A pilot program sponsored by secular student leaders from Hebrew University’s
student union to assist former ultra- Orthodox men and women at the university
acclimate to college life both academically and culturally, was launched shortly
The program, called Yotzim Lilmod (“we’re going out to
study”), was created by Yael Sinai, chair of Hebrew University’s Student
“This project was initiated to bring hearts closer and to diminish
gaps between various Jerusalem groups,” said Sinai. “This is an opportunity to
create a bond between Jerusalem and [its] academic institutions regarding the
subject of education.”
One week before the holiday, 10 trained tutors
from the program were matched with 10 formerly haredi students, all of whom
became secular recently or in the past several years.
Roughly half of the
students are either enrolled in the university or studying to pass its entrance
Each student and tutor is scheduled to meet one-on-one for several
hours every week to brush up on basic math, science and English skills that were
not adequately taught at their religious schools.
One of the students,
Rafael Rosenthal, 23, of Petah Tikva, said he eventually lost his faith and
decided to join the IDF.
He is now living in Jerusalem with three secular
roommates and hopes to pass the university’s entrance exam and study psychology
or computer science.
“This is an excellent initiative, but I also think
it’s the responsibility of the state to fund the completion of a high school
education,” said Rosenthal.
“Until the age of 18, it’s not our decision
not to learn all the subjects we should have, and that makes it very hard to
complete matriculation exams after the army and fill in all the missing
[academic] complete gaps.”
Indeed, Gedalyahu Wittow, a thirdyear
philosophy major who is one of the program’s coordinators, said it is long
“In my opinion there is a great need for this because haredi
students have to fill in a tremendous gap in their education because they are
barely exposed to any secular studies,” said Wittow.
learning English, chemistry, physics, biology or literature – just mainly
religious studies. Secular studies came last and were treated as
Wittow said the demand among students who used to be haredi
and have embraced secular life has already exceeded available spots within the
“We had 15 former haredi students ask to be part of the program,
but because we’re still in an early phase we have only been able to accommodate
10 so far,” he said. “For now, the program is figuring out its way, but I think
it’s very important because this is a group that needs a lot of
Wittow said the academic limitations many such students face are
compounded by the dearth of current social programs to assist them integrate
into secular society.
“Once former haredim make this change, many lose
their connections with their circle of friends and their family ties break
down,” he said. “Things are not the same as they used to be, so we need teachers
to help guide them through a very difficult process.”
One of those
teachers is Gonen Sas, a freshman psychology major who is tutoring a former
haredi student in basic math.
“I heard [about the program] through the
student union and immediately thought it was a good idea,” said Sas. “I think
these guys and girls are doing the bravest thing they could do and I don’t want
them to feel like they’re alone.”
Sas said he met with his student for
the first time on Tuesday.
“He’s 28 and became secular four years ago,”
he said. “He’s very sharp, but at the moment has maybe a fifth-grade level of
understanding [of math]. We have to start from scratch because he learned very
little at his school – so it’s helping them with stuff they just didn’t
Sas said they will meet once a week for three hours in his
apartment. He added that all 10 students will gather with the 10 tutors every
two weeks to work on socialization skills and cultural
According to Sas, the challenge faced by former haredim is
“The first challenge is school – they have to catch up on what
they didn’t learn,” he said. “The second [challenge] is culture. You see, the
problem with us [as teachers] is that no matter how hard we try we can’t put
ourselves in their shoes, or take anything for granted.
They haven’t read
the books we’ve read, seen the movies we’ve seen or even know the history of
“For example, I could mention [David] Ben-Gurion and they might
have no idea who he was – just like I have no idea who their rabbis are,” he
Sas emphasized that their induction into secular society must not
stop at one-on-one tutoring.
“It doesn’t stop with us – society also has
to help. Think of it this way, for them to come into secular society makes them
like immigrants, and society needs to recognize them in those terms and support
them with social workers and financial aid so they can adjust,” he said. “It’s a
problem becoming secular and they need our help.”
Meanwhile, Shira Amiel,
a first-year politics, philosophy and economics major, said she began tutoring
math to a 24-year-old man who left haredi society as a teenager to help him pass
the college entrance exam.
“We started today for an hour and a half at
the Student Union to just get to know each other and begin studying a bit,” she
said. “He’s really good at math, but he doesn’t know the basics, like long
division, because he wasn’t taught it in school.”
Amiel said she decided
to become a tutor to help unite the divided haredi and secular
“In Israel we’re supposed to be united, but it’s really not
like that today with all the conflict about haredim and the army and other
things,” she said. “If we can help people who are different from us it will help
“Also, when someone leaves their community to go to a new
place it’s important for them to have someone to count on,” she added.