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Academic World of Ultra-Orthodox Students in Israel

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s eldest daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, talks about her life project in an interview to Tali Heruti-Sover: A new kind of academia combining the highest level of teaching and still adapted to the needs of Ultra-Orthodox students. 
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men sign documents at the offices of Israel's Administration for National Civil Service in Jerusalem January 6, 2013. For the first time since the August 1 expiration of the so-called Tal Law that exempted ultra-Orthodox seminary students from military conscription, dozens of scholars signed up on Sunday for alternative civilian service which, upon completion, will entitle them to avoid the draft. Some 1,300 seminary students are slated to join the program by August 2013, or until Isra

The recent confrontation [in the week of Dec. 23] between ultra-Orthodox politician Aryeh Deri Shas and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid on Nissim Mishal’s TV interview program deeply distressed Adina Bar-Shalom, the eldest daughter of the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the founder of the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox college — The Haredi College of Jerusalem. “It was a dialogue of the deaf,” she notes, adding after a brief pause: “Every time I am interviewed, I say that, although I have the privilege of being the daughter of one of the most revered rabbis of our time, I am not a political person. However, here I am talking politics. Well, it went like that (and she goes on to present a free rendition of the TV confrontation — T.H.-S.): Yair Lapid says: 'You don’t have any core studies in your school system,’ and Aryeh Deri counters: ‘The curriculum of the Shas schools includes close to one hundred percent of the core subjects.’ Evidently unconvinced, Yair Lapid argues: 'You are perpetuating ignorance,' but Deri explains that, 'Things have changed, although no one bothers to take notice of it.'”

At this point, Bar-Shalom finds it difficult to hide her frustration: “It is as if the ultra-Orthodox sector has not undergone a real transformation in the past 15 years; as if the thousands of ultra-Orthodox students and graduates have not realized that without academic education they simply cannot get ahead in life. It is as though the majority of rabbis don’t understand that to break away from the cycle of poverty, the ultra-Orthodox sector has to join the labor force and that to that end, it has to move with the times — and moving ahead means acquiring higher education and achieving an academic degree. I can understand the resentment provoked by the ultra-Orthodox sector and where it comes from,” Bar-Shalom hurries to clarify, “and I am well aware that we still have a long way to go; however, things have changed in the ultra-Orthodox community and you should recognize it. You may pass criticism, but, please, beware not to destroy what has already been gained.”

For 15 years now, Bar-Shalom has been busy trying to change reality in the ultra-Orthodox community. The Haredi College of Jerusalem, which she set up back in 2001, has 1250 students enrolled this year — 550 of them first-year students. The college offers no less than 14 tracks of study for undergraduate and graduate students in a variety of disciplines — from computer science to psychology.

The students, men and women alike, enjoy no breaks, except that they are all given a year of preparatory studies, including English and math courses at a matriculation exam level of four units of study. [Note: Ascending difficulty exams with “five units” being the most difficult.] The lecturers at the college are university lecturers teaching at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University or other Israeli higher education institutions. The courses taught at the college are no different from analogous university courses and the exams the college students are required to pass are the same as parallel university exams. The tuition fees charged by the college are equivalent to standard university tuition fees and admission requirements are similar, the only difference being the somewhat lower level required in the psychometric tests. “We do not compromise on the level of studies here,” says Bar-Shalom. “We want our graduates to be recognized for their high academic achievements.”

So what exactly is the difference? Why not study at a university?

“Because ultra-Orthodox men and women would rather not study in mixed classrooms or mingle with people in immodest attire. In our college, we have separate classes for men and women. The college is headed by a rabbi and a rebbetzin [a female religious educator], who are on hand to help the students with complex issues that, being ultra-Orthodox, they may find difficult to deal with. Thus, for instance, in the course of psychology studies the issue of social deviations is raised. We believe that the students should be presented with any references to the issue in ancient Jewish religious texts. Even the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides dealt with these issues.”

So the courses in the ultra-Orthodox college are adapted, after all  tailored to meet the needs of your students?

“Absolutely not, and I would like to stress it. Students studying social work here study exactly the same subject matter taught at any university; however, they may deal with the issues raised from an additional point of view. Our graduates are on a par with the graduates of any other university.”

