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JIIS Bulletin - September 2013
Seminar applies academic thinking to haredi issues
When a group of colleagues got together at the Jerusalem Institute about a year ago, their dialogue turned into a multidisciplinary seminar with a focus on the exploration of haredi [ultra-orthodox] sector in Israel. Their aim was to explore this topic through a new kind of prism. “We realized,” recalls Asaf Malchi, who coordinates the seminar, “that though there is quite a number of studies that deal with this unique sector of society, it has never actually been approached as an academic topic per se. we wanted to create a forum in which a rich and fruitful dialogue could be held between researchers and experts who deal with the haredi sector in their professional lives – and they cover many fields of interest. This was our starting point, and it has certainly strengthened and developed over this year." 

The Jerusalem Institute is in fact something of a pioneer in this field, having undertaken its first research project on the subject in the 1980s (conducted by Profs. Menachem Friedman and Joseph Shilhav) and more in the years that followed. This innovative approached has continued into the 21st century – in the last decade JIIS has published numerous studies exploring haredi aspects of the economy, employment, environment, and education. These studies served as the basis of policy papers that were presented to decision makers and other key figures and many of the recommendation were implemented by the government. 

It was in this context that the seminar began. The research yielded such an array of information – and generated many additional questions – that a decision was made to hold periodic meetings and deepen the exploration of this broad topic.  

Malchi notes that this parallels the growing public and scholarly interest in research on the haredi sector in Israel and the Diaspora in the last decade. “It is difficult to ignore the changes that are underway in this sector. Haredis, and their many streams, have an increasingly significant place in the different public arenas, ranging from the labor market and higher education to modes of communication and housing. They are influencing trends on consumerism, leisure, culture and places of entertainment. The public and government interest in this sector and its value did not escape the academic world, where today one can find tens of studies in many disciplines on the haredi community and its rich history.” 

The aim of the seminar was to strengthen and develop research “in a productive and interdisciplinary way, to create a forum for dialogue between researchers and to allow this sector to become better known as an academic topic. The next goal was to try and influence decision makers on topics relevant to the public discourse. An additional outcome of the seminar is that our meetings have allowed a dialogue to develop between researchers and different haredi institutions and to assist in the formulation of new research in this range of fields.” 

Today there are some 20 researchers – academics and experts – who are partners to the forum. Eight sessions were held over the last year, addressing such topics as philosophy and history, housing and geographic distribution, characteristics of Sephardi haredis [that is, ultra-orthodox Jews of North African and Middle Eastern background], attitudes of the labor market toward haredis, and changes in the haredi education system. 

“We wanted to conduct research influence government policy in a way that would, in turn, facilitate the integration of haredis into the workforce, in the economy and other frameworks, and of course to contribute to the literature on this fascinating and broad topic.” 

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