Haredi Jew walking in Jerusalem's Old City
Haredi Judaism is the most theologically conservative form of Judaism. Haredi Judaism is often translated as ultra-orthodox Judaism, although Haredi Jews themselves object to this translation. They simply refer to themselves as Jews, and they consider more liberal forms of Judaism to be unauthentic.
According to Haredi Jews, authentic Jews believe God wrote the Torah, strictly observe Jewish Law (halacha), and refuse to modify Judaism to meet contemporary needs. The word Haredi derives from the Hebrew word for fear (harada) and can be interpreted as "one who trembles in awe of God" (Isaiah 66:2,5).
In 18th century Europe, as many Jews were promoting a reformation of Judaism that would enable them to take advantage of new opportunities opening up to them outside of the ghetto, more conservative Jews were arguing that Judaism could not be modified in any way. These Eastern European Jews, who fought against the birth of more liberal forms of Judaism, were the founders of today's Haredi movement.
Haredim live in insular communities with limited contact to the outside world. Their lives revolve around Torah study, prayer and family. Television, films, secular publications and the Internet are not a part of their world. They tend to have their own economies, educational systems, medical services, and welfare institutions and gemachs (free loan societies for everything from money to household items). In Israel Haredi Jews are exempt from army service.
The distinctive dress of Haredi Jews helps them to define, and then insulate, their communities, as well as maintain a traditional and spiritual focus. They dress as their ancestors dressed in 18th and 19th century Europe. The men tend to wear dark suits with white shirts, and to cover their heads with black, wide-brimmed hats. The men also generally have beards and sidelocks (peyot). Women, in line with strict standards of modesty, tend to wear long skirts and shirts with long sleeves and high necklines. After the women get married, they cover their heads with either scarves, hats or wigs.
Today the largest Haredi communities are growing in Israel and the United States, and smaller Haredi communities are located in England, Canada, France, Belgium, and Australia.