And yet, they do need to do a year of preparatory studies …

“That’s true, even though the high schools the girls graduate from have core subjects included in their curriculum. With the male students, who started studying at the college about five years after its establishment, it's a little more difficult. More than 90% of girls go straight on to undergraduate studies at the college following the year of preparatory studies, as against 50%, initially, and currently 65%, among the male students.”

According to Bar-Shalom, the college provides the students with a supportive and success-oriented environment. Its annual budget stands at about 10 million shekels [nearly $2.7 million], allocated by the Council for Higher Education in Israel. It should be noted that the budget the college receives from the state is, on  average per student, relatively low compared with that granted to recognized academic institutions in Israel.

Twenty-five percent of the students at the college are awarded scholarships, funded by donations. “Most of the funds come from donors abroad; however, in the last two years we have been granted financing by sympathetic Israeli donors, as well, who realize how important the college is,” says Bar-Shalom. “We also accompany our graduates as they enter the labor market and offer them help with job placement. Ninety four percent of our graduates join the workforce. It is a huge percentage!”

And there is also a day nursery at the college. About 60 students bring their babies and infants with them. They pay 500 shekels [just about $135] per month as kindergarten fees (instead of 2000 shekels [just over $537]). “We have students here who are mothers to six or even 10 children,” Bar-Shalom boasts. ”Some of them are graduate students. I salute them every morning anew.”

As the level of education rises, birth rates generally drop. Do you think this is going to happen in the ultra-Orthodox sector as well?

“Not necessarily. Having children is deemed a religious commandment in our community, so that I don’t think that one thing will lead to the other.”

Your father founded the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas. Is the college you established an exclusive educational] institution for Sephardi Jews [of Middle Eastern origin]?

“The college is open to all trends [in Judaism]. We have students from the Ashkenazi community [Jews of European descent], Sephardi students, students associated the Lithuanian, non-Hasidic, trend and others from the Hasidic community. We welcome everyone here. No one is asking you about your allegiance to one trend or another.”

It sounds really great and still, it certainly isn’t that simple …

“No, it obviously isn’t that simple. The first group of students we started with, back in 2001, comprised 23 women who responded to ads that I published at my own expense, with my private phone number. The major rabbi who supported me was my father, which was quite a boost, but not everyone joined in. At present, most rabbis are no longer critical of the college. Some of them tacitly accept it, while others openly encourage men and women alike to opt for academic studies in the college.”

How do you explain it?

“The majority in the [ultra-Orthodox] community realize that there is no other choice. We don’t have enough professionals — whether psychologists, speech therapists, social workers or computer specialists. After all, it does not stand to reason that an ultra-Orthodox Jew will send his perplexed 15-year-old son for treatment with a non-religious psychologist.”

And for treatment with an ultra-Orthodox psychologist, is he likely to send him?

“In the past, it was unheard of [in the ultra-Orthodox community] for fear of stigma, but these days, it is far more acceptable. The ultra-Orthodox are human beings, too, and we are all driven by our feelings. There are currently only three or four ultra-Orthodox psychologists working in Israel, and they all studied abroad. They are so busy that they don’t have time to eat. For them, their work is both a mission and a religious precept.”

So, what was it that triggered the transformation [in the ultra-Orthodox community]  market needs or rather the need to break away from the cycle of poverty?

“Both factors equally. We have large families in our community and according to the recently published poverty report, 50 percent of these families are below the poverty line.

“We need to break away from the cycle of poverty and it is through higher education that progress can be made. At the same time, we are in need of professionals who can work within the community. It is inconceivable that an ultra-Orthodox Jew cannot be appointed to the board of directors of a company just because he does not hold a lawyer’s or a CPA degree. Once my father became aware of these two issues, he gave his approval for the establishment of the college.”

And yet, years passed before other rabbis joined him [in support of the college] …

“That’s right, and they had their reasons. For the ultra-Orthodox, anything 'new' is' forbidden by the Torah [the Hebrew Bible, as well as the entire corpus of Jewish teaching]. The era of Jewish Enlightenment [in Europe, in the 18th-19th centuries, which advocated general secular education] led to the secularization of the Jewish people, so that the rabbis insisted on the study of Torah. However, it is now clear to all that there is simply no other way.”

Since the establishment of the ultra-Orthodox college, numerous options have opened up for ultra-Orthodox men and women seeking higher education. They are studying law and business administration and then, when they are looking for work in the market, they find that there are no available jobs in these areas.

