In a sure sign of Jerusalem's changing economic and demographic reality, a new self-learning center for English as a Second Language (ESL) opened recently in Geula - the first such business in the country catering to haredim seeking to master the lingua franca of the modern world, and thus increase their employment and earning potential. The curriculum at Self Access English Learning Center, on Rehov Malchei Yisrael, has been designed to meet the cultural sensitivities of the ultra-Orthodox, says founder Laurin Lewis, a veteran ESL educator at the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev) who immigrated to Israel from Los Angeles in 1984. "I discovered there were special needs for haredi clients," he begins. "No women dressed immodestly and no mixed beach scenes," he says, referring to the curriculum content. And no dinosaurs, which allude to evolution, he adds. "Members of Israel's haredi community are beginning to recognize the importance of English as the language of commerce, computing and even marriage," he continues. "If they were not taught in school, they are looking for ways to catch up at home, to teach their children without fear of introducing inappropriate content." The 118-lesson ESL software that Lewis created is suitable for beginners through to those seeking an English language exemption at the post-secondary level. Based on materials originally developed in the 1970s by Leslie A. Hill, an internationally known English language teaching expert from Britain, Lewis modified the texts and illustrations to ensure there was no taboo material. The result is a 4,000-word kosher curriculum taught on CD-ROMs, or CDs for those who don't have a home computer. There is no need for an Internet hookup - something many haredi homes eschew. As well, Lewis sells a textbook by Menachem Moshkovitz-Mashak that teaches Hebrew readers the Roman alphabet. Lewis's software uses visual mnemonics to teach new vocabulary. For example, one illustration shows a bear falling into a well, which in Hebrew is be'er. "It changes lives," he says of his home-learning products. Why don't haredim learn English or other modern languages? A ban originated in 18th-century Eastern Europe in reaction to Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786, a Berlin Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the renaissance of European Jews, known as the Haskala (Jewish enlightenment) movement, is indebted. Mendelssohn translated the Hebrew Bible into German, and encouraged Jews to learn both religious and worldly subjects. Obscurantist rabbis forbade learning modern European languages in the hope of preventing the spread of modern, secular ideas. During the final decades of Ottoman rule, Rabbi Yeshua Leib Diskin renewed that herem (halachic prohibition) on learning foreign languages apart from Hebrew and Aramaic - the languages of the Bible and Talmud. Most Ashkenazi rabbis of the old Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) endorsed that ban. "In the British Mandate haredim found ways to 'dodge' the ban. The herem took hold primarily as it related to learning English with Torah studies, that is to say in institutions for children and youth rather than for adults," explains Prof. Menahem Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist and anthropologist specializing in Israel's haredi communities. "Moreover, these courses are courses in writing by means of CDs and not with frontal learning, and thus the ban doesn't apply. Similarly during the Mandate period there were 'British schools' offering text-based education." The various yeshivot at which young male haredim study emphasize traditional Torah studies at the expense of a modern curriculum including English and mathematics. When students graduate ill-equipped for the work force, even if they don't observe Diskin's edict, they may feel uncomfortable studying English in places where men and women sit together, or the curriculum is considered too risqué. Another factor is that students at the girls-only Beit Ya'acov school system do study English, placing their potential mates at a linguistic loss. Over the past two years Lewis has sold more than 10,000 copies of his ESL software. Apart from his new store in Geula, he sells the CD-ROMs at booths in shopping malls. It is also available at Home Depot where it retails for NIS 119. "There's practically no profession that you can learn that doesn't require some English," says Lewis. "Without knowing English in the business or technical world, a person is very limited."

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share