Ultra-Orthodox feel they’re in a dialogue of the deaf with secular Israel

July 9, 2012

(Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva, the largest Jewish seminary in Israel July 4, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun )

Zalman Deren spends his days studying the Torah in a small synagogue near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He’s young and able-bodied, with a wife and three children to feed, but has no job because that would distract him from his vocation.

A short walk away, at Israel’s largest Torah school, Mir Yeshiva, noise levels in the spacious study halls reach a low roar as hundreds of men of all ages decipher and debate the holy texts for hours. Most of them are also married with children and do not earn a living.

Israel has an estimated 60,000 full-time scripture scholars like this, who live in poverty and study to follow what they say is their faith’s highest calling. In return, Israel pays them modest stipends and exempts them from compulsory military service for all Jewish citizens.

This 64-year-old pact between the state and the ultra-Orthodox is headed for a major overhaul, however.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed at the weekend to reforms capping the number of students around 1,500 by 2016 and penalizing draft dodgers.

Full details of the plans, which should come into force by August 1, still have to be agreed within Netanyahu’s broad coalition. But any tightening of the rules will have wide support in Israeli society.

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