ASHDOD, Israel -- Growing up as a member of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, Eli Louzoun had a life as traditional as his conservative black hat and dress. Cloistered in his yeshiva, he spent his days poring over religious texts and supported his family with a small government stipend. He never earned a high school diploma or held a job. So dedicated to his spiritual life, he shunned television, sports and exercise. He never even learned how to swim.
But these days you're more likely to find Louzoun at a swimming pool than in the yeshiva. He's a newly trained aqua therapist, a type of physical therapist specializing in water exercises to help treat patients with physical disabilities.
His journey from the yeshiva to the swimming pool is part of a quiet revolution among the haredim - or the "God fearing," as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Israel. After decades living outside mainstream Israeli society, the haredim, out of economic necessity, are joining the Israeli work force and training to become computer programmers, bus drivers, entrepreneurs, tax advisers and other professionals.
Israel's haredim could once depend on government welfare programs and stipends to support their way of life. But sharp government cutbacks to all welfare programs in recent years have forced them to look for work - in many cases, for the first time in their lives.
"There is a change in the haredi community regarding work. There is an understanding in the haredi community that they cannot rely on the government anymore," says Roni Strier, a professor of social work at the University of Haifa who studies the ultra-Orthodox community. "And there is more exposure in the haredi community to what is happening to non-haredi society. They see the cars. They see the clothes. They see people going out to dinner. They want to improve their level of life, and there are many internal pressures to open a new path."
Israel's haredim are thought to number between 600,000 to 700,000, making up roughly 10 percent of the population. With large families often dependent on government welfare, they also constitute some of the poorest members of Israeli society. About 46 percent of haredi men are employed, compared with 87 percent in the general public.
Often living apart from mainstream Israeli society in their own neighborhoods, the haredim cling to old ways of life and adhere to strict Jewish laws that govern their dress, social interactions and spiritual life.
Many secular Israelis view the haredim with scorn because they are often exempt from military service and their large families have grown dependent on government assistance.
But slowly haredi communities are changing. While haredi women have served as breadwinners, supporting their husbands' religious studies, economic realities are forcing many men to leave their yeshivas for the work force, too.
They often leave without telling friends or neighbors, afraid that they will be criticized. Some rabbis frown on the exodus of yeshiva students to the work force, afraid they will lose future religious scholars to the free market. Other rabbis privately encourage their congregations to seek employment, mindful of the extreme poverty in some families.
"There is no clear, top-down policy of allowing men to go and work. There is only silent consent," Strier said.
It was poverty that drove Louzoun to seek work two years ago. He was a 50-year-old father of five who was struggling to make ends meet after scaled-back government child allowances reduced his income to less than $300 per month.
The problem was that he had no high school degree or job skills other than his stamina for arguing over the finer points of Jewish law.
Then he heard about a new program training haredi men to become aqua therapists. Funded by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides relief and social programs for at-risk communities in Israel and throughout the world, the program was designed for men with few job skills. Louzoun was skeptical, but with no other choices, he signed up.
"Louzoun knew nothing. He was one of the weakest students," recalled Tzvi Hendeles, 33, a rabbi who organized the course.
But a year later, after a crash course on swimming instruction, biology, psychology and physical therapy, Louzoun passed his exams and started seeing patients. His income has more than doubled.
"We can buy more food. I can give my children what they need, but it's not like we are buying a new car," he said.
Trading his black overcoat, black pants and black yarmulke for a pair of gray swimming trunks, Louzoun has a growing client base in this Israeli seaside city and ambitious plans to pursue advanced degrees in his field.
"It's more than money. It opens your mind," says Louzoun, a reed-thin 52-year-old with side curls and a long, spade-shaped beard.
Still, the change has been jarring, he says.
"It's very unusual to go from the yeshiva to the water," he said during a break between therapy sessions. "It's like night and day."
Once overweight and out of shape from decades of sedentary study, Louzoun is trim and toned from his work in the pool.
"My wife doesn't recognize me," he says.
He continues to go to yeshiva when he is not working. He also hasn't strayed from the strict rules of haredi life. To avoid contact with women, he accepts only male patients and conducts his sessions at male-only pools.
His rabbi, once doubtful of his decision to go to work, now supports him.
"In the beginning, it was strange for him, but now he says it's a great mitzvah that I'm doing," Louzoun says.
To meet the increased demand for jobs by the haredi community, the Israeli government and the Joint Distribution Committee is investing in job centers and teaming up with companies to start other training programs. One of the newest projects will offer 21 yeshiva students high-tech training to become part of the Israeli Aircraft Industries space technologies program.
Ruben Gorbatt, who oversees the haredi employment programs for the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, estimates there are about 50,000 haredi men in the yeshivas with no job skills who would like to work.
"Every day, there are more people who want to make the change," Gorbatt says. Still, it's difficult to get employers interested in hiring men, especially those in their 30s and 40s who lack knowledge of basic science, computer skills or math.
The attraction for the employers is, in part, economic. The government and the Joint Distribution committee help fund training and pay a portion of the salaries for the employees.
Gorbatt insists that haredim offer fewer risks than other employees. The haredim don't get distracted by the Internet, which many rabbis forbid them from using, and learn to think quickly and critically because of their years in the yeshiva.
"When we try to sell them, we don't go to the employers and say, 'Be kind to us; the people need jobs.' We sell them as the best employees they can get," he said. That's the thinking at SELA, a computer company near Tel Aviv that is training its second group of haredi employees to become computer programmers and software testers.
On a recent afternoon, one of the training courses might be mistaken for a yeshiva. The 23 students, all bearded and wearing black yarmulkes, sat behind desks stacked high with books, listening intently to the lecturer. But the topic wasn't the Talmud. It was computer systems.
Shlomo Goldberg, a tall, thin, 22-year-old with long side curls, is one of SELA's success stories. Married with three children, he left the yeshiva to pursue a career two years ago mainly for financial reasons but in part because he didn't feel like spending his life in a yeshiva.
After completing a training course a year ago, he has gone on to become one of the company's main programmers. Once dependent on government subsidies totaling a little more than $300 per month, he now earns $1,800 per month.
"When I came here, I was surprised because I saw that not all the secular people hate us. Actually, they accepted me," Goldberg said.
Still, temptations abound in the office. The Internet is a click away, and he shares the hallways with too many young secular female employees with tight jeans and bare midriffs.
"I don't socialize with the women in the office," he says, noting that his years in the yeshiva taught him discipline. "I won't sit with them in the restaurant at lunch, either. That way, no conversation can develop."