The haredi education system has long been seen as one of the defining factors of the community’s identity and the key to shaping the haredi identity of the next generation.
And one of the defining characteristics of the system is the refusal of haredi leaders to allow boys schools to teach core curriculum subjects such as Math, Science, English and all the other disciplines which make up the mainstay of a general education.
This arrangement creates severe difficulties for men who wish to join the workforce after their yeshiva studies, since their lack of even a rudimentary education blocks access to institutes of higher education.
And those who wish to join academic courses to fill the large gaps in their education face significant financial costs, not to mention the heavy time demands on the lives of men who typically are married with several children by their early 20s.
Increasing numbers of courses have been opened up at universities and academic colleges in recent years to help haredi men gain access to higher education and then integrate into the workforce, providing a solution for some with the haredi community.
But a new haredi institution is seeking to circumvent the problem through what is a revolutionary step within the haredi world, by providing both a religious and basic education at the high-school stage.
The Ein Hemed Campus and Darkei Torah Yeshiva in Jerusalem is seeking to demonstrate that haredi boys can be taught religious and secular studies under one roof, acquire the tools to integrate into the workforce or continue to higher education, and all the while remain firmly within the haredi world.
The yeshiva for boys and young men aged 17 to 22 has already made waves for what is a revolutionary approach to education in the sector, and has been on the end of fierce criticism from the haredi leadership.
Despite this criticism, or perhaps because of it, interest in Ein Hemed has grown and so has its roll call of students, from 25 in its first year, to 80 boys this academic year, and up to 120 boys for the academic year beginning in September.
The school day is split into three parts, with 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. dedicated to Torah study.
And this is not limited to the traditional fare of intensive Talmud study as taught endlessly in mainstream yeshivas, but includes the study of practical Jewish law and Jewish thought as well.
Unlike in the mainstream haredi yeshivas, the boys are examined on their religious studies and do the subject for academic units within their high school diploma.
From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. is given over to nonreligious education including core curriculum subjects such as English, Mathematics, History and Citizenship for which the pupils take the Israeli high-school diploma exams at the end of the course.
The students also study computer science, along with Web design and construction in order to begin preparing them for the job market, if not directly in the field of hi-tech then with at least as one marketable skill on their résumé.
A content writing component to the course has also recently been instituted.
A final study sessions is required from 8:15 to 20 p.m., in which pupils chose what they wish to focus on, be it their religious or secular studies.
But this academic year, Ein Hemed and its principal Rabbi Yisrael Rozovski have taken things a step further by instituting a program in which students have begun working together in teams for businesses, creating their websites and producing content for these enterprises.
Four businesses have already requested the services of Ein Hemed’s entrepreneurial students and their Hemed Net enterprise. Their website design and construction services cost NIS 3,000 and all the money goes to the students who work in several teams totaling 25 students in total, says Rozovski.
Moshe Shemesh, the coordinator and supervisor of the Hemed Net website design and construction initiative, said that the pupils showed great enthusiasm for the project and displayed an aptitude for the technical requirements of their endeavors as well as an appetite for work and self-dependence.
The goal is to give the pupils the self-confidence to be productive, to engender an enterprising spirit among them which Rozovski says is often lacking in students in mainstream haredi yeshivas and to provide them with the satisfaction and assurance that they can go out into the world and achieve and accomplish on a practical level.
Ein Hemed hopes to offer a degree course in Management and Computer Science through the Open University.
The course is scheduled to open in September 2016 for as many as 40 students.
Rozovski, who has been an educator in the haredi world for many years, says his ultimate goal is to bring a “Diaspora haredi perspective” to Israel’s haredi community, that is, to allow people to remain haredi and live a haredi lifestyle but to also provide an income for themselves and their families.
But the rabbi is also concerned for the welfare of the boys and their ability to become fully functional adults who can be self-sufficient, autonomous individuals in all areas of their lives and who can take responsibility for themselves and their future families.
“In the mainstream haredi education system, boys get spoon-fed and spoiled. They don’t need to think for themselves, everything will come from state or from donors and they never need to think about their financial future,” says the rabbi.
“What we’re saying is if you don’t rely on yourselves no one will. These boys need to take responsibility for themselves but they also need the tools to do so.”
Rozovski is trying to provide his charges with such tools, and to bestow them with possibility of choosing how they will be able to live their lives so that they are not captive to a system which all too often endows those who are in it with no choice at all.
“In the haredi world, a boy goes into yeshiva but is not set any goals or challenges, he just keep studying and studying at an age when a man should be developing himself and developing his creativity and his leadership ability.
“They get married, have a kid and start needing to go to communal charities because they’re having problems supporting their family, but they realize it’s too late to start studying for academic qualifications,” says Rozovski.
The pupils come from a range of backgrounds from within the haredi community.
Some are children of parents from abroad, some are from mainstream hassidic families, some from the “Lithuanian” non-hassidic haredi community, and some from families whose parents were originally secular and became religious later in their lives.
Like most pupils at Ein Hemed, Yosef, 19, had studied very little non-religious subjects.
“In regular yeshiva you learn only Gemara [Talmud], but I didn’t succeed because I couldn’t study Gemara all day.
I would get up for the morning prayer service and study till the afternoon, but afterward I just couldn’t concentrate anymore, so I would leave the study hall in the afternoon, come in and out, and just not do anything for half the day.”
Gamliel, also 19, was in a similar situation but says he is now catching up with his general education.
“At one stage I decided I don’t want to sit and learn all my life, I want to do something, to develop personal skills and eventually have a career,” he says. “At the moment I’m studying what secular kids learn in grade 10 and 11th grade,” he continued, adding that he was bothered by the fact that he was never able to study non-religious subjects before.
“This [haredi] sector decided that knowledge is a problem and prefers that people be ignorant and that they continue to be sheep led by the shepherd.
But people need to have their own opinions and knowledge,” Gamliel continues. The haredi leadership wants to prevent people in the community from challenging the accepted wisdom and norms of the community, including their voting patterns, he says.
“There are lots of reasons they [the haredi leadership] doesn’t want people to have knowledge.
When people get access to the Internet and are exposed to information, they can think things that their teachers or role models don’t want them to, he can answer questions about money and power, or decide not to vote for United Torah Judaism. It’s about sheltering people, so they can’t integrate and to keep them away from the Western world,” Gamliel says.
Aharon, 18, studied in mainstream haredi institutions, studying very little non-religious subjects at elementary school age and nothing in the haredi equivalent of high school, “yeshivot ketanot,” apart from religious studies.
“I was in a regular yeshiva and I didn’t do very much. There’s nothing really happening in the yeshivot. Here you see a future for yourself, and that you can have a good future. I don’t see that in the other yeshivot, but here too we learn Torah which makes me happy that I can do both. I’m still haredi, I still pray three times a day.”
Rozovski says that providing haredi boys with a real education and allowing the community to integrate into the workforce and be self-sufficient is necessary to protect the haredi way of life, seeing it as unsustainable in its current welfare-dependent format.
“We need to build yeshivas which combine professional training and preparation for life together with religious study, because this is ultimately the only way we can protect the Torah,” he says.
“I am not a revolutionary on ideological level, I simply want to provide solutions to the problems we’re finding on the ground in the haredi sector, so the purpose of the project is not to be a competitor to the yeshiva world, but to give an alternative to those who need it and provide them with a horizon for their life and their future.”