The Haredi Moment
By the Haredi Research Group
The year 2020 witnessed unprecedented visibility and prominence by Haredi Jews in the United States, Israel, and other sites around the world. Though often cast as a monolith, Haredim are a diverse body of Jews who reacted in different ways–with understanding, compliance, concern, and defiance–to public health restrictions on their communal, ritual, and educational norms. Those who objected demanded the right to live their lives as they saw fit. This demand led to increased activism in the political sphere, especially in the form of a new ideological conservatism that they displayed in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the 2021 Knesset election.
How and why did this new Haredi activism come about? To address these questions, an international collective of Jewish studies scholars, experts in Haredi Judaism, came together to produce the following report. It seeks to explain the origins, causes, and features of the Haredi Moment of 2020. For those interested in a deeper dive into the subject, please access the fuller version of the report here.
The image of Haredim as self-protective and insular was upended when some members of the Haredi community took notable exception to state imposition of restrictions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both in the United States and Israel, Haredim strained against social distancing requirements that threatened to alter their communal way of life—at home, in prayer, study, celebration, and mourning. The public display of opposition by Haredim to state intervention came together with another striking trend: a growing identification with conservative political figures and parties. In the United States, this took the form of overwhelming Haredi support for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election; in Israel, the growing affinity between Haredi and political conservatism seemed to contradict their long-standing antipathy towards Zionist and nationalistic parties.
These developments may reflect a new Haredi political and cultural identity, one that shifts from quiescence to activism, from localized resistance to open public opposition. The global pandemic, with its corresponding increase in social media that empowered Haredi activists to take the lead in communications, created opportunities for dramatic and visible change. These changes are part of a longer-standing sense of unrest among younger Haredi men and women who take issue with traditional leadership and social norms.. A new political awareness and a greater willingness to identify with non-Jewish and secular Jewish processes has resulted in calls to action. In Israel, Haredim are forging a new social contract with the state. In the United States, Haredim are creating alliances with state actors, as well as with other groups that claim an expansion of their religious liberties. This report captures the evolution of this moment and its formative influences.
Haredim claim adherence to an unchanging Jewish legal tradition and custom, more so than any other group, including their modern Orthodox counterparts. Adaptability is key to Haredi growth and renewal, as is their capacity to confront, control, and define change. This impacts their relationship towards new technologies, political engagement, and economic and educational advancement. Despite descriptions identifying them as conservative or traditionalist—terms which they use to identify themselves–Haredim are very much part of and engaged in the modern world. They maintain a rich diversity of beliefs and practices. At the same time, they are adept at using institutions, cultural forms, and political channels to build distinctive communities.
Haredi Judaism is a broad and diverse category embracing Jews of different types. Mizrachi and Sephardic Haredim hail from the Middle East and North Africa; Ashkenazi Haredim from Europe. Each has a different set of histories and engagements with the state, which, in turn, have led to distinct social structures, conceptions of halachic obligations, and everyday practices as well as rabbinic structures of authority. Despite their differences, thinking in terms of a global Haredi population makes sense given their demographic, social, and political commonalities and the extensive familial ties connecting their communities. While Jews tend to live in geographically concentrated areas, this tendency is even more pronounced among Haredim. Compared to other Jews, they have lower levels of secular education, full-time employment, and household income. At the same time, they also experience greater poverty and economic vulnerability, a situation often exacerbated by the weighty expenses associated with Jewish communal and religious practices. Family formation and dynamics differ from other Jews as well, with marriage at younger ages, higher fertility rates, and men who often opt for Torah study, at least initially or in part, in place of employment.
The global Haredi population is estimated to be 2.1 million, with the largest concentrations in Israel (1.2 million) and the United States (700,000). For a further discussion of Haredi demography, click here.
Eastern Europe was the longstanding heartland of the largest and most traditional Jewish population in the world; it occupied a unique (and far poorer) socio-economic place in a multi-ethnic society in which millions of Jews maintained their own language and a robust ethnic identity. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Hungary and Galicia stood at the crossroads of competing currents of enlightenment and reaction, yielding new forms of avowedly anti-modern Jewish traditionalism that we call today “haredi.” In the early 1900s, a new Haredi organization, the Agudath Israel, or “Aguda,” brought together German and Polish Orthodox Jews into a single organization. Opposed both to Zionism and assimilation, the Aguda advanced a conservative religious and political outlook mixed with a pragmatic willingness to work with state authorities. Indeed, as they took rise, Haredim were committed both to preserving the integrity of their separatist communities and engaging political officials in order to do so.
