Page last updated at 05:20 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 06:20 UK

Set apart for God and Torah

The BBC's Erica Chernofsky in Jerusalem gets a rare insight into the lives of members of Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Sitting on a park bench in the late afternoon, Michal Greenwald watches her children run around the playground with dozens of other kids as she takes a few minutes rest from her hectic day.

A full-time property lawyer, Mrs Greenwald is the sole breadwinner and also takes care of her four young children and tends to the housework. Her husband, Shmuel, spends his days studying in a religious seminary for men. She says she cannot imagine life any other way.

''Girls are raised this way from a young age, and such are the lives of Haredim in Israel,'' she says of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who choose to live separately from mainstream Israeli society.

It is difficult to walk the streets of Jerusalem without running into Haredim, but their community can seem isolated and closed.

The men are distinct in their long black wool coats and trousers, stark white button-down shirts and black hats, even in the heat of the Middle Eastern summer.

Living 'with a purpose'

Mrs Greenwald, 34, lives in Har Nof, an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem where absolutely everything is closed on Saturday - the Sabbath - and only kosher food is sold in shops.

Moshe Eliahu studying Torah, Jerusalem
We look different, in fact we look very weird - we dress how people used to dress 100 years ago
Moshe Eliahu
Haredi student and father

Like all Haredi women, she dresses very modestly, covers her hair with a wig or scarf and will not allow physical contact of any kind with any man other than her husband.

"Being Haredi means being someone who fears God," Mrs Greenwald says. "It means that first and foremost in life are the Torah (Bible) and keeping the mitzvoth (commandments)."

She is referring to the 613 commandments in the Bible that Jews believe were given to them by God. "Everything in my life is built around the Torah," she says.

"If I go on a trip with my family, I can't eat just anything, I can't go mixed swimming, and I'm constantly thinking 'what is the proper thing to do now?' As Haredim we don't just live, but we live with a purpose."

That purpose, as she defines it, is to fulfil the Torah and mitzvoth by bettering herself as well as the world around her, and in so doing striving to become closer to God.

It is for this reason that she proudly supports her family while her husband pursues his religious studies.

'Positive energy'

Currently Haredim make up about 10% of Israeli society, and have a less than positive reputation among secular Israelis, many of whom view their customs as primitive and disapprove of their choice to study at seminaries and thus avoid the mandatory army draft.

"It's an ancient concept in Judaism that the spiritual and the physical are united, that to win a war you need both spirit and strength," says Moshe Eliahu, a Haredi father of two and full-time student at a Jerusalem seminary.

"You need people fighting, but you also need people learning and praying."

According to government figures, the majority of Haredi men do not have paid jobs.

Mr Eliahu, who also earns a meagre wage working at a support centre for Haredi youth in the evenings, explains that Haredim believe that there must always be a certain amount of men learning the Jewish books in order for life, as we know it, to go on.

He is a direct descendant of the Hatam Sopher, a leading 19th Century rabbi of European Jewry and one of several key figures who were the early leaders of the various Haredi sects.

Mr Eliahu says Israel and the world need the "positive energy" that comes from learning Torah.

"This sounds funny to the western ear - what can a man learning in a yeshiva all day possibly give back to the world?" he says. "Torah learning that we do is the hidden code of the physical existence of all mankind, and if for one single second there is no Torah learning in the air, all the world would go back to chaos."

Mr Eliahu's wife, Miriam, teaches English at two Jerusalem schools and takes care of their children. "There's no point to our physical existence without a spiritual purpose, and I, as the husband who is learning all day, am primarily responsible for that," he explains.

'Defence mechanism'

He also rejects the view that Haredi gender roles are primitive. In Judaism, he says, women are actually considered to be closer to God than men. ''They are the ones who create life, they are the queens."

Dressed in classic Haredi garb, he acknowledges he stands out on the street.

''We look different, in fact we look very weird. We dress how people used to dress 100 years ago, we have long peyot (side locks), and all these things set us apart."

He explains that Haredi men dress this way as a "defence mechanism" to "protect ourselves from assimilation".

Mrs Greenwald too defines herself by her religious ideals, setting herself apart from the values of wider society.

"I don't live life for myself," she says. "My priority is my family, my home, and then my career. I can't say I desire to become a famous lawyer, or to be a millionaire.

"For us, there is a bigger picture here. We know this world is just a hallway to the real life, to the Garden of Eden."

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