Program Helps Ultra-Orthodox Branch out into Wider Israel

In a series of ironic twists, a Muslim tour guide led a group of 20 ultra-Orthodox Jews last week on a tour of Nazareth, the boyhood hometown of Jesus and a modern day Israeli Arab city.

The ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – Jews were on this tour as part of a program designed to integrate Haredi Jews into Israeli society by exposing them to parts of the country they may never have seen before.

In Nazareth’s Old City the Haredim drew stares since religious Jewish men and women are rather uncommon in the mostly Muslim city. Though Nazareth is a regular stop on many tours, Christians are usually more interested in visiting the city where Mary was told by an angel she would give birth to the Messiah and where Jesus was raised as a boy.

These ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, were graduates of Haredim l’Medina, Ha’aretz reported. The program, sponsored by the Molad Institute, the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, endeavors to help ultra-Orthodox Jews interested in making social and political change gain insight into other aspects of society.

The ultra-Orthodox community tends to be closed with members rarely venturing out into secular Jewish neighborhoods let alone Christian or Muslim ones. Men typically study Torah rather than work and children attend Haredi schools. Women are usually the breadwinners of the family.

On this particular tour, they weren’t the only ones learning something new. Their Muslim tour guide, Ibrahim, discovered that ultra-Orthodox Jews are prohibited from entering churches, for which Nazareth is famous, and they refused to taste the local sweets, such as baklava, because of kosher laws.

But the point of their visit to Nazareth was not exposure to Christianity but a chance to connect with Israel’s Arab minority. Pnina Pfeuffer arranged the itinerary including a discussion with local representatives regarding workplace issues

“The Haredi and Arab communities face many similar obstacles in the workforce,” she said.

Both groups are among the poorest sectors in Israeli society, families tend to large with only one working parent and neither serve in the army. Consequently they are often ostracized in the workplace and overlooked for promotions.

“I’ve always said we should gang up and form a political party together,” Tareq Shehadeh, the director of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association, joked during his talk with the group.

Dr. Rana Zaher, a lecturer in linguistics and a representative of the Communist Party on Nazareth’s city council, described socioeconomic challenges facing Israeli Arabs including overcrowded neighborhoods and schools, corruption in local government and limited employment opportunities.

“That was a great presentation about the Haredi community, but I thought we came here to learn about Arab society,” one of tour groups members quipped.

Though the tour members were undoubtedly ultra-Orthodox, they represent a small percentage of the Haredi population. The group was comprised of advocates, business people and some even considered themselves politically left-wing or even Communist. But for almost all of them, it was their first time to Nazareth.