According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, one of every four Israeli students is studying for a technology-related degree. In the Charedi seminaries, the number is likely closer to one of every two. A very high percentage of those students will find themselves in a non-Charedi work environment, making the workplace a significant meeting point between Charedim (mostly female) and general Israeli society.
I will not be discussing whether it is proper for Charedi women to cross the protective boundaries of the community and work in a non-Charedi and non-religious environment. Making such a call on a community level requires shoulders broader than mine. However, this is essentially yesterday’s debate. Charedi women are already integrated into all parts of the Israeli economy and make up a not insignificant portion of the tech sector. This is a simple fact. The question I wish to address is what position a God-fearing Charedi woman should adopt within this reality.
Already today, many Israelis encounter Charedi women in all sorts of jobs. Secular Jews who never met a Charedi person up close are likely to have their first encounter with a female colleague at work. Charedi women thus become foreign emissaries for their broader society, and their behavior at the workplace becomes critical for our image and for connecting those distant from Judaism to their heritage. What kind of Charedi woman will the Israeli public encounter? Will she be welcoming and confident or shrunken, embarrassed, and frightened?
Wall or Watchtower?
In recent years, a range of support groups has emerged to aid Charedi women challenged by the encounter with the secular atmosphere in their workplace. These groups emerge from below, bottom up. Many women see the encounter with non-Charedi society as a threat to their Torah character. These groups disseminate content that assists Charedi women in conducting themselves in a secular work environment. Their starting position is that there is enormous danger in the very occupation of a shared space. The strategy is, therefore, to create virtual walls separating Charedi workers and their environment.
These groups seek to cope with eminently understandable concerns, and I struggle with them myself as a Charedi woman in the hi-tech sector. Nevertheless, I would like to present the challenge from a different angle, which I think receives insufficient attention in the public discourse on the issue. Instead of presenting the workplace as a valley of death that Charedi women must navigate in perpetual fear and adopt ever-intensifying mechanisms for distancing themselves mentally and emotionally, the struggle can be seen as an opportunity for building—for striking roots in the wider world and discovering that life in a non-Charedi environment, while not free of concerns, can be replete with deep meaning and contentment. The secular world is not that shiny and attractive; mainly, it offers chaos. So why the lack of confidence? Given preparation, the encounter with the outside world should be a welcome one for the mature Charedi woman, who can bring tremendous benefit to her new environment. Why live with the feeling that our worldview is so fragile that every light wind could knock it down? Can we not face the world with an appreciation of the great light we know we possess?
Some will argue that better safe than sorry. Establishing mental and emotional walls will isolate the Charedi woman and prevent foreign influences from breaking through, while the approach I suggest may harm weaker women who lack the inner courage and resolve and who could end up losing their way in a confusing environment. However, this argument misses the bigger picture, focusing on a limited and personal angle and losing the broader social perspective.
The more significant consequences of a separatist and half-traumatized approach go far beyond the question of preventing a friendly conversation between a given Charedi woman and her work colleague. It influences the image of the Charedi community, creating a shaky sense of self for working Charedi women, thus harming her public image and her emotional resilience. More importantly, it misses a rare chance for a real encounter with people who have never observed Shabbos (halachically) in their life, hardly know anything about the Jewish calendar, and know little about the Jewish family or the emotional, value-based, and Torah-driven richness that Jewish education provides. Instead, they get the impression that Jewish education creates weak, odd, and spineless creatures.
Let me share a personal experience of such a relationship with a work colleague, somebody very distant from the richness of deep Jewish experience. Before Rosh Hashanah, I sent her a brief missive on the essence of the Shofar. On a personal note that only close friendships can allow, I added that it is worthwhile for her to hop to the nearest shul and hear a Shofar blowing. I didn’t preach or say it condescendingly, but out of genuine care for her and a deep belief that it was good and worthwhile for her to do so. She answered me that she was excited to tears and would go to hear the Shofar. This is a small but significant example of the positive influence such a relationship can create.
By contrast, a scared and anxious woman, shrunken and sullen, will find it challenging to radiate light and connection to her environment. Her unwillingness to engage in the encounter, albeit due to real and sincere desires to avoid secular influences, could lead the Charedi female worker to behave unnaturally and turtle-like, sometimes coming off as fully anti-social. In one instance I witnessed a new Charedi employee entirely ignore the “welcome and good luck” introduction she received upon entering a new position. I think (and hope) this remains an extreme and exceptional example, but it remains in line with the mistakes and misjudgments that a lack of preparation can cause.
