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How Much Do You Know About Ultra-Orthodox Jews?

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Fact Box
By - Tom Heneghan
Religion Editor- Reuters
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An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks on a street in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood. (Reuters)

Exemptions from military service and state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox Jews have become a divisive political issue in Israel, where the government must decide on a new law by August to ensure more of them serve in the army.

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim (Hebrew for “those who tremble (before God)”), have gone from being a tiny minority in Israel’s mostly secular society to its fastest-growing sector, now about 10 percent of the 7.8 million population.

Here are some facts about the ultra-Orthodox:

Main Groups: The ultra-Orthodox, the most conservative of all streams of Judaism, are a diverse movement made up mainly of three overall groups:

- Lithuanians or Litvaks are Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews from what is now Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Poland. Deeply traditional, their intellectual approach focuses on deep study of the Torah and their yeshivas (schools for Torah study) are widely respected.

- Hasidim are Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Russia. Their spiritual and mystical Judaism emerged in the 18th century in reaction to traditional schools such as the Lithuanian and modernizing trends developing in Europe. They are organized into dynasties headed by a charismatic leader known as their “Rebbe” (master). The largest ones are Belz, Chabad Lubavitch, Ger, Satmar and Vizhnitz.

- Sephardic Haredim are Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi descent, tracing their roots back to communities in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. They have developed distinctive rites, but many now tend to prefer Lithuanian yeshivas and even dress like the Haredim from Eastern Europe.

Dress: Ultra-Orthodox men wear black suits – sometimes with long frock coats – and white shirts. Their hats range from a 1940s-style fedora to large traditional Slavic fur hats, with subtle differences signaling different groups. They usually sport beards and side locks. Women dress modestly, with long skirts, long sleeves, high necklines and thick stockings. Married women cover their hair with wigs, scarves or hats.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys listen to their teacher at a kindergarten in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood. (Reuters)

Employment: About 60 percent of Haredi men study Torah full-time. They are exempt from military duty in Israel but also are not supposed to hold outside jobs or travel abroad. Many receive a small stipend from their Torah school, financed by state subsidies and benefactors’ donations.

Many men also get help from relatives and some work illegally on the side. Wives are often the main breadwinners, taking a variety of jobs, including teaching and working in call centers.

Location: Israel has an estimated 700,000 or more Haredim, mostly living in or around Jerusalem and a suburb of Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak. There are another 500,000 in North America, mostly in Brooklyn and a few other sites in the New York area. Small communities live in Britain, Belgium and France.

Zionism: Most Haredim are not Zionist because they say the state of Israel should wait for the Messiah, but many went to Israel to escape anti-Semitism elsewhere. One small radical faction, Neturei Karta, staunchly rejects Zionism and praises Iran and the Palestinian Hamas movement for opposing it.

Related Links:
Israel's Booming Religious Schools
Gender Segregation Sparks Israel Uproar
‘Holocaust Children’ Shock Israel

As Religion Editor, Tom Heneghan’s job is to coordinate religion news coverage with our bureaus around the world. Based in Paris, Heneghan also run our FaithWorld blog and report mostly about Christianity and Islam in Europe and related moral issues such as bioethics.

 

Since joining Reuters in 1977 in London, Heneghan has  been a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. His book Unchained Eagle: Germany after the Wall was published in 2000. In 2006, Heneghan received the European Religion Writer of the Year award.

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