Gerer Chasidic Women Sew With Love
The textile industry in Israel has almost totally collapsed due to cheaper foreign labor. Yet a group of Chasidic women in Arad who sew the uniforms of the IDF are part of a tiny local textile enterprise which is trying to beat the odds and maintain economic stability.
In a large hangar adjacent to the desert town of Arad which overlooks the Dead Sea, a small group of thirty women are busy working at the new job which they recently qualified for, as the official tailors of the IDF uniforms. The women and their husbands do not serve in the IDF as they are members of the Gur Chasidic sect, whose male members devote themselves to Torah study almost exclusively and whose females usually marry at a young age and raise large families. However this does not dampen their enthusiasm or their dedication to their new occupation, and it even adds a new dimension to their work.
"We don't enlist in the army" says Chani (a pseudonym), one of the workers, "But we pray for the welfare of the soldiers, worry about them and definitely invest time and effort for them. We even wanted to put a note with a psalm from Tehillim on it in every vest pocket, but this is not allowed according to Defense Ministry rules".
"This place is a proof that we can create unity in this country instead of divisiveness" says Udi Levi, CEO of the Netzach Yishai association, which runs the sewing workshop here as well as in Mitzpeh Ramon. "This is the meaning of this workshop: we are sewing the fabric of Am Yisrael together".
The Netzach Yishai association was founded by Yitzchak Shechter in memory of his son Captain Yishay Shechter who fell in Lebanon in 1997. The acronym of Yishay is "Yachad Shivtei Yisrael"- "Together all the Tribes of Israel", and the association seeks to achieve that unity by aiding the employment of disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society. The city of Arad has unfortunately made headlines due to the high unemployment there. Some 300 workers have recently been laid off from various factories, a significant blow for a city of 25,000 residents.
The revamped sewing workshop has given hope to the wives of the Gerer Chasidim who wish to support their husbands but have limited employment options due to their large families and religious requirements. "I heard that there is a sewing facility here with good conditions for working mothers" says Rachel, a 36-year-old mother of eight, who doesn't stop working while she talks. "We don't have many options with the conditions we require and the employment situation is very difficult. People learned computers and accounting but there is no place for them to advance their careers. This sewing facility requires hard physical work, only women are employed here and it is devoid of negative influences and all this enables Chareidi women to contemplate working there".
On the walls of the facility there is a sign saying: "It is forbidden to tell outside the facility what is going on in the facility, who is sewing and for whom. Strictly secret!" In this place many of the IDF's uniforms are being sewn and each woman is in charge of one aspect- sleeves, necklines, buttons, armpit areas etc. Some are quality controllers, who remove surplus threads, iron the uniforms. The supervisor of the facility, Shimon Logasi, estimates that the facility can produce 200 uniforms a day, about 4000 a month, although at present it is still less than that.
Many women had worked in other kinds of employment beforehand. Chani (24) had been involved in special education and was skeptical about taking a job which required sitting for long periods. "I am feisty by nature, I didn't want to turn into a chair" she smiles. However her trial period was a pleasant surprise. "I enjoy it and have great fun. The supervisor's personal involvement gives me the will and motivation to continue. I am not working with a brick wall, there is someone there to talk to. The atmosphere is wonderful here: We have a great time together, we communicate and help each other. If we here that somebody isn't feeling well or was up late with her child, we take that into consideration".
Regarding the work itself she says: "We check even the finest details and sometimes resew and fix if it was even a millimeter off, as every millimeter is important".
Batsheva (36) came to visit even though she is on maternity leave for her ninth child. "Every day I think about the sewing workshop, I can't get it off my mind", she confesses. "It is truly my home and even my kids feel my real attachment to the place. I arrive home happy and with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, since I am using the talents I received from G-d to do what I like and also bringing home a livelihood".
When the tailors are asked what they feel about their biggest customer, the IDF, they stress that they received Rabbinic approval for their work and that they are very proud of the task they have been entrusted with. The soldiers who will receive clothes from this factory will also receive the many prayers which are said while they are stitching. "When I work, I think about the fact that this shirt may be worn by a soldier going into battle" says Chani. "I don't know where he will go but at least he will have had many prayers on his shirt before it was even made".
"You are helping the IDF with your capabilities" adds Batsheva, who normally operates a machine which strengthens the various parts of the clothes. "Our husbands protect the soldiers by learning Torah and we pray for them, think about them and say Tehillim for them. This is our way of helping them. I put all of my efforts into the work so that each soldier should have the highest quality uniform without any defects, which will not get torn or tattered. The best and most precise merchandise comes out of here, so that they should feel good with what they wear. We care about them and we do the work with all our hearts". Others pray while they are working that the soldiers should return in peace and that Hashem should guard them so that "no blood will be spilt on this uniform".
The textile industry is not economically viable in an era where tariffs have been abolished and foreign countries can provide much cheaper labor than in Israel. Yet a landmark law which was passed in the Knesset in 2010 and labeled "the Defense Textiles Law" states that the Defense Ministry must give preference to local textile companies when ordering uniforms. The police, prison authority and fire departments must also favor the local industries when they are up to 50% more expensive than foreign alternatives. This law saved some of the textile workers and rejuvenated the sewing workshop in Arad, which succeeded in getting authorization as an army supplier in 2014, after the Yishay association took charge of it.
The Chareidi women were recruited to facilitate the work as because of their unique situation and requirements they are willing to work for less pay. They are all mothers and finish working at 2:30 every day so that they can attend to their children, and there are also many on maternity leave at any given time. Despite this they do their best to work efficiently and meticulously. They certainly will not take breaks to joke around with their bosses as this would be against their personal beliefs. Yet they still manage to maintain a correct relationship with the secular supervisor and with the owner who is from the Religious Zionist sector. In this way the fabric of Israeli society is strengthened- as well as the fabric of the army uniforms.
For Yitzchak Shechter the founder of Yishay, this is a dream come true: He is so proud that his son's name features on the army's shirts and that those sewing those names are local Jewish women. He is delighted with the Chasidic women he employs and his latest enterprise is to set up a kindergarten in memory of his wife who passed away recently, who was a kindergarten teacher for many years. The kindergarten will be situated adjacent to the factory and in this way will ease the burden of the women who will be able to work with their children nearby. Once again Yishay is enabling everyone to be "Yachad Shivtei Yisrael"- Together the Tribes of Israel".