Below ground level in Bnei Brak, a densely packed ultra-Orthodox Jewish city in central Israel, Elijah, 23, lives with his wife and daughter in a converted garage. There is no sunlight or cell phone in their one-bedroom apartment, and the rent is not cheap at 3,200 shekels ($ 945) a month. But Elijah has no plans to move.
“My job is here, my wife̵
With an average of seven children per woman, ultra-Orthodox Jews are the fastest growing demographic in Israel, and their close neighborhoods and close proximity make them the biggest victims of the country’s coronavirus. In Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, as in New York, the lack of strict the social distancing of some Orthodox Jews — whose lives revolved around family, community gatherings, and religious services — affected them severely.
The pandemic has brought to the fore the long-standing housing crisis in the community, marked by rising prices and limited supplies. While many ultra-Orthodox Jews centered in the center of the country are reluctant to move, the viral crisis may stimulate population displacement that has the potential to reshape Israel’s periphery.
“This could have such an effect,” said Eitan Regev, a researcher at the Israel Institute for Democracy, adding that the blockades could now motivate some people to relocate. “It is much harder for such large families to stay locked in such small houses.”
Although only 12% of Israel’s population, the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are called in Hebrew, accounted for 40% of all new Covid-19 cases in early October. Haredi’s two centers in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have the most cases of any city in Israel and at least twice as many as the secular metropolis of Tel Aviv.
“Overcrowding puts them at much higher risk,” said Haggai Levine, a professor at a Jewish university and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Doctors. “Not only in the house, but also in the building and in the neighborhood. It is very crowded, so you will definitely be exposed to others. “
The community is concentrated in the center of Israel because of its rabbinic institutions and cultural life. Real estate there is expensive, and the poverty of ultra-Orthodox Jews complicates their quest for better housing. Half of the men in the community are not in the workforce, spending their days studying religious texts, while women work in less lucrative areas such as education.
Poor prospects for transportation and work on the periphery and remoteness from the larger community make Orthodox Jews reluctant to move. Still, the virus makes things difficult.
“Living with so many people together and everything makes it almost impossible to control the situation,” said Necemia Steinberger, senior director at the Kemach nonprofit, which provides jobs for the ultra-Orthodox.
If and when parts of the community relocate, how this migration happens can have significant consequences for Israel. Regev estimates that the ultra-Orthodox will buy 200,000 apartments over the next 20 years. If the purchases are mostly in existing cities with a secular majority, instead of in new cities for the Haredes, it could cause social tensions, he said.
The political influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties grew along with their population, giving them key government ministries, such as housing. Relations have strained with some secular Israelis who oppose Haredi’s control over issues such as marriage or public transportation on Saturday.
Haredim buy property on the outskirts, doubling purchases there to more than 40% in the last few decades. Many of them are investments made by young couples who want to own a house but cannot afford the expensive center. However, with the growth of their families, a large migration may begin.
“I have been saying for 30 years that we must go to the periphery. Why? Because, God bless, our community is growing, “said Moshe Lebowitz, mayor of an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement called Beitar Illit. “From the point of view of health, from the point of view of building normal institutions, it is no longer possible to build in the center.”
New cities have been built or are being planned exclusively for the community. To the south, Lebowitz is an adviser to a town called Kasif, which he says is in the final stages of planning and could begin construction in about a year.
“There is a need for at least two more cities of Haredi in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Yitzhak Pindros, a member of the ultra-Orthodox party of the United Torah Judaism. “This is something that could drastically change what is happening in Israel.”