What is Ono Academic College's secret to success?

Ranan Hartman says that since its inception, he has tried to bring the very best teachers to the Ono campuses.

 RANAN HARTMAN, founder and CEO of Ono Academic College. (photo credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE)
RANAN HARTMAN, founder and CEO of Ono Academic College.
(photo credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE)

“You have to understand the background that I come from,” says Ranan Hartman, founder and CEO of Ono Academic College. “If you’re a Hartman, you have a mission.” 

Growing up as the youngest child of the late Rabbi David Hartman, the well-known philosopher, author, scholar and founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Ranan says that he learned two important lessons. 

“I was told two things. One, you can actually change the world. Two, there is no value in complaining about the problems of the Jewish people. Step up and try to fix what’s wrong,” he says. 

If he has not yet changed the world, Ranan Hartman, who founded Ono Academic College 25 years ago at age 26, has undoubtedly changed the face of higher education in Israel, and in doing so, is attempting to affect social, societal, and educational change in this country. 

Hartman himself graduated from Bar-Ilan University’s School of Law in 1995, but after seeing large numbers of Israeli students not getting accepted to Israeli institutions and having to travel abroad to study law – particularly England – he was inspired to open a school of his own. Hartman acknowledges that he received assistance along the way. 

 COMMON GROUND: Haredi and Arab students complete their higher education at Ono. (credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE) COMMON GROUND: Haredi and Arab students complete their higher education at Ono. (credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE)

“I had a lot of help from family and friends, from people who were working with my family for many, many years, and felt it important to support the educational process that I’m talking about,” he recalls.

In its early years of operation, Ono was affiliated with the University of Manchester before becoming an independent Israeli school fully accredited by the Council for Higher Education in Israel. Ono Academic College has grown from a single trailer accommodating 100 students with programs in law and business, into Israel’s largest private college, numbering more than 18,000 students studying at five campuses nationwide – Kiryat Ono, Jerusalem, Haifa, Netanya, and Or Yehuda – and offers 47 different programs of study. 

What is the secret of Ono’s success? Hartman says that since its inception, he has tried to bring the very best teachers to the Ono campuses. “Compromise on how your campus looks, but don’t compromise on the quality of teachers,” he says. 

Moreover, the school must offer practical courses to ensure that students can find employment. “Make sure that the academic studies are applied,” adds Hartman. “We have enough universities in Israel that are doing a great job with research. Of course, when you bring the best teachers in Israel, they are dealing with research, but the emphasis is on ‘How do I make sure that we are a direct channel to the job market?’”

Soon after the founding of Ono Academic College, Hartman initiated what has become one of the school’s hallmarks: its social responsibility to serve different populations in Israel who have not pursued higher education in large numbers – specifically, members of Israel’s haredi and Arab populations. 

“We were the first to open up a separate campus for the ultra-Orthodox community in 2001, six years after we started,” he says. Today, almost half of all the ultra-Orthodox students in Israel study at Ono. 

Hartman emphasizes that his aim in opening programs for the Arab and haredi sectors is to enable them to flourish and succeed in the school, while respecting and understanding their point of view without forcing them to change. 

“Real pluralism doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, of course, I have no problem taking a haredi to my job, but just let’s make sure that he doesn’t want a kosher kitchen inside, and when he goes to my clients, he should dress a little bit differently because I don’t want my clients to feel uncomfortable.’ 

“That’s not accepting the haredi inside the job force. Or, making sure that an Arab becomes a Zionist – that’s not pluralism. That’s making sure that your vision and your ideology change other people. Pluralism is respecting the differences.”

“A,” a haredi graduate who did not want to provide his name for this article, grew up in Bnai Brak and studied in yeshiva and kollel for many years. At age 35, he decided to pursue professional studies. Many of his haredi friends recommended Ono, and he studied law at the school’s haredi campus. 

“I very much enjoyed my studies there,” he says. “I felt that they made the academic world accessible to me.” Excelling in his undergraduate studies at Ono, A is currently interning in a Tel Aviv law firm while studying for a master’s degree at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

He says that Ono acted as a bridge between the world from which he came and the world of academia. “They explained terms to me and gave me direction and guidance – everything that was needed in order to understand what was required, while keeping and preserving my identity.” 

A’s family supported his decision to attend college, largely because he was studying in the haredi program at Ono. “It would have been more difficult for them to accept it, had I been studying in a less haredi, more general program,” he adds.

