Deferentially progressive

Adina Bar-Shalom, eldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, defies stereotypes yet insists he is not bringing change to the Haredi world.

By KAMON BEN-SHIMON
July 3, 2011 02:23
Adina Bar Shalom and Ovadia Yosef

Adina Bar Shalom 520. (photo credit: OREN NAHSHON / FLASH 90)

ADINA BAR-SHALOM IS AN intriguing and complex woman.

The eldest daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the revered (by his followers) and controversial (to everyone else) spiritual leader of the ultra- Orthodox Sephardi party Shas, Bar Shalom defies most stereotypes about Haredi women.

Ten years ago, she established the Haredi College, initially for women only, so feminists applauded her for seemingly leaning over the fence towards modernity. Recently, she has made a series of declarations on the urgent need to promote peace with the Palestinians, has endorsed the two-state solution, including the division of Jerusalem, and participated in a series of political and religious encounters with Palestinians, including a much-publicized meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As such, she has become the darling of the Israeli left, who view her as breaking with the increasingly right-wing Haredi community.

But Bar-Shalom, 66, passionately rejects the feminist label and says she is proud of her obedience to her father and husband. She also fervently insists that she is no leftist, merely a pragmatist. Her daily life routine and demeanor certainly do not resemble the lives of most other women in her community: forced by her father to study sewing, she studied fashion instead, and is always stylishly, albeit modestly, dressed, despite the extreme conservatism of most of her peers. She is a prominent woman in a society that provides women with little opportunity for prominence.

She mixes easily with the non-Haredi world, even as the Haredi community becomes increasingly insulated and fearful of the pernicious influences of the outside world.

Yet Bar-Shalom says that she is, above all, a Haredi woman and that she never loses her balance. As she sits down for an extended interview with The Jerusalem Report, Bar- Shalom declares, unbidden, “I am a Haredi woman. I have no intention to change or step out of the Haredi world.”

It is a hot day in Jerusalem, on the first of the harsh, dry heat waves that attack Jerusalem during the early summer months. Dressed in a blue suit with a floral printed blouse, its skirt covering her knees, wearing light beige tights, Bar-Shalom is the epitome of solidity and elegance, with carefully applied light makeup and soft pink lipstick. Her head is covered, in accordance with religious precepts, but her dark black hair peeps out from under a widebrimmed hat, in accordance with her father’s ruling that forbids Sephardi women to cover their heads with wigs as Ashkenazi women do.

She meets The Report in the conference room located on the first floor of the three stories of the college, in one of the modern buildings of the Technology Park in the Manahat neighborhood of Jerusalem. Her voice is soft and low, her Hebrew is modern with a strong Sephardi accent and she frequently embellishes her speech with Biblical quotes and Talmudic sayings.

Throughout the interview, Bar-Shalom emphasizes repeatedly the two points that compose her carefully chosen motto:  “Anything I do is according to my father’s will. I will not start any project without consulting him first and obtaining his permission, and even now, should he tell me today that I should stop and quit the college, I would do it without hesitating a second.” And she refuses to speak about her famous father, because, she insists, she is not his spokeswoman.

Repeatedly she says, “Everything I do in the Haredi College is motivated by my concern for the welfare and economic stability of the ultra-Orthodox family.” Yet it is hard to escape the impression that in both her private and public lives, Bar-Shalom walks gingerly along a very tight rope, and that the balancing act is sometimes more difficult than she admits.

THE HAREDI COLLEGE THAT she founded ten years ago reflects Bar- Shalom’s belief that “Haredi” and “academic education” do not have to be an oxymoron.

With 1,120 students, among them 400 men, the college reflects her desire to ensure that Haredi women – and men, who for whatever reason, do not study Torah full time – can obtain a profession so they can remove themselves from the cycle of poverty.

Every year, she notes, thousands of Haredi young women complete their studies in religious seminars (high schools), where they study to become teachers in the ultra- Orthodox system. But due to the large numbers of young women completing these schools, only some five percent of them will actually become teachers; most of them will have to search for a different source of income. With few skills, and with large families at an early age, they take on part-time, low-paying jobs that barely enable their families to survive.

Other universities and colleges have set up special classes and courses for Haredim, particularly for men, but the Haredi College is the only one that caters solely to Haredim, vets its courses and their content according to Haredi standards and maintains an atmosphere – strict segregation of the sexes, unwritten but strictly observed dress codes, and so forth – that enables Haredim to feel comfortable.

