Underground in Bnei Brak, a densely packed ultra-Orthodox Jewish city in central Israel, 23-year-old Eliyahu lives with his wife and daughter in a converted parking garage. There is no sunlight or cell phone service in their two-bedroom apartment, and the rent is not cheap for 3,200 sec ($ 945) per month. But Eliyahu is not thinking about moving.
“My job is here, my wife̵
With an average of seven children per. Women are ultra-Orthodox Jews Israel’s fastest growing demographic, and the cramped neighborhoods and close proximity they live in have made them the country’s largest coronavirus victims. In Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, like in New York, the lack of string social distance from some orthodox Jews – whose lives revolve around family, community meetings, and religious services – has hit them hard.
The pandemic has strongly brought society’s long-standing housing crisis to the fore, marked by rising prices and limited supply. While many ultra-Orthodox Jews, concentrated in the center of the country, are reluctant to move, the virus crisis could potentially spur a population shift that has the potential to restore Israel’s periphery.
“It could have such an effect,” said Eitan Regev, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, adding that lockdowns could already motivate some people to relocate. “It’s much harder for such large families to be locked inside such small houses.”
Although only 12% of Israel’s population are called the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox in Hebrew, accounted for 40% of all new Covid-19 cases in early October. The two Haredi centers in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have the most cases in any city in Israel and at least twice as many as the secular Tel Aviv metropolis.
“Congestion puts them at much higher risk,” said Hagai Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University and president of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “It is not only inside the house, it is also in the building and in the neighborhood. It is very crowded so you are bound to be exposed to others. ”
The community is concentrated in the center of Israel because this is where its rabbinic institutions and cultural life are. Real estate that is expensive and the poverty of the ultra-Orthodox Jews complicates their pursuit of better housing. Half of society’s men are not in the labor force and spend their days studying religious texts, while women work in less lucrative areas such as education.
The poor transportation and job opportunities of the periphery and the distance from the larger community make Orthodox Jews reluctant to relocate. Still, the virus makes things difficult.
“Living with so many people together and all, it’s almost impossible to control the situation,” said Nechemia Steinberger, senior director of the non-profit organization Kemach Foundation, which secures jobs for the ultra-Orthodox.
If and when parts of society move, 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 purchases are mostly made in existing cities with secular majorities rather than in new cities for Haredim, it could trigger social tensions, he said.
The political influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties has grown along with their population, giving them central government ministries, such as Housing. The relationship is strained with some secular Israelis protesting against haredi control over issues such as marriage or public transportation on the Sabbath.
Haredimerne has bought property in the periphery and doubled purchases there to more than 40% over the last few decades. Many are investments made by young couples who want to own a house but who cannot afford the expensive center. But as their families grow, a major migration can begin.
“I have said for 30 years that we are going to the periphery. Why? Because, God bless, our society is growing, ”said Moshe Lebowitz, the founding mayor of an ultra-Orthodox West Bank system called Beitar Illit. “From a health point of view, from the point of view of building normal institutions, it is impossible to build in the center any longer.”
New cities exclusively for the community have been built or are in the planning phase. To the south, Lebowitz is an advisor to one such city called Kasif, which he says is in the final planning phase and could begin construction within about a year.
“At least two more Haredi cities are needed in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Yitzhak Pindros, a lawmaker for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party. “This is something that can dramatically change what is happening in Israel.”