At Ono, says A, the administration exhibited great consideration and understanding for his needs. Many students prefer to take examinations on Sundays, so that they can study on Friday and Saturday. “We can’t study on Shabbat,” he notes, so the school arranged to give exams on a different day. 

“They were very attentive to us, and they helped me in every way possible.” He adds that at Ono, he expanded his awareness of people beyond the immediate haredi community by tutoring students from the general student population.

Mohammed Adarbeh, 27, grew up in Jerusalem and began studying at Ono’s campus in the capital in 2016. He spent three years at the school, receiving a bachelor’s degree in education, and is now in the second year of a three-year master’s program in business administration there.

When he arrived at Ono, his Hebrew proficiency was at a very low level. “In the school system in east Jerusalem,” he explains, “we studied according to the Palestinian Authority’s educational system, and we didn’t learn Hebrew. That makes it very difficult to enter the job market.” 

Adarbeh received a great deal of assistance at Ono, and today reads, writes, and speaks Hebrew at a high level. Moreover, he says, there are Arab speakers and advisers who help the schools’ Arab students. 

Students from all different sectors are at Ono,” he notes. “You see the entire country – haredi, secular, religious, and national-religious. You start communicating with students, and you begin to understand the different cultures.” He quips that now he even knows the differences between kashrut standards among the Jewish students.

Adarbeh points to Ono’s numerous programs to help integrate students. Israeli-Arab students tutor Jewish Israelis in Arabic, and Jewish students help Arab students with their Hebrew. 

Adarbeh admits that when he first arrived at Ono, the conception he had of Jews was entirely from the media – but his opinion quickly changed. “After I succeeded in integrating with the students, the picture changed, in the same way that the Jewish students changed in their feelings about the Arab students. I am not the same Mohammed that I was five years ago,” he declares.

During Ramadan, he says, the Jewish students respected the fasting Arab students, and didn’t eat in their vicinity. Each night, when the fast ended, he says, students – Jewish and Arab – sat together breaking bread at the same table. “It was an amazing experience. The campus is truly multicultural.”

ACCORDINGLY, IN Hartman’s view, the Israeli melting pot philosophy – which he terms “everyone has to become a Sabra in order to have the right story” – may have been appropriate for the early years of the state but is no longer the case. 

“That’s not the way to deal with Israel’s problems in the year 2022, looking ahead to 2035 to 2040,” says Hartman. “Clearly, the way is to make sure that there’s a round table where different cultures can sit together, not to dismiss their past, but to feel very comfortable about their past and making sure that their past is part of their present and future. 

“But there’s a new story being told here – of a new Israel that can coexist with the different stories. That is what Ono is about.” 

Today, Hartman suggests, Israel is essentially divided into three or four main communities – the haredim, Arab, secular and national-religious. “We are not one community,” he laments. “We are separate in our educational systems. We are separate in where we live. 

“After working for 20 years with all of the distinct populations in Israel, it’s very clear to me that if we don’t build a clear foundation from a young age – where Israelis meet each other on common ground and discuss what makes up this common ground– there is no way that we can overcome 25 years of each citizen living alone, inside his community, and then think that he could come out and become a pluralist who can live with other communities.

“In our educational system,” he adds, “my children only see their peers. How can we expect them from the ages of 25 to 40, when they’re supposed to lead the economy, to become pluralists? How can they open up the job market for the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab population if they have never met them? Not only have they never met them, but the story that we are telling our children in the history courses is that they are the enemy.”

In Hartman’s view, the common ground shared by the diverse groups that make up Israel’s citizenry is education. To that end, Ono Academic College will be opening two multicultural campuses. The first, in Jerusalem, will be opening in May in the Talpiot neighborhood. The second campus will be built at the main Ono campus in Kiryat Ono and will open in January 2023. 

The huge building project at the main campus will be spread over 30,000 sq.m. and will unite the ultra-Orthodox campus with the main campus of the college. Hartman is optimistic about the physical relocation and merging of the different groups. 

“Settlers, and Israeli Arabs from East Jerusalem, and the secular population and the haredim in Jerusalem and here at Ono, can come together and learn together and dream together and build the new Israel together.”

Ono Academic College attempts to integrate groups on campus in a variety of multicultural projects. Some examples include “Et Shalom,” a creative writing project in Arabic and Hebrew that brings together Arab and Jewish students from East and West Jerusalem to write together; “Closer Closer,” which initiates weekly telephone conversations between secular and ultra-Orthodox women about life; and “Two Gods, One Father,” in which religious leaders, religious community leaders, faculty members in religious studies classes and opinion leaders in Judaism and Islam discuss ways to calm spirits and end violence of any kind.