“There is nothing attractive about poverty,” she says, but immediately adds that she has no intention of “tempting yeshiva boys to leave the world of Torah. I approach only those who have already taken that step.”

Emphasizing the importance of the college, she says, “Maybe we should have begun 10 years earlier. There are many maybes. But the college does exist now. We can provide solutions for our community. We can live like [the Biblical tribes of] Yissachar and Zevulun – one studied and his brothers ensured his physical existence. Like my own grandchildren – one of them studies Logistics and Economics here, while the other studies in a yeshiva. One will earn a living, the other will study. That is the way the world should be. The world cannot exist without Torah study – we believe this with all our soul. I grew up this way, and I will educate my granddaughters and my greatgranddaughters in this. But there are some of us who cannot be satisfied with the world of Torah, unfortunately. And the Sephardi world has always known how to maintain Torah and society together.”

In establishing the college, which is supported by the Avi Chai, Glencore and Kernach Foundations, as well as by individual donors, Bar-Shalom first sought out her father’s permission – and she emphasizes that without his permission and his blessing, she would never have proceeded. Furthermore, she says, from the beginning it was clear to both her and her father that the college would never be solely for women and that they would open their doors to men who were not engaged in fulltime studying. “We started with girls because they finish high school, and we wanted to know how it would work.”

For the men, the situation is much more difficult. “They go to yeshivas, where they stop their secular studies at the age of 12. So for the men, we have added a 15-month preparatory course, to expose these brilliant scholars to the world of secular higher education,” she explains. In the first three months, they study English, mathematics, and Hebrew.

“They don’t know basic algebra, they don’t know the English alphabet,” she notes. After 15 months, she says, the men’s average score on the national psychometric exams is 600, while the national average is only 560.

But then she emphasizes again, “We have no intention to change anything in the Haredi way of life. Torah studying always comes first, but if a man cannot study, why should he stagnate in poverty? Why should he work for a low salary instead of acquiring a higher education that will allow him a life of comfort? Haredi and poverty are not doomed to go together.”

THE ACADEMIC PROGRAMMING and degrees are provided by internationally recognized Israeli institutions, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University, the Open University, and Hadassah College, and the acceptance criteria to the various programs at the Haredi College are the same as the criteria at these institutions. The academic program for women offers BA degrees in Communications, Educational Counseling, Speech Therapy, Educational Management, Logistics and Computer Studies, Political Science and Psychology. The educational program for men includes Logistics and Computer Studies, Economics, and an MA in Educational Guidance. The men’s programs are spread over four years, rather than the usual three in Israel, in order to allow the men to continue their religious studies, at least part-time.

No one could accuse Bar-Shalom of plotting a revolution, nor would she want to.

Courses of study are selected only after they are carefully examined and approved by a committee of rabbis, who make sure that there is no content that could possibly create a moral or theological quandary, or in case there might be some unavoidable problems – such as a discussion of sexual abuse in the social work course – to prepare the students for what is coming. “We act very carefully – we cannot simply ignore facts and these things happen everywhere, but the whole approach is according to the principles of modesty, of dignity, guided by our holy Torah.”

Aware that most of her students become mothers at a very young age, and to ward off accusations that she is interfering with women’s primary role as mother, the Haredi College provides free child care on the premises. The college maintains total physical separation between the men and women – not only do they study in separate classes, they study on separate floors in the building at different times. This, she says, is to ensure that she does not provide any excuse for anyone in her increasingly strict community to accuse her of in any way compromising the purity and holiness of the community.

Yet she is attempting to embark on what will be a new and ambitious program, in which, if approved by the Hebrew University, which will grant the degree, some 30 men and 30 women will begin to study pharmacy.

The plan is bold since the course work will require the students to leave the Haredi campus to study in laboratories and do their internships in pharmacies.

And if this program succeeds, Bar- Shalom also intends to provide Haredi men and women with the opportunity to study medicine. But even before discussing this program, she makes it very clear that the girls will leave the campus as a group, not as individuals, so that no woman will ever be left to her own devices or temptations while in the “outside” world and that they will study in separate classes – separate for men and women and separated from the other students.

“We have to build a world in which there are Haredi doctors, and Haredi psychologists, who come from the Haredi world and understand our special needs. So if there are girls who have the grades and want to study medicine – why shouldn’t they be allowed to?” And what are the chances of success? Bar- Shalom says of herself, “I not only know how to dream – I’m pretty good at fulfilling these dreams, too.” She adds, “Of course, with God’s help.”

