Who are the Haredim?
by Brian Crawford
Haredim is a term that refers to the ultra- Orthodox, the most obviously religious within the Jewish community. On the streets of Brooklyn, when we ask Haredim to describe themselves, they often say they practice “Torah Judaism.” This positive definition asserts that the Haredim practice a form of Judaism that tries to remain separate from the influences of modern and secular life. Sometimes the Haredim appear to be living in a time capsule of nineteenth-century Europe of “bygone” past, but for this community, the past was a time when Jewish people cherished faith, kept the Jewish law (Torah), and honored traditional values.
The modern era, starting with the Enlightenment in the early eighteenth century, transformed Jewish life in dramatic ways. In the mid-1700s, most European Jews had been living in ghettos for centuries, either forcibly restricted to live in the Jewish quarter of cities or in the vast Russian/ Polish countryside ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement (and depicted in the film Fiddler on the Roof). As the Enlightenment swept through Europe, governments started emancipating their Jewish populations, freeing them from the ghettos, and enabling them to enter professions, universities, and general society like never before. With this newfound freedom and social mobility, many Jews began to see acculturation and involvement in Gentile society at large as the means to move up the social ladder and have a better quality of life. Maintaining traditional Jewish religion and customs posed many practical obstacles in achieving this goal. Thus, there radiated from Germany and Western Europe a new way of Jewish life: Reform Judaism, which attempted to modernize Judaism by denying or changing aspects of the old ways to fit modern sensibilities.
The Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment, which comes from the Hebrew word sekhel or sense, reason, or intellect) swept through European Jewish society throughout the eighteenth century. The examples of Jewish “progress” in Western Europe posed a cautionary tale for traditional Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe, serving as prime examples of forbidden assimilation into Gentile society, and the abandonment of Torah.
In response, the Yiddish-speaking Jewish people of Eastern Europe began denouncing Reform Judaism for its rationalism and departure from Torah. In addition, to protect their communities from the spread of the Enlightenment, the Eastern European rabbis forbade innovations or changes to religious practice and lifestyle. By freezing their practice into pre-Haskalah forms, the Haredim were born. They described themselves with a Hebrew word that announces that they “tremble at the word of God,” as opposed to (and in their estimation) Reform Jews, who neglected the Judaism of their fathers. We often use the terms, “ultra- Orthodox” or “religious” Jews to describe this group as well.
Today, the major population centers of Haredi Jews are Israel (one million) and the greater New York City area (more than three hundred thousand). The freedom and large numbers of like-minded Jewish people in these areas allow the Haredim to rebuild what had been destroyed in the Holocaust. The Haredim see it as their moral duty to have large families in honor of those who perished. Therefore, the fertility rate for Haredi women in Israel is 6.9 children and 5.5 in New York. 1
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is distinguished by their dress. Although each subgroup has its own conventions, in general, the men wear yarmulke (head covering) and tzitzit (the corner fringes mentioned in Deuteronomy 12:12 and Numbers 15:38 meant to evoke observance of the commandments). The Haredi men wear long black coats and hats year-round while the women wear long sleeves and long skirts, as they believe women should dress modestly. The men usually let their peyot (sidecurls) grow long according to their interpretation of not cutting the corners of one’s beard, although some tuck them behind their ears (Leviticus19:27). The men can often be seen briskly walking to the shul (synagogue) for the thrice- daily prayers, which last for roughly forty-five minutes. The women stay home and care for the children who are sent to Jewish private schools to learn the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. Many Haredim speak Yiddish at home. 2
Very few Haredim have televisions in the home, and some do not use smart phones because of the temptations they pose to worldly and foreign thought. Many may use computers for business, far less for pleasure, and most install Haredi-produced Internet blockers to protect from outside influences. Very few attend secular universities since non-Jewish studies are modern distractions from Jewish practice and are potentially dangerous. More than anything, Haredim want to focus on rebuilding a flourishing Jewish society centered on religious study and practice.
Haredi Jews are among the most unreached people groups in the entire world. Many Jewish people have emotional and spiritual barriers set up against the message of Yeshua, but with the Haredim, the barriers are multiplied. With the Haredim, we have linguistic barriers, dress barriers, barriers of mysticism, in-grown communities, and barriers of education and modernity. If a Haredi Jew comes to faith in Yeshua, he or she is expelled from the community, most likely divorced and separated from their children and work-place. Even so, merely communicating the gospel to the Haredim is one of the most significant obstacles. Our highly successful Internet evangelism campaigns cannot reach a Haredi community that shuns the use of the internet. Street evangelism teams and door-to-door missionaries are run out of the neighborhood. Evangelistic materials in the mail are thrown in the garbage before entering the home. Service projects by outsiders are shunned since the community takes care of their own.
Your Mission to the Jewish People has been sharing the gospel with ultra-Orthodox Jewish people since our beginning in 1894. Our founder, Leopold Cohn grew up in a Haredi home in Hungary. We continue to have a deep burden for the Haredim to know Yeshua as their Messiah.
Would you pray for the salvation of the Haredim, and for the work of Chosen People Ministries as we intensify our efforts to understand and interact with them? Pray for our missionaries in Brooklyn and Israel who are around Haredi Jewish people every day. Our staff needs courage, creativity, and divine appointments. Pray for the perseverance and protection of Haredi secret believers who are following Yeshua in silence while hoping for ways to save their non-believing families. Above all, pray that the name of Jesus may be magnified in the hearts of the Haredim, and that the Lord’s remnant of Haredi Jews will expand with a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit.