by Dan Ephron, Newsweek, January 2, 2012
Modiin Illit [is] home to about 60,000 Haredim, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Built in the 1990s to help solve the housing shortage for ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and elsewhere, it’s one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities. “Families here have 10 or more children, on average,” says Yehiel Sever, a spokesman for the community. The city winds along the slopes of several hills and has a synagogue or seminary on almost every block. What it noticeably lacks: parks and playgrounds. Nearly all of Modiin Illit’s residents, because of their low income, qualify for a 90 percent discount in city taxes, Sever says, making it difficult for the municipality to build public facilities or fund services.
The pace of growth in the city is significant not just because it helps perpetuate the poverty. Modiin Illit is actually a West Bank settlement, about a mile inside what Palestinians regard as the territory of their future state. In recent years, Modiin Illit and another Haredi city, Beitar Illit, have become the most populous settlements in the West Bank. And their large numbers lend increasing weight to the argument that the settler population is just too big for Israel to contemplate ceding the West Bank. “This area is so close to the green line,” says Avraham Kroizer, a resident, referring to the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. “It will never be given back.”
Kroizer, who is 33 and a rabbi, sees the secular angst regarding Haredim as mostly a case of cultural misunderstanding. He says ultra-Orthodox Jews contribute to Israeli society by raising Torah scholars, whose numbers vastly diminished in the Holocaust. “Studying Torah helps protect the Jewish people no less than serving in the Army,” he says. Kroizer’s three sons, like other Haredi youngsters, spend 70 percent of their school day on Torah and Talmud, and 30 percent on “secular studies”—math, history, and grammar (but no English and little science). After eighth grade, the students focus solely on religion. He hopes his boys will remain in seminary throughout their adult lives, but if they decide to enter the workforce, they could close the gaps with their secular brethren by taking adult education classes.
But Haredim are so cloistered, it’s hard to see how they could ever catch up. Kroizer says no one at Modiin Illit owns a television and few residents have computers. This past summer an entrepreneur persuaded rabbis in the city to allow him to open a cybercenter—three computers in a small room above a dingy shopping strip—where customers can access the Internet for about $5 an hour. The computers are reasonably new, but the Internet is filtered through a server that blocks access to all but a few dozen websites—mostly on religious instruction and family services. A search for news sites yielded just one hit—Haredi Jewish Daily News. Wikipedia and Yahoo came up as dead links. “It’s kosher Internet,” the woman behind the counter told me apologetically. “It’s very limited.”