New Haredim – progressive ideals in the ultra-Orthodox community


Pnina Pfeuffer                                                                         Ruth Klein


Growing up in Jerusalem, Pnina Pfeuffer dreamed about building homes for the starving African children she saw in Time magazine pictures. The daughter of an ultra-Orthodox family whose parents hailed from Brooklyn and Minneapolis, she grew up with a sense of responsibility for others and the belief that she can make a difference.

Now, at age 31, Pnina is working to spread NIF values among the 1-million-strong ultra-Orthodox community.

“With NIF we shared the values of civic activism, equality and justice,” Pnina said in an interview this week. “We want to bring these values into our community for the benefit of both the Haredi community and the state of Israel.”

Pnina works with other activists with training from Shatil and funding from the New Israel Fund to establish the New Haredim organization. This group aims eventually to bring together under one umbrella organization all efforts and NGOs working for progressive ideals in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Extensive mapping by Shatil organizer Ruth Klein revealed an estimated 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis have adopted many habits of modern Israeli life by earning an income outside the home (not only studying like most ultra-Orthodox men do), entering academia and using the internet. This research began after leaders of this group, including Michal Zernowitski, the first-ever ultra-Orthodox candidate to run with the Labor party, Haredi journalist Eli Bitan and Pnina, met with the NIF grants department to discuss their vision and goals.

To launch the work of the New Haredim, Shatil helped Pnina organize a kickoff event of those who wish to help lead the organization. This meeting of 15 activists in November in Jerusalem helped them get acquainted with each other and find common ground on their goals. They also met NIF President David Myers and NIF grants department director, Yuval Yavneh.

It was clear from the beginning that the New Haredim activists share the NIF values of equality, transparency and closing the gaps between rich and poor.

“One of our long-term goals is to establish a public education system for the ultra-Orthodox” that is overseen by the Education Ministry, Pnina said. Currently Haredi education is semi-private with insufficient teaching in core subjects like English and math, rampant discrimination and poor wages for teachers. The final result, for high school graduates, is that they need additional education in the form of government programs to enter the labor market and avoid joining the ranks of poor ultra-Orthodox families that have no bread winner.

“This struggle, for a state Haredi educational system, cannot be one undertaken only by Haredi activists such as myself,” Michal says in a TED lecture, which can be viewed here. “It needs to be one of the whole country. It needs to be part of the platform of every political party that cares about social equality and closing social gaps.” Michal is also a fellow in the NIF-grantee Berl-Katznelson Foundation’s leadership development program, Derech.

Now Pnina meets with Ruth to begin building the foundations of the budding organization including a theory of change, work plan, a budget and a long-term strategy.

“We are really returning to our core work at Shatil with the New Haredim,” Ruth said. “Funding alone doesn’t build a movement. … I really help them become self-sustaining and develop them into an umbrella organization that will lead Haredi civil society with the values of equality, tolerance and democracy.”

As the only employee of the New Haredim, Pnina has a lot on her hands and no other staff with whom to share dilemmas. That’s where Shatil comes in. “Ruth pushes me because she’s a real go-getter and doesn’t let me rest for a minute,” Pnina says, also commending Shatil consultant Milana Yaari whose idea it was to organize the kickoff event. “I’m the only employee and they are acting as my team all the time.”

For Ruth, who comes from a religious background, the work with Pnina has had more than professional rewards.

“I know this community well,” said Ruth. “It gives me great hope to work with them. Together we work for progressive values.”

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December 2019