service center, which serves the poorest neighborhoods of Israel. We were introduced to the great progress made in recent years in terms of social workers’ assistance to Haredi children at risk. And here again we realized how delicate and low key such intervention must be.
My take homes from this memorable JFN tour:
- The Haredi community may be lacking in core studies, but they are rich in inculcating excellent learning skills and a curiosity for learning that I find lacking in the secular educational system.
- Progress is taking place in many facets of the Haredi community, in some cases even semi-revolutions. Yet, when such change is celebrated or broadcasted in secular or state circles, the Haredi community retracts.
- Interest groups don’t want change or progress imposed on them, be them Haredi, Arabs, or persons with disabilities. Instead, they want to lead and be part of their lives. They all say “nothing about us without us”.
- I still know very little about the Haredi community, but if I care about strengthening Israeli society, it is my civic and professional responsibility to know more.