With the destruction of much of Jewish (and Haredi) life in Europe during the Holocaust, Israel and the United States became the two new world centers of Haredi Judaism. New Haredi immigrants formed their own new communities in both settings. Even before the creation of the state, in 1947, Haredim forged a compact with political authorities, ensuring Orthodox control over marriage laws, public Shabbat observance, Haredi education, and kashrut in state institutions, and exemptions for yeshiva students from military service. With the rightward shift in Israeli politics in the late 1970s, Haredim, along with a new class of activist religious Zionists, received added economic benefits and political encouragement. Initially, military exemptions for yeshiva students were limited to an elite few, but those numbers have grown significantly over the past seventy-five years. Today about 140,000 men participate in full-time Torah learning. The growth of this “society of learners” requires significant government support and has required active Haredi participation in Israeli politics to secure it. Similarly, with the growth of Haredi communities, which favor very large families, housing needs have also expanded. With support from the government, Haredim have looked toward the West Bank, establishing a number of Haredi towns on disputed territory there.
In recent decades, Israeli Haredi society has shifted from viewing itself as under existential threat to recognizing and consolidating its power. Israeli Haredim increasingly engage with Israeli culture, norms, patterns of consumption, and the Hebrew language. They are intent on demographic and cultural growth through the expansion of Haredi cities and the establishment of Haredi neighborhoods in mixed cities. A growing Haredi middle class is entering academia, professional careers, political activism, social media and the internet, and leisure culture, all while maintaining the community’s unique identity. This pushes to the fore a tension between the growing openness of Haredim to societal interactions and their struggle to prevent assimilation.
In its origins, Haredism was largely an Ashkenazi phenomenon. But a new religious and political movement, Shas, was created in 1984 to address long-standing discrimination against Mizrahim and to foster the growth of a Mizrachi-oriented Torah culture. Shas established itself as a counterculture, fighting against traditional Ashkenazi discrimination, crafting its own social institutions, and attaining unprecedented electoral success by engaging in wide-ranging outreach. Shas deliberately reached out beyond the bounds of Haredi culture to bring adherents into its neo-traditionalism. In doing so, it helped to build a new Mizrachi Haredism.
Meanwhile, in the post-war years in the United States, Haredim initially settled in Brooklyn. What at one time had been a large population in interwar Jewish Europe was reduced, at first, to a small and poor group in America. And yet, contrary to predictions of rapid decline, Haredi communities in neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, grew rapidly in both size and influence, laying the foundation for the broader expansion of the Haredi community in North America and beyond. Over the course of their post-War existence, Haredim also became engaged in local politics, learned to navigate anti-poverty programs, developed a savvy activist class, and expanded a dormant Yiddish-language press. In short, they figured out how to maintain a distinctive way of life, even as they adapted to local social and economic conditions.
In the 1970s, New York Haredim, partly in response to tense relations they experienced with their Black and brown neighbors, and partly because of local infrastructural decay and poverty, left for Long Island, Rockland County, Orange County, and Westchester County. This outflow reflected a growing need to establish an enclave beyond the allures and seductions of American urban space. This took the form of incorporated villages and towns—New Square (1961), Kiryas Joel (1977), and Kaser (1990)—that offered community and segregation only an hour’s drive from New York City.
The move to the suburbs was not, however, an escape from neighborly tensions. Between Haredim and their Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors, conflicts arose over zoning, natural resources, and public funding allocations. In addition, there were tensions within these communities that resulted from poverty, and later increased access to social media, weakened rabbinic leadership, and changing gender and familial dynamics. Today, we increasingly hear voices of dissent and generational tensions contesting who and what qualifies as Haredi.
