Degrees of difficulty

Beliba Homa helps Haredi men overcome challenges as a lack of basic knowledge of math and English while pursuing a university education and maintaining their lifestyle by pairing them with students.

Haredi students in classroom (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haredi students in classroom
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The three young men seated at one of the tables in a little coffee shop in Rehavia look, at first glance, like any other young people having a chat over a cup of coffee. However, these particular three Jerusalemites – two haredi and one secular – are part of an ongoing coexistence project that aims to build bridges between those two communities while helping haredi participants with academic studies.
The secular man is Or Rapoport, a 29-year-old Hebrew University student and the co-director of nonprofit organization Tziyunei Derech (Landmarks). He is one of the activists behind the initiative known as Beliba Homa – Hebrew for “a wall in its midst.”
Amid the often intense public struggle between the haredi and secular communities on issues such as army service and haredi participation in the workforce, Beliba Homa aims to “create a connection of mutual responsibility,” according to its mission statement. In particular, its initiators have focused on the growing phenomenon of young haredi men leaving their yeshivot (or at least spending less time there) to seek out professional training or academic degrees so they can join the employment market.
Rapoport – along with fellow Tziyunei Derech director Ofri Raviv, 29, and activist Tomer Dror, 28 – established the initiative about three years ago to help acclimate these haredi students to their new educational environment.
“Those were the days of the bill for avrechim [young married yeshiva students], for whom the MKs of United Torah Judaism struggled to obtain livelihood allocations from the National Insurance Institute,” recalls Rapoport.
That move, he says, caused stormy protests among non-haredi university students, who were not granted the same conditions. “There were lots of protests on campus, and one day a student arrived there, carrying another student dressed as a haredi man on his back to illustrate the fact that one was a parasite living on the other – the student, who was studying, working, going to the army, while the haredi [man] wasn’t taking part in all these.”
Rapoport says that for him and Raviv, that tactic crossed a red line.
“We realized, of course, that this was the heart of the problem, but we didn’t want to use that language of hatred,” he says. “We thought that we had to find a way to bring about change without using this terminology of antagonism and politics.”
He and Dror decided to propose an alternative, and they began meeting discreetly with some of the local haredi political leaders, including one city council member. It took several months, but Rapoport and Dror say they finally managed to gain the leaders’ confidence.
They also looked into statistics and research on the subject. These figures told a different story than the popular discourse, revealing a steadily growing number of young haredi men pursuing academic education. However, the research also showed that half of these students were dropping out within the first year of study.
“Rapidly it also became clear to us that the main problem was the lack of preparation [for secular subjects],” says Dror. “The figures were there – the dropout rate during the preparatory classes and the first academic year reached 50%. It was obvious that that was the turning point, and that was where our help could make a difference.”
THIS PAST March, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies published a study on the ongoing transformation of the country’s haredi population – particularly developments in education and employment. That study, led by Prof. Amiram Gonen and Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, showed that 7,350 haredi men and women were enrolled in higher education during the 2011/12 school year, and that number is estimated to have grown to 10,000 in the 2014/15 school year.
In addition, the Central Bureau of Statistics issued a report last week showing a 16% increase in the employment of haredi men nationwide (from 40% to 56%) within three last years, and a 15% increase for haredi women (from 55% to 70%); Jerusalem contains about 40% of the country’s haredi population.
According to all of the parties involved, one of the remaining obstacles is that haredi students – especially men – lack knowledge in basic subjects such as math and English, and therefore experience difficulty in their academic studies. In addition, once they graduate, they face stereotypes that make secular employers reluctant to hire them, despite their high grades.
Yehuda and Hillel – the other two men at the Rehavia coffeeshop table – are among the thousands of young haredim who have found themselves struggling after choosing to pursue higher education.
Yehuda, 30, a married father of three, says he was a relative latecomer to the idea of getting an academic education.
“I was already married and a father, but the sense that this was not sufficient anymore began to nag at me,” he recalls, adding immediately that the critical point was his wife’s opinion. “I would never have thought to do it without the consent of my wife – that was a crucial point, and I believe it’s the same for all the yeshiva students who take this step.”
The next step was to talk to his rabbi at the yeshiva, who made no move to discourage him.
Yehuda stresses that it was a long process that entailed huge changes in terms of daily life and getting to know the new environment: “Everything is different and new; it’s a totally new world.”
Since he was born into a rabbinical family in England, he had it easier than many other yeshiva students: He had studied math at school back in the UK, and he knew enough English.
For him, the main difficulties began afterward: figuring out how to combine academic studies with working at least a few hours to help with the family budget, as well as maintaining ties with the yeshiva (the majority of haredim who decide to get professional or academic training still spend a few hours per week studying in yeshivot).
“People outside do not realize what this decision means for us,” says Yehuda. Nevertheless, he adds, “I am happy about my decision despite all the difficulties.”
His friend Hillel, 25 and engaged, confirms that the first step is getting the spouse’s approval: “I wanted to [make this lifestyle change] for a while, but I would never have taken any step before at least getting engaged and obtaining my fiancée’s consent.”
Once his fiancée agreed, Hillel, too, spoke to his rabbi at the yeshiva to get his blessing, then began attending law school. Since he didn’t know English and had only the most basic math skills, it wasn’t an easy task.
“That’s why the consent of a spouse is so important – you have to get the maximum support at home for this. Otherwise, it’s simply impossible,” Hillel says. “The burden is so heavy. Students in secular society have no idea how difficult it is, to take [it] all together – not only the studies themselves, but to start with basic English. Some of us don’t even know what the English alphabet looks like.”
Choosing to get married before beginning academic studies has an additional function in the haredi community: It makes the matchmaking process easier, since the decision to get a secular education can carry a social stigma.
“A young haredi [man] who has left the yeshiva has much lower chances of getting a good shidduch [match],” explains Yehuda.
“Friends at the yeshiva have come to ask me about taking the step [of going for a higher education]. I have always told them to wait, to get engaged and even married before they make any decision – that’s how it works in our society, we have to take that into account.”
BELIBA HOMA’S study model, at least, is similar to the one-on-one “hevruta” model that yeshiva students use. One haredi student meets with a non-religious student for three hours a week – two hours for help in specific academic subjects, and one hour for general study. The aim is to highlight issues that these students have in common, and thereby create a personal connection between them based on a more inclusive approach to their shared Jewish identity.
“We believe that by [doing so], we not only help the yeshiva students to achieve their goal of getting an academic education and getting better jobs, but we also... establish bridges between parts of our society,” says Rapoport. And it seems to be working, he asserts.
“The figures say it all – the project seems to be a real success. After a pilot launched in 2012 in Jerusalem, the project has been expanded to additional cities. By 2013, 50 pairs of students [one haredi and one non-haredi] signed up to be in the project, and gave [a total of] 2,000 mutual hours of studies. An evaluation survey taken toward the end of 2013 showed that close to 90% of the haredi students [in the project] had improved their academic achievements.”
In 2014, he says, an expansion of the project saw over 60 pairs of students sign up, while connections with additional academic institutions enabled Beliba Homa to establish an alumni program that continues helping the haredi students after they graduate.
“By now, over 400 students have already taken part in the project, and the list of those interested in joining is growing,” says Rapoport.
“Last summer, strong friendships that developed through the project led [to such close connections] that two secular alumni of the program chose their haredi partners to serve as their witnesses at their weddings,” he adds. “[It’s] living proof that the change is possible.”