Shira is up every morning before dawn. In the quiet, before her husband and children awake – though the youngest of her six is up with her – she prepares breakfast and bag lunches for her family, irons skirts for her girls, and lays out pants and shirts for her boys. If the morning goes smoothly, she will sneak a moment for herself and daven the morning prayer service. At 7:15, she is on her way to the bus stop, her running shoes her only concession to modern fashion; by 8:30, she will be at her desk in a government office, where she works as an administrative secretary for a high-level Israeli civil servant. At 29, Shira is”‘together” in every way – she runs the office – though her pay-scale and mobility will always be capped by the limits of her non-university, ultra-Orthodox education.

To an outsider, an irony of Shira’s situation may be that she chose this life: to retain the role of Jewish mother, but also to be the family breadwinner, while her husband spends his day in kollel – a post-yeshiva center of Jewish study for married men. In Europe before the Holocaust, the most promising young scholars, like Shira’s husband, were provided a dowry to pursue their Talmudic studies. But in contemporary Israel, some ultra-Orthodox communities groom all boys for a life of Torah study – not only the most gifted. Wives like Shira, in an inversion of the gender roles outlined in “Genesis,” where Adam is described as having worked by “the sweat of his brow,” enter the workforce. Shira did choose her husband – the matchmaking scene is not quite as depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof” – but Shira’s father also likely supplied a significant dowry. The boys from the best rabbinical seminaries command the price of an apartment, which in Jerusalem starts at about $250,000.

A model gone bust

The current debate about military conscription in Israel – surrounding the question of the renewal of the Tal Law, the bill passed in 2002 that allows for army deferral by religious students – may seem distant from marriage arrangements and gender roles in the ultra-Orthodox world. But the idea of universal service recently advocated by the army chief of staff here, and the proposed changing of the status quo first established by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, for a mere 400 yeshiva students, threatens to rupture the fabric of the ultra-Orthodox world and disrupt the entire economic model upon which it rests. In that model, men are largely outside of the workforce – some put the number of current army exemptions at above 60,000 – and reliant upon women and their fathers, in addition to controversial government subsidies, for their livelihoods.

Sitting down on the job? Ultra-Orthodox boys study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash 90)

Sitting down on the job? Ultra-Orthodox boys study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

But the model, in ascendancy from the nineties through the financial crisis, even as many insiders will now admit, is in crisis, and the money that funds the system is fast drying up. The working Europeans and Americans of previous generations, who supported sons and daughters, now struggle to continue that support, not to mention the prospect of a new and burgeoning generation of grandchildren. However, not only is there a shortage of money, but perhaps also a dearth of idealism, or a refinement of the ideal and realization that, with Torah study revitalized after the Holocaust, the Jewish world must now emphasize the different and no-less-Jewish ideal of Torah study with economic responsibility. This is true not only on the sociological level, but on the personal one, for not every boy now sees himself as destined to become the great scholar of his generation. Indeed, there are many serious young men who do not see a life of full-time study as a viable option, and yet, they are constricted by an ultra-Orthodox world almost devoid of other sanctioned paths. Even without getting into discussions about the importance of shared civic responsibility in a nation facing grave security threats, the argument in favor of army enlistment is first and foremost pragmatic and economic: there is simply no mobility in Israel without army service.

The Nahal Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox army corps, has been in existence for ten years, with currently over a thousand soldiers serving.  But now, the army and the government need to find further ways to accommodate the growing ultra-Orthodox population that will pursue army service. This cannot be done by catering to religious fanatics who are looking for ways to discredit the whole enterprise, but rather through sensitivity to the genuine requirements of the ultra-Orthodox community, making army service, in the process, a more acceptable option. The country does not need yet another excuse for a culture war, and legitimate solutions can be found to problems, such as the issue of women singing at army events, that have dominated the newspapers in recent months.

For behind the headlines lies one of the most closely kept secrets of the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel: that there are many young men who are  faithful and yet worldly and modern, with a desire to attain economic mobility and serve their country. There will be the elite, who will continue their full devotion to religious studies; and the community, perhaps – rather than just the elite’s fathers and in-laws – may, in some future arrangement, find ways to fund those studies. Such young men will likely find women, like the selfless and dedicated Shira, whose idealism has helped sustain Jewish life for centuries. But there may be other men in the ultra-Orthodox community who will want to share the burden of working with their wives, living out a different Jewish ideal, one that is more suited to the demands of life in Israel today.

 William Kolbrener, professor of English Literature in Israel, is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011).