Shifting Social Patterns
The Orthodox world in general, and Haredim in particular, have been structured by authority that is organized from the top down. Rabbinic authorities must be consulted about what is permitted and prohibited before an individual can act. But these dynamics have changed over the past two decades. First, with the passing of rabbinic leaders who were born in Europe, growing struggles over succession have sometimes developed into bitter public contests. These have made rabbis and rebbes sometimes compete publicly for followers, a process which democratizes—and dilutes—their authority.
Second, the internet has provided an anonymous yet public space for a younger generation of Haredim to be openly critical and even to find alternate authorities or sources of information. . New ideas can take rise in social media before older authorities are even aware of dissension in the ranks or the fact that new knowledge has entered into their world. Some communities are experiencing the rise of a “secondary leadership” tier that gains authority in addition to—not as a replacement of—traditional rabbinic leadership. While the impact of these changes remains unclear, Haredi Orthodoxy’s younger generations are casting doubt on the ideals, norms, understandings, and organizational structure of established Haredi authorities and institutions in the hope of reforming both their communities and personal lives. In this new order, the younger generation is more independent, able to offer its own ideas and access those of others through the Internet, chat rooms, WhatsApp and Telegram groups, email, and listservs—platforms that have flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic and often bypass established lines of authority.
An especially prominent voice of dissent from within Haredi communities comes from those leaving their communities to go “off the derech (path)” (OTD), and those who remain within the community, passing as believers. A growing number of memoirs from leave-takers has attracted mainstream media attention. So many families have a child who has “gone OTD” that Haredi parents are renegotiating whether they must cut off all ties in those cases. Haredi custody cases, with one parent going OTD, favors the parent who remains in the fold, with community members raising funds to cover legal fees—all with the aim of keepingJewish children in the Haredi community.
The growing prominence of the OTD phenomenon—and of “spiritual custody” cases—reflect shifts in gender dynamics as Haredi men redefine masculinity and Haredi women pursue new occupational and educational opportunities. Haredim maintain strict gender boundaries between women and men, limiting contact between them in domestic, social, and educational spaces. Women typically dedicate themselves to a life of modesty, reproduction, family, and employment; men engage in religious study and, more so in the United States than in Israel, employment. Haredi marriages, which happen as early as 17 years of age, are arranged through a well-established matchmaking system with love an outcome of marriage rather than a prelude to it. Sexual intercourse occurs only within marriage and procreation is encouraged to fulfill a divine commandment. For Haredi women, pregnancy is a regular way of life, and having many children is central to the very definition of Haredi womanhood.
In Israel, fertility rates of Haredi families correlate with government support. Recent cuts to these stipends, together with ballooning poverty and unemployment, have forced couples to debate whether and how they should live up to the customary high fertility norms. These doubts have also led them to question the family ideal in which women bear most of the responsibility for the home along with paid employment while men study Torah full time. Until the 1970s, Israeli Haredi women had traditionally found employment within the safe contours of the Haredi job market, typically as teachers and in professions aligned with their role as caretakers. Yet, with the rapid rise in population, and with lower salaries associated with these positions, more women have felt the need to find employment “outside.” Consequently, Haredi women’s education has expanded to include professional training and even academic study. Urban Haredi women in the U.S. typically work outside of their neighborhoods and are often employed by small local businesses or as teachers in the extensive private Jewish school system.
In recent times, the division of labor in the domestic sphere has also changed, with some Haredi men taking on more active roles as caretakers and contributing to housework. As this reality has spread, a shift has occurred in Haredi discourse legitimizing this arrangement as a practical solution that has women working while men “help” at home. Although an overt articulation of new gender norms has not occurred, rabbinic leaders have been encouraging Haredi men to engage more in family duties to lessen the toll on their wives.
There are other changes afoot regarding Haredi gender dynamics. A diverse group of Haredi women in Israel is actively promoting Haredi women’s rights in terms of leadership building, women’s empowerment, feminist consciousness raising, the right to education, improved work conditions, and legal and political representation. Some women work within the Haredi community, while others have public facing roles in a range of institutions. In Israel, the first Haredi woman, Omer Yankelevitch, was sworn in as a member of the Israeli Parliament in 2020. In New York, a Hasidic woman, Rachel Freier was elected in 2016 as a Civil as well as a Criminal Court judge in the Kings County 5th judicial district. Haredi feminism has emerged as a new force, tackling and critiquing a myriad of social inequalities such as gender erasure and sexual violence within Haredi communities. Pushing back against Haredi leaders and institutions who often defended abusers and punished victims for speaking out, these activists have raised a new Haredi consciousness by using social media to rally support for victims.
