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Seeing up close reality of poverty for Israeli haredim

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Making the decision to leave my home and move to a foreign country was difficult.

Although I knew that it was the right for me, I was aware that it would present me with obstacles that would not have arisen had I decided to remain in Canada.

After committing to go to Israel but before I actually moved, I had assumed that my greatest challenge would be communicating with non-English speakers.

Throughout my elementary and secondary education I attended a Jewish day school, where each year I was required to take Hebrew language instruction. However, I was aware that even with all of the time spent in class and at home learning, studying, and reviewing, my Hebrew language skills were very basic.

During my first day of Israeli National Service, or Sheirut Leumi, I entered the classroom that I had been assigned to and, as I had thought, my Hebrew skills were not up to par. I struggled to communicate at even at the most basic level. What did surprise me was that learning to communicate with native Hebrew speakers turned out not to be the greatest challenge I faced. In fact, after some time, I was quite comfortable speaking in Hebrew.

What shocked me most and sparked my interest in social work was my overall experience during Sheirut Leumi. The school I worked in was made up of both students and teachers from ultra-orthodox, haredi backgrounds. I grew up in a modern Orthodox home and I had not often been exposed to those who were different from me.

I learned a great deal about the haredi community during my National Service term. I discovered that in Israel, the average number of children in a haredi family is five. I also came to learn that many men in haredi households learn full time at Kollel, making it the wife’s responsibility to provide for the family. Despite this, most of the haredi women I encountered worked as secretaries and teachers and were only earning a salary of about 30 NIS per hour. Because of this, over 60% of haredi families in Israel live in poverty, and the haredi community make up a large percentage of all Israelis living below the poverty line.

In an attempt to alleviate the difficulties that these families face, the headmaster of the school I was placed in took measures to help her students in whatever way she could. Even though the school day ended at 1 p.m., she ensured that a lunch program was in place so that no student would go hungry.

When I realized that these situations not only existed, but were common, I realized that it would be possible for me to help in some small way, and that the best way for me to do that was to pursue an education in social work.

From the start of my time at Bar-Ilan University, I again found myself in an unfamiliar situation, with my eyes being opened to new information. I was informed within the first month of studying at Bar-Ilan that according the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel as a country has one of the highest poverty rates, with approximately 21% of Israelis living below the poverty line.

While I know I will continue to face challenges along the course of my journey, I also feel now that I have a strong sense of purpose here in Israel. The prospect of being able, once I graduate, to contribute to Israeli society excites and inspires me. I know that helping the people of my country will be well worth the challenges that I will face along the way.