“So, they should not opt for these spheres of study. It is the same as in the non-religious sector. We, too have to examine the options open to us and calculate our steps in advance, taking into account the employment potential of this or another academic degree. In this sense, there is no difference.

Quite often, you voice concern that your remarkable enterprise  the successful institution you have set up  is liable to be destroyed. What is behind your fears?

“We are already hearing talk about ‘integration.’ However, people do not understand that it is not the level of studies that is at issue here — there is no problem in this respect. Rather, the key to academic success of the ultra-Orthodox is a suitable environment adapted to their needs, which other institutions of higher education cannot offer them — namely, separate classes for men and women, maintaining modesty, religious instructors on hand with whom to talk about problematic issues and from whom to take advice. Those calling for integration between ultra-Orthodox and secular students are in the wrong. They are liable to destroy what has been painstakingly built over the years, due to nothing but their ignorance of the ultra-Orthodox way of life. It is quite possible to raise the educational level of the ultra-Orthodox, but it should be done their way. The successful process started should be preserved and sustained — rather than undermined.”

Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, is a shining example of someone from within the community who has been trying to and succeeded in changing things from within. Her parents did not want her to go to high school and certainly not to acquire higher education. Her husband, too, who was appointed in due course to serve on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, opposed the notion of her going out to study at a university. Rather than pursuing a career as a teacher or a psychologist, as she wished she could do, she had to settle for work as a seamstress. For many years, she operated a flourishing dressmaking business. “I was what is currently known as a stylist,” she says laughing. “I used to tell women how they should dress.”

About 17 years ago, her youngest daughter married and left the nest. The wedding was attended by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot to death three days later.

In the aftermath of the murder, Bar-Shalom realized that it was time to do some soul searching. “The non-religious [in Israeli society] were full of hate for the ultra-Orthodox community, while the ultra-Orthodox looked down with disdain on the secular sector. I felt that we should do something to bridge the chasm and bring the two sides closer together,” Bar-Shalom recounts.

As said above, she received the green light from her father and set out to establish the ultra-Orthodox college. In March 2001, 23 women enrolled in the college for undergraduate social studies in the framework of the Bar-Ilan University undergraduate program, and the rest is history.

However, as far as Bar-Shalom is concerned, there is still a long way to go.

"Considering the fact that in Jerusalem alone, 2000 ultra-Orthodox girls graduate from high school each year, while merely 300 of them enroll for studies at our college, then it is certainly not enough," she says, adding on an optimistic note: "I believe that if no obstacles are put in our way, within a few years, the majority of young men and women in the ultra-Orthodox community will acquire academic education and obtain an academic degree just like their counterparts in the secular sector."

What are the major problems currently encountered by your graduates?

"Employers are afraid to hire them. They [our graduates] are looking for work in the secular sector, as well; however, employers are concerned that they may ask [for instance] for a glatt kosher cafeteria [conforming to the strict standards of ultra-Orthodox Judaism]."

Well, they are right, aren’t they?

"Absolutely not. The ultra-Orthodox are loyal and dedicated workers. True, for some of them separate work areas are allocated, at their request, the way it is done in [the leading Israeli information technology company] Matrix, in Teva [Pharmaceutical industries LTD.] or in [the Israeli credit card company] Visa Cal. However, by and large, they get along with the other employees, while working independently. I would suggest that employers give them a chance; they are going to realize that they get true added value."

To what extent is your father involved in college?

He comes to talk with the students ahead of the High Holidays, as well as on graduation day each year. His involvement in the college is highly important to me."

You have received quite a few awards and your work has earned you widespread recognition. You were elected by TheMarker [the economic publication of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz] as one of Israel's 100 most influential people of the year and just a couple of days ago you have been awarded an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. May I address you as Dr. Bar-Shalom?

"No way! I was really happy to receive the honorary doctorate, as I attach great importance to public acknowledgment of the college; however, it is no more than an honorary title. It isn’t to be addressed by the title that I have worked so hard for the college. Please, go on calling me Adina Bar-Shalom."

Tali Heruti-Sover a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and the editor of the entrepreneur, career and management sections of The Marker, the leading economic daily newspaper In Israel (by the Haaretz group). During the last 10 years she was a magazine writer on Yediot Achronot, the most popular newspaper in Israel; Ynet, the most popular news web site and Globes, the second leading economic newspaper in Israel. 

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