Haredi communities everywhere have high poverty rates, though they vary across communities and geographical locations. In the United States, low income can be correlated to minimal primary and secondary secular education, English disfluency, high birth rates, and low rate of college attendance. Haredi schools are distinguished by the importance they place on socializing children into Haredi religious, ethical, and social systems; the time spent on and valorizing Talmud study, for boys; and strict sexual segregation at all levels. In most Hasidic boys’ elementary schools, children study secular subjects for no more than two hours a day; many Hasidic boys’ high schools teach no secular studies at all. In homes where English is not the spoken language, this meager exposure to language and math deprives boys and young men of functional literacy, thereby restricting their options in the workforce. Hasidic girls are more likely to be fluent in English (in the U.S.), receive a secular education, and attend college and professional degree programs (especially in Israel). In Israel, where women are expected to support husbands who dedicate themselves to studying Talmud after marriage, tensions have arisen around the perceived need to “protect” girls from secular influence and the economic pressure to maximize their potential as wage-earners. One effect is that girls have sought out more secular and vocational education despite communal norms that militate against this kind of academic access.
Many Haredi religious “requirements,” such as schooling, holiday celebrations, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, and kosher food, are expensive. The cost of a Haredi life, together with endemic poverty, place enormous financial stress on community members, who engage in a range of efforts to manage the family economy. Credit card debt, loans, welfare, government subsidies, charity, and sometimes even various forms of fraud are some of the means used. Haredi women often lack financial independence. Women’s paychecks are commonly deposited directly to their husbands’ bank accounts and remain under their husband’s control. Even when women have access to credit cards or a joint bank account, they are often expected to defer to their husbands on financial matters. This places women in Haredi communities in an especially vulnerable fiscal position within their marriages and creates barriers to their ability to leave their marriage—or, the community.
High poverty rates among Israeli Haredim can be traced to a long-standing dynamic between community norms and state policy. Haredi men achieve status in the community through their status as learners rather than wealth accumulation. In the matchmaking process, women are encouraged to look for dedicated religious scholars. Once married, the husband often remains as a full-time learner in a kollel while the wife enters the workforce. A married man in a kollel currently receives about NIS 1,500 (roughly $400) per month, an amount subsidized by the Israeli government. This level of support faces increasing resistance among voters, leading to cutbacks in state subsidies. Additionally, the Israeli government has long offered free or heavily subsidized preschool and elementary school, reduced property taxes, and lowered health insurance premiums to the Haredi population. Decreases in these subsidies over the past two decades have resulted in persistent and increased poverty. The establishment over the past decade of higher education institutions specifically tailored to Haredim may decrease poverty rates in the future. These institutions have led to a tenfold increase in enrolled students, with women representing almost 70% of students in 2020. Almost 25% of Haredi women are pursuing or have pursued an academic degree, compared with 15% of Haredi men.
While technology has long been banned in formal Haredi educational settings, it has largely been integrated into the home and workplace. In the United States, analog media became an important part of Haredi life after adaptations “kashered” it. Digital media has also had a significant impact on Haredi life, as can be seen in the expansion of local Haredi social media sources. By the early 2000s, Haredi dissenters, mostly men with access to technology, began to use social media anonymously to find one another on the “Jewish Blogosphere” and other social media sites. They used these platforms to critique and mock “the system,” the structures of rabbinic authority and affiliated institutions. Their activities created a gendered, heretical counter community that sparked grave concerns and responses. Rabbinic leaders in New York and New Jersey collaborated with private entrepreneurs to try to control access to social media through the installation of filters. As had been done in the past, compliance with technological restrictions is linked to school attendance for children. In many cases, though, community members keep a smartphone with unfettered access in one pocket and a filtered kosher phone in the other. In Israel, rabbinic authorities were able to assert control over cell phone infrastructure earlier. Today mobile phones have been transformed from old model kosher phones with downgraded technologies to more contemporary smartphones that are adjusted for Haredi individuals with access to “kosher” apps. The new Israeli government has made access to smart phones easier, much to the chagrin of Haredi rabbinic authorities.
