All attention this week was focused on the mass demonstration of the country’s Orthodox population against the government’s plans to enforce army conscription for all the country’s yeshiva students.

In a unique show of strength, all of the ultra-Orthodox factions – Lithuanian, Hassidic and Mizrahi – joined forces, along with a significant representation from the more Orthodox elements within the world of Religious Zionism.

The focus on the conscription issue has put aside another, much smaller but no less significant event which will take place within the haredi community this week. In the long term it may have even more important implications than the final arrangement concerning army service which, in the eyes of many, has become a political football rather than a real issue of social integration (some would say disintegration).

On Thursday I will be privileged to represent Ben-Gurion University at the degree ceremony which will take place at the Haredi College in Jerusalem. The first graduating class of psychology students will receive their degree certificates.

The ceremony is evidence of the fact that when the right conditions are created, the potential for the haredi population to undertake academic and vocational studies, enabling them to enter professions which will not only provide a wage, but will also be of immense importance to their own communities, is both real and essential.

A glance at the college website will show an increasing number of degree courses offered in Psychology, Social Work, Therapy, Education Consultancy and Conflict Resolution and Management. Degrees are offered for men and women separately, with a slow, but steady, growth in the number of men who are now registering for the courses.

In recent years there has been no shortage of part-time and evening courses within the ultra-Orthodox community for both men and women in fields such as computing, bookkeeping and accountancy, and even engineering. But this has now shifted up a gear as full-degree courses, ratified and supervised by the country’s universities, are now on offer – and this week’s graduation class is one of the first groups to have completed their full degree studies in a profession – psychology – which demands the same stringent standards from its students wherever it is taught.

Because many of the students did not complete their full matriculation (women often getting married at an earlier age, men studying in yeshivot from the age of 14 upwards), most of them had to undergo a preliminary year of studies to bring them up to scratch and to meet the normal university entry requirements. Their studies, whether at the haredi College in Jerusalem or at other centers which have began to spring up throughout the country, take place in segregated, single-sex environments, without which many would not be prepared to register – nor would their rabbis allow them to sign up.

The fact that the Jerusalem college, the leader in the field, was established by Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, gave it a legitimacy within circles which may otherwise have shunned such a project. And if the Mizrahi population are sometimes perceived as being more moderate in their positions, then no less an influential haredi Hassidic leader than the Admor (Grand Rabbi) of Belz was recently quoted as saying that those men who no longer study in a yeshiva (the ultimate priority) should learn a profession and thus contribute to their communities’ wellbeing.

Each side of the equation had to make certain compromises.

The haredi community had to accept the fact that its students would be exposed, albeit partially, to an outside world of ideas and theories which may not always have been acceptable in their sheltered upbringing. The university world had to accept that studies would take place in separate and segregated campuses, in contrast to the openness and liberalism which so characterize a regular university campus.

The universities also had to accept that not all subjects would be on offer, notably those within the Humanities, because these subjects might bring their religious values and understandings of the world into question.

The students live at home, with their families, such that it is not necessary to provide dormitory accommodation, an arrangement which would not have been approved by the students’ spiritual mentors. Since they are older, have families to support and, in the case of men, have years of yeshiva education behind them, the haredi students have demonstrated an ability to devote themselves to their studies, without the normal youthful distractions of student life and without the need to seek social and entertainment activities for their non-study hours.

Most teachers and lecturers report that haredi students advance rapidly in their studies, far quicker than the average university student straight out of the army.

Because of the national importance of enabling this growing population to become a regular part of the professional workforce, the government is prepared to invest major resources in this endeavor. The Council for Higher Education (CHE) has been set the task of working with the universities to find the necessary solutions without sacrificing educational standards, but at the same time enabling the creation of a learning and social environment which will be acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Some universities have gone a step further. Ben-Gurion University, for example, has proposed transforming an older part of the university campus (the Hias Campus) into a special facility just for the haredi population, with studies taking place in separate buildings or on separate days for men and women. This would enable the growing haredi population in the south of the country to take part without excessive and tiring travel. A college in Bnei Brak, similar to that in Jerusalem, is also in the process of being established.

There are those at the university who see these “concessions” as an affront to the principles of a university education which encourages pluralism and liberalism in thought and ideas. They point to the many religious and even Orthodox students who undertake full university education without any problem, and without bringing their religious beliefs into question. This has been the model adopted by the Religious Zionist world, but it has never been accepted within the ultra-Orthodox communities which, as they have increased in numbers, have also erected even stronger walls and barriers between themselves and the secular world outside.

Getting an education and a professional qualification is not only about the need for more people within the haredi community to earn a wage which can help them provide for their large families, and to prevent them from being dragged down into the growing cycle of poverty within these communities.

As the haredi population has experienced exponential demographic growth during the past three decades, so too their need for qualified psychologists, doctors, social workers, therapists and family counsellors has increased in tandem.

The fact that such qualifications can be obtained by people from inside the community who understand the inner workings and daily life patterns of their own communities is of even greater importance.

Until now, the professional workers, largely coming from an external and secular world, spend much of their time trying to understand the customs, religious and sexual behavior of a population often perceived as just as alien as a tribe in Africa. Their professional qualifications aside, they are not equipped to understand the complex family and personal issues of a population that live their lives according to strict Orthodox halachic principles, making it difficult for them to offer real practical assistance in alleviating the problems at hand – and as the community grows, so too do the social and welfare problems which are being encountered on a daily basis.

This week’s Ben-Gurion University and Haredi College graduates, under the full auspices and accreditation of the Council of Higher Education, are pointing the way in the right direction, and it is one which should be encouraged even more strongly in the coming years.

The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.


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