Israel’s government is working on important new plans to change the army service requirement for Haredi men, including lowering the draft exemption age from 26 to 23. This change would be beneficial for Israeli society as a whole, as our fast-growing Haredi population represents an important and under-utilized economic resource.
Currently, Haredi men are required to commit to learning in yeshiva until the age of 26 if they prefer not to serve in the IDF. This not only keeps them out of the workforce for eight years, but also bars them from studying for qualifications during these economically-critical years.
When people talk about poverty in Israel, this bar is one of its causes. Most Haredi men are trapped in unskilled jobs because they are technologically illiterate. They graduate without English, math or computer skills, and at age 26 it is usually too late for them to learn. By the time they are allowed to leave the yeshiva bubble, they often have large families to support, so they will take whatever low-paid unskilled jobs they can find.
Israel’s population is its most important natural resource, and we need young Haredim to enter the workforce earlier and with more qualifications, to bridge the skills gap and reduce the poverty gap.
In the Netzach Educational Network that I head, we are seeing a huge demand for core curriculum studies and higher education in the Haredi community. Our boys’ high schools that offer Bagruyot are oversubscribed every year, and we are working to expand them and open new branches. 20,000 Haredi teens are enrolled on our Eshkolot online learning platform, opened in 2020, where they study math, English and science subjects in the evenings and at weekends.
This week, Netzach opened a new pre-medical mechina program, in cooperation with the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev). Our first cohort of 30 men and women are on their way to becoming Haredi doctors!
Netzach is also providing post-high-school programs for Haredi men so they can prepare for higher education. The 50 percent drop-out rate from the university preparatory programs has demonstrated that they cannot be expected to transfer from yeshiva to academia and catch up on 12 years of secular studies in just six months. Ideally, our goal is to enable all Haredi children to study core curriculum subjects from age 6, and our elementary schools are expanding fast. But effecting change takes time in Israel’s ultra-conservative Haredi communities.
I understand that the issue of army service is a difficult one. The idea of barring Haredi men from working while their peers were serving on the front lines was legitimate, but it was also harmful to Israeli society. Thankfully the IDF needs less manpower these days. Perhaps making army service optional will actually encourage more Haredi boys to enlist. Some of Netzach’s yeshiva high school students have chosen to do National Service after graduating, including boys serving in the intellectually demanding IDF Unit 8200.
Lowering the barrier to entering the Israeli workforce from age 26 to age 23 will allow thousands of Haredi men to gain qualifications and embark on better-paid careers. Through their earlier social integration, they will be able to contribute their skills to the Start-up Nation, paying more taxes and receiving fewer benefits. Releasing Haredi families from enforced poverty will clearly be better for Israel’s economy in the long run. We hope that our leaders can reach a workable agreement that will keep Israel safe and united.