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.