Rabbi Leo Dee
Rabbi Leo DeeCourtesy

Following Chief Rabbi Yizchak Yosef’s statement about the haredim that “If you force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad,” many in Israel are pondering the impact of losing this segment of the Israeli population.

Some people believe that the state would save billions of shekels from the stipends that it currently pays to Yeshiva students, and others believe that the economy would benefit from not subsidising what they perceive as their “primaeval lifestyle.” They are very wrong.

Other Western nations are suffering today from declining birth rates. The birth rate in Germany is less than 1.5 children per mother and falling, so the country will require over 1.5 million immigrants annually just to maintain its economy. Thus, over the next 20 years they will need 30 million immigrants, who, when added to the 15 million that they have already absorbed, will comprise well over half their population. Italy has closed 10 percent of its junior schools over the past decade because its birth rate has fallen to 1.25.

The Economist magazine in 2023 warned that the drop in population in the West is the worst since the Black Death, which spells disaster for Europe’s economy, culture, and independence; that’s without considering the impact of these immigrants on their political harmony.

Israel is the only exception to this phenomenon. Israel has an average birth rate per Jewish mother of three, based on an average of two children for secular parents, four for Religious Zionist families, and six for haredim. It is crucial for Israel’s Jewish identity that haredim continue to bring up large families in Israel to prevent Arab Israelis from growing their demographic power. Haredim make a net positive contribution to Israel’s economy, culture, and Jewish majority just by having babies!

People often ask how “non-working” haredim in modern Israel can afford to have three times the number of children as hard-working secular Israelis? The answer is simple. They have developed a lifestyle that costs one third of a secular household. Generally they do not own cars, but travel by public transport. They do not frequent supermarkets but buy in bulk between multiple families. They share their childcare between aunts and grandmothers, and the men teach Torah to the boys. A haredi neighbourhood has no cinemas, few shopping malls, and almost no luxury goods stores, but it has a synagogue and yeshiva on every corner, with shiurim running around the clock.

Some people are warning that the exponential growth of Israel’s haredi population spells disaster for its economy because they don’t work or fight in the army. This prediction is wrong for two reasons:

First, 65 percent of haredi men and 85 percent of haredi women do work; the numbers have grown steeply over the past three years. One of the factors that has driven haredi men to work is the rapid increase in Israeli real estate prices. Since men have a far better chance of a good Shidduch (being matched with a suitable wife) if they own an apartment, and since stipends from the state can no longer fund housing for every couple getting married, they have no choice but to work for a living (at least part-time).

The second and less openly discussed reason for optimism is that 20 to 30 percent of haredi children shift to become either plain religious or secular. These shifts have a positive impact on the Israeli economy, since each haredi family is effectively contributing two fully working adults to the workforce at a faster rate than their secular peers (owing to the younger age of marriage and childbearing). Indeed, if we are honest, this phenomenon is the reason that there are very few Jews today, secular or religious, who cannot claim haredi ancestors in their family tree. This also explains a common expression used with pride among secular Israelis, “My grandfather was a Rabbi!”

From this we can see a fascinating and unspoken trend: the haredim are actually the most efficient at producing future Jewish generations within our mixed population. They constitute the group who manage on a fraction of the income of the rest of the population, bring up many more children, and invest heavily in their Jewish education and culture. When these children do enter the IDF and join Israel’s economy, they bring their intelligence and dedication, which invigorates the lives of all Israel’s citizens. This has been happening for decades, if not centuries, and it is one of the key drivers of Israel’s growth economy and vibrant Jewish culture.

You won’t hear these arguments from haredim or their political leaders, because they are not so proud of their “dropouts.” However, Israeli society benefits enormously from haredi families that are willing to sacrifice many of modernity’s expensive treats to contribute to population growth that benefits us all.

The rest of the world is also beginning to recognize the unique value of Israel’s religiously committed population. A prominent Italian government minister recently met with Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Tzfat to discuss how Israeli society has maintained its healthy birth rate in a modern Western country.

I believe that haredim should volunteer for the army or for National Service and “pull their weight” in the institutions that support our society. But if we draft them in an aggressive or haphazard manner to “modernize” haredi society, we might end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. A solution to the integration of haredim into Israeli society is clearly needed, but we must be sensitive to maintaining their culture and way of life so that we can continue to benefit from the birth and education of many more Israeli children for generations to come.

Rabbi Leo Dee is an educator living in Efrat. His book “Transforming the World: The Jewish Impact on Modernity” has been republished in English and Hebrew in memory of his wife Lucy and daughters Maia and Rina, who were murdered by terrorists in April 2023.