Moreover, I suspect this self-cloistering is not solely due to fear of Heaven but often about remaining in one’s comfort zone. We feel at home within a society that understands our lingo. We are secure and confident where our jargon is the same, alongside our conceptual worlds, range of quotations, acronyms, etc. All these broadcast a comfortable sense of home. Closing oneself off when we exit this comfort zone is a natural reaction. A person thus still feels protected, dismissing the outside world and the need to deal with the discomfort of integrating into an environment replete with new codes and cultural baggage. However, this natural response is not necessarily the right one, even from a religious perspective. If you meet a non-Charedi woman at work who desires friendship, perhaps think twice before distancing yourself. As part of my work, I encountered women who were quite offended by the social and ideological standoffishness of their Charedi colleagues and considered it bad form and etiquette.
The Rambam teaches that a central part of the Mitzvah of loving God is that God’s name should be sanctified before others. The Talmud highly praises a Torah scholar who conducts himself in a way that sanctifies Hashem: “Great is his father who taught him Torah, great are his teachers who taught him Torah” (Yoma 86a). Being welcoming, friendly, and cultivating relationships are core to such conduct. I do not mean that a Charedi woman needs to cut corners to find favor in the eyes of others. On the contrary, insisting on principles in a pleasant and non-threatening way usually leads to respect and appreciation. However, the genuine service of Hashem renders a person beaming rather than gloomy. A heartfelt and unmediated encounter of Charedi women with the general public has profound potential for bringing people together. Charedi women in the Israeli economy can be the ambassadors that the Charedi world so needs. Are we not missing a cherished opportunity by examining this situation from a local and personal perspective alone?
I look with pride and amazement at those women who work hard to sustain their households. Strength and faith in their cause are reflected in their commitment to serve as breadwinners and even in efforts to create an appropriate work environment: filtered Internet, a female work environment, and so on (wherever possible). These women have a stable backbone and a well-paved path on which they educate and shape the next generation. Can we not trust them a little, allowing them to set aside their anxious state of mind and foster pearls of female wisdom that could work wonders, taking this complex situation a step forward as a rare mission at this moment?
A secular woman sitting next to a Charedi woman could be thirsting for faith, meaning, deep content, Divine truth—a genuine thirst for the word of Hashem and a path of justice and morality in a confused and conflicted world. Why not try to satiate her thirst? Women, in particular, can bridge significant cultural gaps. Talks about children, pregnancies, and births make them quick friends. When a Charedi woman comes to this friendship with absolute confidence and a desire to give, she will quickly radiate her rich world of values to her surroundings.
Observing the Ways of Her Home
I do not dismiss the explosive potential of the encounter with the secular world. Western secular culture is dangerous and confusing; seminary (Charedi high school) graduates go into the working world with very few tools for dealing with the general public—its values, ideas, and culture—and after hearing many hair-raising stories about it. In reality, they usually encounter attentive people who wish to hear about the society they come from and are thirsty to learn about the Jewish world they bring. Sadly, instead of coming with tools and values and the means to fill the secular void, many women present themselves as fearful and lacking confidence, convinced that someone is about to assail and demolish their religious convictions. Meeting decent and friendly people only makes things more complex and confused, starting a chain reaction that strengthens their need to distance and separate.
The approach I suggest thus requires appropriate preparation. It needs to serve as a wake-up call for girls’ seminaries to build, deepen, and hone the messages and content to which they expose our girls. The standard fare of lectures on modesty and building a Torah home, vital as they might be, are not enough. Our Torah library is full of life-shaping content, providing answers to the most complex of questions and inspiring us to apply them even to the new dilemmas of our reality—and this is what our girls need. If we are sending them to the battlefield (which we are), then we must give them heavy artillery. The simplistic instruction to “build walls around you” will not work and, as noted above, involves a terrible missed opportunity. We need women to build themselves up, bringing themselves closer to Torah, tapping into its inner meaning and unending depth.
The Charedi woman today is exposed to content of a high intellectual caliber, and the Jewish content she acquires needs to equal and even surpass it. Of course, this challenge requires us to face the questions common to our generation—issues of feminism, equality, religion and state, and the Jewish approach to the broad spectrum of public matters in Israel. Doing so requires tools of thought, significant knowledge, and deep background. However, the truth is that these issues have already penetrated our walls, and these tools would be of great use internally and externally. We need to provide our girls (and boys) with such weighty materials so that they can turn them into tools for spreading light as mothers and working women.
We would do well to provide our girls with mature tools of thought sooner rather than later. They should first encounter such issues at school (alongside the home) rather than on the street, browsing the Internet, or at their workplace. This will give them the confidence to build their homes on Torah foundations and even to project the light of their homes to the public domains they are destined to occupy.
Photo: MILNER MOSHE, le’am.