Are Israeli Jews Becoming More Secular?
Author: 16-05-2018

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What will the religious makeup of the Israeli population look like in the coming decades? This question is at the center of public discourse in Israel and is important in determining the economic, ideological and security-oriented future of the country.

According to the projections of the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi population will compose about 50% of the Jewish population in Israel by 2059. However, this assessment does not take into account the movement between different sectors over time.

A new Taub Center study conducted by Prof. Alex Weinreb and Nachum Blass examines trends in religious mobility among Israeli Jews, as reflected by the movement of students between sectors in the education system, and finds that the bulk of the movement is towards less religious streams. The study shows that, if religious mobility is taken into account, the share of the Haredi population in 2059 is expected to be much lower – around 35%.

The study calls attention to the fact that the number of students in the State education system is 5.9% larger than would be expected on the basis of fertility rates in each sector, while the State-religious education system is 8.2% smaller than expected, and the Haredi system is 7.7% smaller.

In recent years, there has been much public debate about the level of religiosity of the Jewish population in Israel. There are those who claim that secular Jews are on the verge of extinction, and others who claim that religious populations – including Haredim – are undergoing accelerated secularization.

A new Taub Center research study by Prof. Alex Weinreb and Nachum Blass seeks to examine the issue by tracking mobility trends in Israel’s education system between 2001 and 2015, rather than the common approach of turning to the social survey. The researchers postulate that trends in the Jewish education system, which is divided into religious streams, are a fairly reliable representation of trends that are taking place in the society at large.

The study determines the number of students in first grade according to religious stream (type of supervision, according to Ministry of Education terminology), and compares this to their expected number given fertility rates in the various religious population groups, and to the number transferring between schools of different types of supervision between 1st and 8th grades.

The findings show that the State education system is expanding beyond what would be expected, in contrast to a reduction in the State-religious and Haredi streams. The main reason for this is greater movement from more religious streams to the State education system than movement in the opposite direction.

The Haredi population grew at the fastest rate, but growth was lower than expected

Weinreb and Blass examine the increase in the number of 1st graders enrolled in each education stream, and compare it to the expected increase in the number enrolled on the basis of fertility rates in each sector.

As expected, the number of students in the Haredi education stream increased at the fastest rate between 2001 and 2015: from about 16,700 1st graders to about 28,000. The number of students in the State-religious stream increased from about 15,000 to about 21,500 during the same period, and in the State education stream there was an increase from about 45,000 to about 62,500 students.

While the increase in the number of students in the State-religious education stream is consistent with fertility trends during the period, in the Haredi sector they were only consistent until 2012; from 2013-2015, the number of students in this stream was about 7.5% lower than expected given fertility rates. On the other hand, in the State education system, the number of 1st graders was higher than expected, with the annual increase in the number of students reaching more than 2%.

It is important to note that, due to reasons such as higher accessibility (particularly in the periphery) and an affinity for religious tradition, an unknown share of students in the Haredi education system come from homes with a weaker religious affiliation than their school – and excluding such students would make the gap between the expected number of students in the Haredi system and their actual number even greater.

Weinreb and Blass write that the discrepancy between projections and reality can be explained by several developments, including the bolstering of the State education system through both the substantial increase in women of childbearing age from the Former Soviet Union and the integration of immigrant and Arab Israeli children into the system.

Nonetheless, a large part of the phenomenon stems from changes in the religious orientation of students and their families, which is reflected in student transfers between education streams.

Projected versus actual 1st grade enrollment in the non-Arab education sector

Movement between education streams from 1st to 8th grades: the Haredi education system loses more students than the State system

The study follows students who were born between 1992 and 2003 and records which religious education stream they belonged to at the beginning of the research period (1st grade) and at the end (8th grade). The data show that almost 98% of the students who attended State schools in 1st grade remained in this stream in 8th grade. The vast majority of those who left the stream transferred to a State-religious school, and only 0.4% transferred to a Haredi school.

In the State-religious and Haredi schools, the magnitude of the change is greater. The share of those leaving the State-religious education stream was about 20% of girls and 25% of boys.

Most of these students transferred to the State education system, and only a few completed the research period in Haredi schools. About 11% of girls and 13% of boys left the Haredi education system. 6.5% transferred to the State-religious system and about 4.5% transferred to the State system – a share 11 times higher than those who transferred from the State to the Haredi system.

Transfers between the streams indicate a slowdown in the growth rate of the Haredi and religious populations

“The movement between the streams indicates a significant slowdown in the growth rate of the religious population, a slight slowdown in the growth of the Haredi population, and an end to the decline – and even a slight increase – in the growth rate of the secular population in Israel,” Taub Center researchers Blass and Weinreb explain. “It seems that large segments of the religious and Haredi populations are experiencing a decline, to various degrees, in the level of religious commitment.”

Nevertheless, the researchers note that “fertility rates among Haredim are still much higher than in the other population groups, so the share of the Haredi population is expected to continue to rise. This increase, combined with the stability or growth of the secular population – at the expense of the religious and traditional populations – creates a more religiously polarized society.”

Previous studies have shown that trends in decreased religiosity continue until 12th grade, and a total of about 15% of Haredim in each generation are expected to leave the sector. Moreover, since 1996 there has been a gap between the actual number of voters for the United Torah Judaism party and the expected number based on the natural growth rates of the Haredi population.

If these trends continue, they will have a significant impact on the future composition of Israeli society. According to the assessment of the Central Bureau of Statistics (in the medium growth scenario), which is based solely on fertility rates, for every 100 non-Haredi Jews in 2059 there will be about 50 Haredim. However, if trends in religious mobility are taken into account, for every 100 non-Haredi Jews there will be about 35 Haredim.

EN Projections 2

As stated by Taub Center Executive Director Prof. Avi Weiss: “Forecasts based on natural growth rates, which do not take other factors into account, should be treated cautiously. In addition to movement between the sectors, we must take into account that level of religiosity doesn’t necessarily reflect a particular stance on participation in the labor market, for example, and the data show that more and more Haredim are joining the labor force without rejecting their way of life.”

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute. The Center provides decision makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets and economic policy in order to impact the decision-making process in Israel and to advance the well-being of all Israelis.

For details, or to arrange an interview, please contact Anat Sella-Koren, Director of Marketing, Communications and Government Relations at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel: 050-690-9749.