Haredi communities need a vision for a sustainable future

Published in the Quilliam Journal, 10th January 2019

In a recent piece in the JC, Jonathan Boyd, the director of Jewish Policy Research, argues that haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish communities are growing compared to other parts of the community. He also argues that a wider engagement with society is critical. I agree. But not unlike the Melanie Phillips piece that he mentions, Boyd is tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. Yes, the haredi communities are growing more than non-haredi ones. It’s hardly surprising, if you create a strictly controlled environment where people are encouraged to have as many children as possible.

Yes, haredim tend to be more likely to stay, but that too is hardly surprising if leaving the community is likely to lose you your children, your house, your family and friends, expose you to personal attack and lawfare, as well as exposing your lack of education and skills to cope as a member of an integrated, modern society.

If one is denied basic information about the world or a secular education, taught to regard everything outside your community as a howling wilderness of evil and decadence, a prospective leaver has to be extremely brave, extremely motivated or extremely upset. As the recent court case revealed, if you have to take your brother-in-law in Israel to court just to get your ownership of your house recognised, losing a daughter in the process, leaving this community is not for the faint of heart.

The issue that both pieces fail to address is not the importance of “tikkun olam”. It is not even that haredi communities display similar obsession with wealth (hardly surprising when you have a large number of children, all of whom have to be educated, married off and provided for – ideally with the husband studying Torah full-time – and terraced houses in Stamford Hill are going for £1.4m).

The issue is that the long-term viability and sustainability of this community is doubtful. A lifestyle involving large numbers of children, a lack of skills which can sustain a profession and a huge mismatch between the cost of living, the provision of housing and ever-increasing demand cannot grow indefinitely. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Charity? Benefits? New recruits through the “kiruv” organisations and support from their non-religious relatives? Reminding everyone about Issachar and Zevulun?

Demography is not an outcome of this situation. It is a key driver.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy increases in a closed system. Without an opening of the interfaces to the haredi world, it must fracture under its own pressures. It cannot be controlled by ever more totalitarian ordinances.

We can already see this happening in America and Israel, where the community’s block vote is being mobilised to try and compel wider society to pay for the privilege of sustaining the haredi world’s choices.

I think the haredi world has much to offer. I think it contains many tremendous individuals with a huge amount to contribute. But it must be allowed to do so. And for that, it must engage with wider society. And to do that, it needs a sustainable future.