Haredi Education and the Modern World

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Exceptional educational institutes help create bridges and new pathways for the Haredi community for integration into Israeli society while preserving Haredi beliefs and identity  

“We preserve the faithful Haredi way of life, but look at it from new directions, that are more suited to the modern era,” says Vered Bachar, Principal and Founder of Shoshanim Arts and Sciences High School for Haredi Girls.

When Vered Bachar, Principal and Founder of  Shoshanim, established by the Society for Advancement of Education (SAE), remembers the story of her oldest daughter’s acceptance to one of the most in-demand seminaries for Haredi girls in Jerusalem, she identifies the first trigger for her educational initiative.

Vered Bachar, Principal and Founder of Shoshanim Arts and Sciences High School for Haredi Girls

“We were very enthusiastic when we received the news that our daughter was accepted to one of the most sought-after seminaries in Jerusalem.  It was the sign that we were a high-quality family, we received a kind of seal of approval from Haredi society and from here the path to a good marriage match and finding a respected job would be easy.

“Very quickly, the tables turned, when our daughter was put in a separate class from all her friends.  A comprehensive inquiry revealed that she had basically been accepted only on condition that she be separated from all her friends, because she was considered too opinionated by the teaching staff of the school.  Their desire was basically to silence her by separating her from her friends, and they achieved this.

“When our third daughter was also accepted to seminary, the same ritual of separating her from her friends was repeated, because they saw she had potential to be an opinion leader. At this stage I realized this was a phenomenon, not a coincidence, and I decided to do something about it”.

This is the background of the establishment of the Shoshanim Arts and Sciences High School by the SAE under Bachar’s leadership.  Shoshanim is the first four-year high school in Israel for Haredi girls providing education for ethics and religious belief alongside the required education for a high-quality matriculation certificate, through focus on arts and sciences.

“I wanted there to be a high-quality, enriching educational institution, that would give girls who have the desire, the capacity and the opportunity to be at the forefront of Haredi society in the future,” says Bachar.  “A place that would make it possible for them to study for a full matriculation certificate and would prepare the foundation for those who wish to go on to higher education or enter the labor market, and not to settle for only low-level positions.”

Shoshanim High School is good news for girls in the Haredi education system. “The innovation is actually in religious studies,” Bachar surprisingly notes.  “The challenge of Haredi society is to preserve the commandments and the Haredi way of life in a way that is relevant to the 21st century. At Shoshanim the students can ask questions, and put their religious issues and concerns on the agenda, something that other educational institutions interpret almost automatically as thoughts of heresy.

“We teach religious studies here in a way that is relevant to the young women’s daily lives, out of understanding that the Torah is eternal and touches the human soul.  There is no desire here to come out against the institutional establishment; however, we do want to make it possible for the girls to think critically, not to take everything at face value, to develop, to learn about what is going on around them.”

Take for example the science classes. “We teach science because this is creation.  In this way, we preserve the Haredi way of life, but look at it from different directions, ones that are more suited to the modern era and enable the Haredi way of life to move forward with the times,” says Bachar.

The Goal: An Alternative Framework for Haredi Education

While girls in the Haredi society learn core subjects in school, even if mostly at a low level, in yeshiva, boys learn religious studies only.  This makes it difficult for them to integrate into the workforce and into Israeli society.  “A young Haredi man who goes through the track set by the Haredi community knows how to study Torah, to pray, knows the customs, the traditions, but he has no knowledge that enables him to acquire higher education or integrate into key positions in the workforce,” says Dr. Gilad Malach, Head of the Ultra-Orthodox Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“In the current reality, more Haredi men are going out to work and as a society we need to give them the tools to achieve this goal. One of the key action directions is creating alternative frameworks that will allow students to study other subjects in addition to Torah studies.”

In order to cope with this need, seven years ago the Society for Advancement of Education (SAE) established Hachmey Lev Yeshiva.   Hachmey Lev offers an alternative to yeshivas with only religious studies.  At Hachmey Lev, half the day is devoted to religious studies and half the day to full general high school studies, at the end of which the students take matriculation exams.

