Ultra-Orthodox Jews Willing to Pursue Secular Studies – But at a Price

December 4, 2018

5 min read

The most important commandment for the Jewish People besides living in the Land of Israel is the study of Torah. But numerous great sages over the millennia did not confine themselves solely to the Torah. Maimonides was a prominent physician; Hillel was a woodchopper; various Talmudic sages were tailors, farmers, cotton dealers, field laborers, builders, scribes, shoemakers, cattle raisers, silk merchants, beer brewers and even wine smellers.

In the U.S. and elsewhere in the Diaspora, modern Orthodox Jews (men and women) have for many years gone on to higher education and worked in regular jobs and also study Jewish texts in their spare time. Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews abroad have also done this from the 20th century.

But in Israel, partly due to the decimation of haredi Jews in the Holocaust, most ultra-Orthodox men abandoned all secular studies. From childhood, boys are sent to schools that focus almost primarily on religious studies and learned only a bare minimum of arithmetic and Hebrew grammar; forgoing sciences, English and mathematics, not to mention world history, philosophy, music and art.

Very few have studied for a high school matriculation exam – only 13% of boys earning a matriculation certificate compared to 70% for the general population – that would entitle them to college or university. For example, there are very few haredi physicians except those who came from abroad and settled in Israel.

The girls and women, on the other hand, who are not regarded in haredi circles as being bound to study Torah, are able to study secular subjects, but usually at a much lower level than their national religious and secular counterparts. Ultra-Orthodox Israeli women have been educated just enough to provide them with a job so they can support their families in teaching and other low-paid jobs while their husbands study Torah and receive relatively small yeshiva stipends. So about half of haredi families, which include almost seven children on average, are living on or under the poverty level.

When haredi Jews were only a small percentage of the population during the early decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, this did not bother national leaders. But the haredi sector is young; the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the country rose last year to one million – about 12% of the Israel population. Approximately 300,000 pupils study in the haredi school system, about 18% of all pupils in the country. There are more than 115,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students over the age of 18, and 65% of them are married.

Israel’s leaders began to worry that in the next generation, there will not be enough working hands to keep the economy going. As it is, women in the growing Arab population are unemployed to the same degree as haredi men. According to predictions by the Israel Democracy Institute, the haredi sector may comprise 16% of the total population by 2030, and 30% of all Israelis and 40% of the Jewish population in 35 years after that. The cabinet even decided last year to allocate at least 7% of all jobs in the public sector to the ultra-Orthodox community, with the aim of increasing employment rates among them.

Numerous haredi men have married American and other foreign haredi brides who are used to a higher standard of living while also valuing Torah study. The women want to enjoy comfortable homes, cars, modern furniture and good food that their Israeli husbands could not provide.

Therefore, many haredi men have been encouraged to study enough secular subjects to qualify for institutes of higher learning and become lawyers, accountants, engineers, nurses and others in well-paying professions. About half of the men are now employed. This has not been encouraged by many ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians who prefer to keep the men under their control – and not thinking on their own – in yeshivas.

For decades, haredi Jews have taken advantage of their significant political power while living a segregated lifestyle. The men fight to be exempted from service in the Israel Defense Forces. Ultra-Orthodox politicians insist on financial benefits to the sector and aid to their separate school networks whose curricula are strictly supervised.

But how will haredi men get a higher education if most of them refuse to sit next to – or even share a campus building – with women?

In an effort to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to go to colleges and universities, the Council for Higher Education (CHE, a supreme body affiliated with the Education Ministry) has decided to permit segregation of the genders if it does not denigrate women and is decided upon voluntarily by the college or university.

Until recently, the CHE said that men and women students may be only in separate classrooms, but now, colleges and universities can hold classes for each gender on different days or have completely separate sections of campuses. The council said that while gender equality “without coercion” was important, their target was getting more haredi Israelis into higher education and employment.

There are several colleges and universities that already boast separate days or hours for men and women, including Bar-Ilan University, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Ashkelon Academic College, the College of Management and Ono Academic College. The Jerusalem College of Technology-Lev Academic Center has for decades offered separate campuses for men and women to study engineering and other subjects. This arrangement has raised their incomes and increased their student bodies.

But it is feared that as the number of haredi students increases in these institutions, they will demand separation also in cafeterias and other parts of the campuses. This could cause discomfort, inequality and downright discrimination against non-haredi women.  

The backlash has already begun. The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities – the official adviser of the government on all matters of science – has issued a statement opposing the CHE decision on gender separation. Chartered by law in 1961, the academy acts as a national focal point for Israeli scholarship in both the natural sciences and the humanities and is comprised of some 115 of the country’s most distinguished scientists and scholars.

The academy’s council and its former presidents said they “vehemently oppose the CHE’s position that permits the introduction of different study days for men and women on academic campuses, as well as the separation of men and women on campus, provided it is not coercive.”

The CHE’s position, the academy continued, “undermines the foundations on which the Israeli academia is based, and allowing separate space runs against the principle of equality: Women are today a central component of Israeli academic teaching and research, and gender equality in academia has not yet been fully realized,” wrote the academy, whose president is a highly accomplished woman attorney, Prof. Nili Cohen.

“Allowing separate school days and campuses in practice constitutes for the gradual exclusion of women, which harms human dignity and necessarily leads to a decline in the academic level, the quality of teaching and research and the academic functioning of the universities. It will also harm the status of Israeli academia and Israeli science in the world,” they declared.

“The CHE’s current position is a continuation of a previous, narrower decision that permitted separation in the classrooms only, and further illustrates the danger of deterioration,” the academy council continued.

“We support the inclusion of haredi Jews in academia, but we cannot accept the argument that the only way to integrate them must involve sacrificing a fundamental principle on which academia is based. We call upon the CHE to rescind its decision and to continue to act vigorously to realize the principle of gender equality.” The academy also called on the Knesset to halt any legislative process that seeks to legalize gender segregation in academia.

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