While the haredi students studying at the multicultural campuses will be studying separately, explains Hartman, they will be together with the other students in all common areas of the school. “The library is part of the common area. The cafeteria is part of the common area. The clinics that are implementing what the job force needs are part of the common area. I have to bring everybody slowly, but with a lot of confidence, and a lot of sensitivity, together to this public arena.”

Hartman suggests that the multicultural campuses will present disparate segments of Israeli society to come with their own story. Nevertheless, he submits, the narrative must change. 

“The future of your story means that you have to be willing to write a new chapter. You can’t be stuck with the story that you had for 70 or 2,000 years. You have to say that the only way for Israel to coexist among the different segments of its society is if everybody agrees that there’s room for a new chapter that includes everybody.”

“WHAT ARE our success stories?” asks Hartman rhetorically. He answers that close to 6,000 haredim who attended Ono can now support their families today without the State giving them welfare. Some, he says, are working in the State’s Attorney’s Office, while others are working in leading banks and accounting firms. 

“They are producing two things,” says Hartman happily. “They are supporting their own families, and they are showing their families that you can stay ultra-Orthodox, but still play in the public arena of the modern state of Israel – that there is not a contradiction in terms.”

Hartman acknowledges the criticisms that have been directed toward him for permitting haredi men and women to study separately at Ono. 

“Secular Israel is saying, ‘Why are you teaching on separate days for haredi women and separate days for haredi men? Why are they not studying together inside together with secular students?’ I’m saying I don’t like that. I wouldn’t want my child to learn in a separate campus for men and for women, and I definitely believe in coed studying, but I’m not the question. 

“The focus is how do I make sure that haredi women come to my campus, and from my campus, jump directly to managerial positions in banks, law firms and accounting firms, and for hi-tech judges – and they can work for the country. 

“Without us making sure that we build programs that are culturally sensitive for haredi men and women, they won’t come. My path is very, very clear. Everybody is equal. Everybody is entitled to tell me what his sensitivities are, and it’s my responsibility to build a campus that is sensitive to their sensitivities, which is listening to their sensitivities, and is being built accordingly.”

Ono has also distinguished itself with its programs for Ethiopian students. Hartman recalls that 20 years ago, a representative from the Jewish Agency asked him to accept one Ethiopian student in the Ono’s law school. Hartman says, “You don’t create social change with few numbers. If you want to change society, you have to work with the masses.” 

Hartman arranged to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian students, and today, he says, more than 1,000 Ethiopian graduates of Ono are succeeding in Israeli society in numerous fields. He points with pride to Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, a graduate of Ono Academic College, who is the first Ethiopian-born woman to become a member of the Knesset and the first Ethiopian-born minister. 

“We opened the doors for the Ethiopian community,” says Hartman, “and we say clearly to every young child that’s learning in elementary school: It’s legitimate to dream, and we are showing you that if you dream and work hard, we’ll show you where you could end up, and there is no glass ceiling for any kid in the Ethiopian community today.”

He adds that it was not just a matter of accepting the Ethiopian students. “Accepting is easy, but it is also understanding that sometimes in high school, they had not learned English well enough because it was their third language. 

“We have to work on their English skills. We have to work on their Hebrew skills. We have to work on their confidence. It’s accepting, opening your heart, opening the door, understanding their needs, and creating answers to those needs. And then at the end – that’s the most important – it’s making sure they get jobs.”

Ono Academic College is privately funded and does not take money from the government. “We are totally independent,” says Hartman, “and we’re constantly looking for partners in Israel and America, Canada and Europe, to dream together with us what the Israel of 2035 has to look like.” 

Hartman has already initiated a program for Israelis living abroad to study at the school via Zoom, and hopes to begin a program for overseas students at Ono in the next several years. Typically, Hartman adds, “I would like to use the overseas program as a start of a dialogue between Diaspora Judaism and Israelis living in Israel, understanding that we have so many common values.”

For Ranan Hartman, the key to his success at Ono is listening to the diverse sounds of Israeli society, trying to make sense of the noise, and developing a harmonious tune. 

“If we get together, listen to each other’s sensitivities, and try to maintain a reality in which we are sensitive and can create conditions where your sensitivity is heard, and we act upon them – we won’t solve all our problems. That’s for the Mashiach (Messiah), and I’m not waiting for the Mashiach. 

“I want to try to create a better Israel today, and tomorrow, when the Messiah comes, it will be better, I’m sure. There’s no reason to wait for the Messiah. He will come through our actions today.” ■