LOOKING BACK AT THE PAST 10 years, she acknowledges that the establishment of the Haredi College has been more difficult than she had anticipated.

She thought it would be easier, because she had expected to attract students from the Sephardi community, where fewer men study full-time and which had traditionally been more open to combining Torah studies with making an income. Yet some of the responses were extreme – even a few plans for shiddukhim (arranged marriages) were canceled by some of the potential grooms’ families when they discovered that the prospective bride was intending to study at the college.

Elias Simhayoff, vice mayor of Jerusalem representing the Shas list at city council, says the significance and originality of Bar- Shalom’s college cannot be exaggerated. The establishment of the College, he tells The Report, “was the first time someone – and Bar- Shalom is not just any someone in the Haredi community – said loudly and clearly that the community needs academic education.” It was a very bold step, he says, to acknowledge openly that although the Haredi world views full-time study throughout a man’s entire life as the highest goal, in fact, not all Haredi men continue to study, whether because of ability, inclination or family finances. “Therefore, they need to be prepared for life,” he says. “They need to be able to earn a decent living.”

Until Bar-Shalom came up with the idea of the college, he continues, anyone who pursued any kind of study or learning other than Torah learning, and especially anyone who obtained any sort of professional training, was held in low esteem; and those few who dared to study in secular academic institutions, where they would be exposed to outside influences, were considered “lost” to the Haredi world.

Indeed, opposition to the college, especially in the Ashkenazi community, was strong, and Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, the most prominent rabbi and religious scholar among the Ashkenazim, forbade his followers from attending. But over the years, Simhayoff says, the community leaders “realized that Bar-Shalom was very careful not to step anywhere beyond the strictest requirements of Haredi society.” Not that Elyashiv would recommend her college or recognize it publicly, but everybody knows that many Ashkenazi Haredim do attend – and no one complains or criticizes publicly.

“In our society, this is a tremendous achievement,” he says.

BAR-SHALOM READILY ACknowledges that the establishment of the College is not only an instrumental achievement – for her, it is also a compensation of sorts because she was never permitted to obtain a higher education.

Born in Jerusalem, Bar-Shalom is the oldest daughter of the nine children born to Yosef, and his wife, Margalit. Yosef has spearheaded a religious movement based on a return to the religious traditions once practiced in the Land of Israel (although he himself was born in Iraq), in opposition to the trend to send talented Sephardi boys to Ashkenazi yeshivas, where they are often discriminated against as second-class students.

When Bar-Shalom was 3 years old, the family moved from Jerusalem to Egypt, where her father was appointed head of the Egyptian rabbinical court. Seven years later, they returned to Israel, first to Jerusalem and then to Tel Aviv. The family grew as Yosef’s prominence and stature grew, first as a dayan (religious judge) and then as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Yet the family was poor, she recalls, because the salary could not keep up with the large family’s needs. She says, “Truly, I never felt poor. I always had a new dress for the high holidays and I was raised feeling privileged to be my father’s daughter.”

The family combined, in a way that she says was once common to Sephardi families, deep religiosity with openness to the outside world. “We had a warm atmosphere at home, and I don’t recall that our religiosity was any kind of a burden. I could read freely, even novels. I remember reading “Gone with the Wind” – not exactly what you would expect in such a deeply religious family – but it was natural for us.”

The first clouds began to appear on her happy horizons when she entered high school.

Bar-Shalom was an obedient girl, with many responsibilities for her younger siblings, but she was also intellectually curious and creative and wanted to continue her studies at a college- prep high school. Her father refused. He wanted her to study sewing, which he viewed as a proper trade for a devout religious girl.

And to ensure that she would not even take the entrance exams to the high school of her choice – he locked her in her room on that day.

“After a two-week strike, in which I refused to help in the house, I gave in and life returned to normal,” she recalls. “I was a child. How long could I hold on to my anger? So I studied sewing. I hated it.”

But after a while, she says, her joie de vivre came back to her. “I didn’t have time to think about the pain. I started to love sewing. And I excelled in that, too.” Yet, her voice suddenly becoming a little tougher, she acknowledges that the sorrow and frustration never really went away. And while she modestly mastered sewing, and even opened up a bridal store to bring in money for the family, she never stopped thirsting for knowledge and learning.

It was always, she says, “like a smoldering ember inside of me.”

Asked how could she swallow her anger, Bar-Shalom smiles and says, “I was deeply frustrated, but I had been raised, from my early childhood, to admit that my father knew better than I what is good for me. To this day, I have never challenged that. I consider myself very lucky to have this father. I believe we are all lucky to have such a great figure, such a father for all of us to guide us.”