The COVID Crisis
One of the broader unintended consequences of technology usage during COVID-19 has been the diminution of “social capital,” the relationships that are developed by interaction among people. The Haredi community relies on a high degree of social interaction in its members’ daily lives. Meeting regularly in synagogue, at the ritual bath, the playground, and celebrations and funerals is what forges a meaningful sense of belonging to a Haredi community. During the pandemic, social media played an important role in mediated and unmediated communications regarding the implementation of public health mandates, rabbinic injunctions, and information disseminated by activists. The pandemic saw a new reliance on sources beyond the community that diminished dependence on Haredi leadership and sources of information. It also prompted a new resistance by Haredim to state authority, especially when public officials imposed restrictions on gatherings for religious, educational or other ritual purposes.
It is important to reiterate that the Haredi community is not a monolith. For example, conventional press outlets often focused on the refusal of Haredim to follow public health mandates and reports. And yet, within the Israeli Haredi community, certain pockets of Haredim, following their leaders’ instructions, were more compliant. For example, the Gur (Ger), Karlin Stolin, and Lubavitch sects in Israel were pro-vaccine and adhered to COVID-19 public health guidance. Mizrachi Haredim, with Shas as their spiritual leadership, also mandated social distancing provisions. While implementation was uneven, with distancing rules adhered to in educational institutions, but less so in synagogues, the Shas leadership took a firm stand, demanding through direct communications from spiritual and political leaders that adherents comply with health directives . Compliance was framed not only as a matter of civic discipline, but also as one of explicit obedience to the dictates of halacha and the principle of “pikuach nefesh,” preserving life. In contrast, mainstream Ashkenazi Haredi leadership was divided on its approach to the pandemic; its wavering messages were conveyed to the public through quasi-underground social media.
In the United States some Haredi yeshivas adhered to COVID-19 guidelines. For example, communities outside of New York (e.g., Baltimore and Chicago) followed guidelines more carefully than many of those in New York, where neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, and Lakewood were less stringent in heeding public health mandates. Indeed, Agudath Israel successfully sued New York Governor Andrew Cuomo over his ban on large gatherings in synagogues, a case that was ultimately determined in the Aguda’s favor by the United States Supreme Court. This case was cast not as a matter of adhering to public health recommendations but as an attempt to affirm the religious liberties of a group of pious Americans for whom daily communal prayer and in-person education are deemed essential and a matter of their basic rights.
In the post-War world, Haredim have developed a great deal of experience in working with and exercising influence over political officials. Drawing on a tradition of political engagement rooted in medieval communal behavior, they have become adept at advocating, lobbying, and maximizing electoral power to gain benefits for the community. By engaging in non-ideological, pragmatic, interest-group politics, Haredim have thrived.
In both the United States and IsraelHaredi voters have often engaged in bloc voting, following the recommendations of their leaders who have leveraged their support for considerable communal gain. However, recent voting patterns in Israel show a shift in political allegiance. In the 2021 parliamentary elections in Israel, Haredim found themselves backing candidates who ultimately lost parliamentary elections. They now find themselves for the first time in many years out of a governing coalition and with diminished political influence. Despite this recent setback, Haredim over time have been transformed from a beleaguered defensive minority that aimed to distance itself from political involvement with the Jewish state to an ideologically diverse community represented by several competing strong political movements that aim to participate regularly in government.
Meanwhile, In the United States, Haredim have evinced clear signs of a conservative political outlook and rising support for the Republican party. This marks a stark juxtaposition to most non-Orthodox Jews who remain liberal and Democratic in their party support. Most notably, between 2016 and 2020, U.S. Haredim increasingly aligned themselves with Donald Trump; in some communities, such as Kiryas Joel, more than 98% voted for Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden. In this way and other ways (such as support for the cause of religious liberties), they resemble in political behavior white religious conservatives in America. As such, they have emerged as a distinctive political voice among American Jews. An important question for future research is whether the apparent shift from a transactional pragmatism to an ideological conservatism is a permanent feature of Haredi political life.