According to the standard Haredi education model, boys study Talmud 14-17 hours a day in yeshiva.  Each year, thousands of students drop out of the yeshivas with no other educational solution.  Michal Shavit, Director of Pedagogic Development at SAE, tells of the tremendous thirst in Haredi society from students who do not have the capability or who do not want to integrate into yeshiva studies.  “The Haredi ideal in which scholars sat and learned for long hours was intended for prodigies.  Thus, the Haredi ideal, from the outset, was not meant to be suitable for the whole population, and in practice at Hachmey Lev, we offer an educational alternative, based on the presumption that it is not logical to assume that one kind of education is appropriate for all students.

“Different people learn in different ways.  We have to develop different ways otherwise anyone who fails will drop out of the system.  In fact, it is clear that what is happening is that even people who are very talented, who could continue in yeshiva studies, choose to leave and to go into a track in which they develop their knowledge and abilities, due to the desire to earn a living, to have a career, to get to know the world beyond and due to a whole range of motivations.

“The openness to different kinds of education brings the ultra-Orthodox closer to the concepts of the society that surrounds them.  Once they have the same tools and the same educational basis, windows open to dialogue, in which the new ideal is to learn to live together.”

“Train up a child in his way” – in action

Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, Founding Principal of Hachmey Lev Yeshiva

Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, Founding Principal of Hachmey Lev Yeshiva, is a big believer in the teaching of King Solomon – “Train up a child in his way, even in old age he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).  “Alongside the integration of Torah with a worldly occupation, the Yeshiva puts at the center of its educational efforts the unique personality of each student. The educational staff insists on understanding the challenges each student faces and the unique way which is appropriate to move him forward,” he says.

“Unlike other Haredi yeshivas, Hachmey Lev is a trailblazer in reaching out to the Haredi mainstream, both in making this learning possible for students from all streams of the Haredi sectors to learn together without separation or distinction, and with tuition which is accessible to populations with average economic ability.”  As with any change, the beginning was not easy. “In our first class, there were only 11 students in the Yeshiva,” Rabbi Cohen re-counts.  “Today there are 80 students and we are open to more.  Hachmey Lev was basically the harbinger of change, and today there are approximately 20 Haredi yeshiva high schools that enable students to learn other subjects alongside religious studies.  While it is possible to speak of a trend, from a perceptual viewpoint, we are still pioneers.  Throughout the years, I have encountered many negative responses. These responses included boycotts, demonstrations and other behaviors intended to cause me to “get back on track”. I believe that we have created a change in consciousness here, that provides parents and students an alternative and understanding that they are not required to take the standard track.  This gives parents the possibility of helping their children, gives children the possibility of feeling valued and not outcasts.  Today, there exists a pride among the Hachmey Lev students; they are considered somewhat avant-garde and there is a special charm in that.”

The future, it seems, is wide open for Hachmey Lev graduates.  “It is reasonable to assume that Hachmey Lev graduates will continue in a life track that includes IDF enlistment or academic stud-ies, and a small portion will even continue to higher yeshiva studies,” says Cohen. “All along the way, it was clear to me that we are doing something important for many parts of Haredi society. It was important to

me that the educational staff understand the value and the importance of what we are doing, that we convey to the students that each one of them can choose the appropri-ate track for themselves. For this reason it was also important to recruit a teaching staff with knowledge and proven experience in the field, who have an understanding of and familiarity with the world at large. The fact that the teachers are learned people with academic degrees, enables them to speak to the students openly, out of respect for their desires and connection to Torah from very unconventional directions.”

And what’s next?

Currently Hachmey Lev Yeshiva and Shoshanim Seminary operate in rented buildings in Jerusalem that do not meet the growing needs of the students and faculty and the increasing demand. Vered Bachar and Rabbi Bezalel Cohen imagine the day when their educational institutions can move to permanent facilities.

“A building like that will enable us to increase the number of students in the Yeshiva and the number of majors we offer them,” says Cohen.

Bachar adds: “We are creating exciting part-nerships with universities in the sciences, but in the current building the possibility of establishing advanced research laboratories is very limited.  I want Shoshanim to have advanced computers for student use, I want to take them on museum tours, to create partnerships with leading companies like Intel and Google and thus to open up directions for development for the girls that until now have been closed off to them. I have no doubt that all these things will happen and will bear amazing fruit.”

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