Nor did she pursue her dream of studying psychology even later, when she was an adult.

This time, it was her husband, then a rabbinic court judge in Tel Aviv and now on the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem, who opposed her. Unhesitatingly, she says that she was right in giving in to his will, too.

“Recently, a student asked me, ‘How can you ask your husband for permission and obey his will?’ If being a feminist means that I must trample over all of the values on which I was raised, to honor my father and my husband – then I am not a feminist. This is the message I convey to the young women who study in my college: ‘You study and the learning brings you benefits, but you must never wipe out even one word of all that you have been raised with.’ If I ask my husband’s permission, and he says no, then I must obey him, and not trample on his wishes or endanger my family’s welfare.”

And what about her own will? “There is a place for my wishes,” she answers with a glimpse of pride in her voice. “It works both ways. I might be able to convince him, and he does consult with me. When he stopped studying, he too consulted with me.”

Sylvie Bijaoui-Fogiel, professor of sociology at the Academic College of Rishon Lezion, tells The Report that this ostensible contradiction in Bar-Shalom’s life is intriguing: on the one hand she is engaged in classical feminist actions, such as empowerment of women, while, on the other hand, she refuses to call herself a feminist or to embrace feminist or any other political language.

But ultimately, says Bijaoui-Fogeil, who defines herself as a feminist, “it doesn’t matter if Bar-Shalom means to bring about a radical change or not. In the end, she will cause a revolution.”

Because of her own experiences, Bar-Shalom is promoting education for women, Bjaoui-Fogiel says, and that is a radical challenge to the Haredi world, despite Bar- Shalom’s protestations to the contrary. “In the Haredi tradition, girls stop studying at the age of 18. Then they marry and from then on, they work only to bring home some money. But we know that, throughout history, in any place and time in which women were given an education, it led to deep changes in their status.

Education is a factor in any revolution.”

Bar-Shalom is, she says, an example of this – her thirst for education has led her to a very radical position in her own society. “No matter how she tries to avoid or deny it, I’m pretty sure that Bar-Shalom understands that all of this will lead to a change in women’s status and to radical change in society,” says Bijaoui- Fogiel. “But even if she doesn’t understand it, she is bringing a revolution and it will come, because education and knowledge mean power. And when women have access to education and knowledge, there is no way that they will remain the same.”

DESPITE THE POSITION SHE HAS earned for herself, her father’s and husband’s status, and the success of the college, Bar-Shalom still deals regularly with implied or direct criticism – and her recent political involvement, in which she signed a petition to the prime minister to recognize a two-state solution with a divided capital for the two states has yet again pushed her into the fray.

In the media and in pashkevilim (broadsheets pasted on walls and billboards), Bar- Shalom is strongly criticized for speaking “without authorization” and has been attacked for “hutzpa, for joining forces with the left without ever being given permission to do so in our name.” Out of deference, Yosef’s name is never mentioned.

As with the college, Bar-Shalom says that she received her father’s blessings for her political activities, although his constituency and followers are known to be right-wing and although he himself has often used derogatory, racist language in speaking about Arabs and Palestinians.

She explains, “As a result of the intifada, Haredi society has become more extreme and has moved to the right. The Haredim say to themselves that with regard to people who are capable of murdering small children, blowing themselves up and show no regard for the sanctity of human life – they do not believe them, they do not trust them, they do not want to speak to them or even know them. I won’t say that I didn’t think the same way at some point. But I returned to my own naturally moderate positions, especially since I understand that the lack of movement in the negotiations is detrimental to Israeli society. I want to give a push to my government. I want them to know that while there are people who are pulling the government very sharply to the right, there are also other people in the country.

We are not leftists. We are centrists who love this country.”

She met with Abbas on the day after he had signed the agreement with Hamas. “Today, I say to myself that I was lucky that I did not have time to reconsider. I am not sorry I went, and I am not sorry I met him. Today, he faces a great challenge: to prove to me that I am right. If the agreement is good, for him and for us, if he is able to control the Palestinians and put an end to terror, then he will indeed prove that those of us who saw some hope were right. And if not? Then I say that the price that we will pay if peace does not succeed is much greater than the price that Abbas will pay. “ In concluding, Bar-Shalom speaks of the divine and human roles in bringing peace, and it seems that this is also her motto for her other activities, too. “We are told that He on High will make peace,” she says. “But we are also told to seek peace and pursue it, and not to leave it to Him or to others.”


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