Are Sephardi Jews not welcome in Israel's haredi girls' seminaries?

There is a fixed quota of Sephardi girls who are admitted to the seminaries, ranging from 30% to 40%. Year after year, the same shameful situation repeats itself.

 DIFFERENT POLICIES? On the way to school in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
DIFFERENT POLICIES? On the way to school in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Shifra (not her real name) was sure it wouldn’t happen to her. After all, her family lives in an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi neighborhood, her three brothers study in a prestigious Lituanian Ashkenazi yeshiva and one of them is highly regarded there. The family’s home doesn’t reveal any undesireable signs – no television, no non-kosher phones and even in the extended family, as is customary in Sephardi society, there are not any real seculars. Therefore, being rejected for enrollment in one of the prestigious seminaries in the city was a severe blow for her and her parents.

Shifra was not refused because of low grades; she actually has an impressive record of academic achievements. She is a quiet girl and her level of religiosity is indisputable. Her only drawback is her last name, which attests like a thousand witnesses to the Sephardic family’s origin, although she was born in Israel, as were her three brothers.

Sephardi haredi girls not enrolled in seminaries

Shifra is one of about 300 Jerusalem girls of Sephardic-tradition origin, completely ultra-Orthodox and from ultra-Orthodox families – some of whom are already second generation ultra-Orthodox – most of whom have adapted themselves to all the hallmarks of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox. However, as of this week, less than a month before the beginning of the school year, none of these girls has yet been enrolled in any seminary, which are the equivalent for high school in the public stream. (In the haredi education system, the school year starts on the first day of the month of Elul, on August 28 this year.)

Shifra’s story is just one of many that take place every year in Jerusalem, when parents are left to choose between the shame of not being “suitable” and the need to bite their lips and still find – by any means possible – a place in a good seminary, since this also has a significant impact on the daughter’s chances to later land not only a job that will allow her to support her family, but perhaps more importantly, the ability to find a decent match.

 STARK BREAKDOWN of Ashkenazi/Sephardi young women at Jerusalem’s haredi seminaries. (credit: Haredi Education Administration) STARK BREAKDOWN of Ashkenazi/Sephardi young women at Jerusalem’s haredi seminaries. (credit: Haredi Education Administration)

This is not a new phenomenon – it has been known for several decades.

Some claim that the Shas movement, and subsequently its transformation into the party represented in the Knesset, was mainly intended to put an end to the phenomenon of discrimination and deprivation of children of Sephardi families who were not accepted in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and seminaries. Until about a decade ago, these were all completely Ashkenazi institutions.

For the most part, the boys are admitted even to the more prestigious yeshivas, since the basis of the approach is the assumption that the boys will more easily succeed in fully assimilating into the ultra-Orthodox-Ashkenazi culture, including a certain mastery of the Yiddish language, and especially adapting to sacred studies in the accepted style in Ashkenazi yeshivas, which is different from the style of study among the Sephardim.

BUT FOR girls, the policy is completely different.

In these seminaries that are mostly recognized by the state and receive support from the local authority, there is a policy of numerus clausus (limited quantity) toward Sephardi girls.

Until a few years ago, this situation was officially denied, although everyone who was involved in the matter knew the truth. Today, there is not even an attempt to deny that there is a fixed quota of Sephardi girls who are admitted to the seminaries, ranging from 30% to 40%. Year after year, the same shameful situation repeats itself; a girl whose application exceeds the quota will not be admitted under any circumstances.

The shameful phenomenon is known to everyone in the national and local education system and so far, no one has been able to break this barrier.

Aryeh Ehrlich, editor of the haredi magazine Mishpacha, described a conversation with MK Uri Maklev in which he admitted that the late Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv ordered him to stop funding seminars that discriminate against female Sephardic students. 

Later, Maklev’s office released this statement: “The words were not said.” Maklev denied saying that but he did not claim that this was Elyashiv’s position. However, to this day, nobody – neither city council members, deputy mayor nor MKs – has succeeded to force the seminary principals to stop this prejudicial policy.

The list of ultra-Orthodox seminaries for girls in the city, on which the work of the ultra-Orthodox education department in the municipality is based, consists, unashamedly, of places where it is explicitly stated how many Ashkenazi girls and how many Sephardic girls study at the institution and includes the calculation by percentages. Needless to say, not a single Ashkenazi girl studies in the five Sephardic seminaries established by the Shas movement.

“This is according to the law, it is in our hands. The haredi education system is independent from us, but laws apply to them also.”

Jerusalem Municipality education official

A high-ranking official at the education administration at Safra Square, who asked not to be identified, said that if the municipality wanted to put an end to this situation, there was no need for a venerated rabbi to do it. “This is according to the law, it is in our hands. The haredi education system is independent from us, but laws apply to them also.” Asked why nobody has succeeded so far to put an end to this situation, her answer was that “this is not a matter of rules – everybody knows the rules. This is a political issue.”

TODAY THERE are about 20 ultra-Orthodox seminaries for girls in Jerusalem. Of these, only five were established and are run by a Sephardic haredi management. The other difficulty, beyond their small number, is that they are “unattractive” for many families. Although in the past, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri tried to set a personal example and sent his daughter to the first Sephardi ultra-Orthodox seminar in the city, “Beit Margalit” (named after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s wife), but the personal example did not sway many. 

A father of three daughters in the haredi education system said: “Very few will send their daughters from the beginning to these Sephardi institutions, and will do it only if rejected by all the Ashkenazi seminars and left with no other choice.”

“Very few will send their daughters from the beginning to these Sephardi institutions, and will do it only if rejected by all the Ashkenazi seminars and left with no other choice.”

Father of daughters in haredi education system

Attorney Yoav Lalum, haredi and of Sephardi origin, has been involved in the fight for equal placement of Sephardi girls since 2006. When he learned that this year, too, the number of Sephardi girls who were not admitted increased, Lalum contacted the municipality through the Freedom of Information Authority to get details on the issue. These questions were asked and as of now, Lalum has not yet received any results.

Among other issues, Lalum asked for the minutes of the placement committees for the last three years, the municipal placement instructions in the last three years, data regarding the sectoral identity of the girls who apply to the seminaries and the same for girls who were actually admitted. He also requested information on the municipality’s actions to deal with the problem of the “maximum quotas for Sephardim” in the high schools for girls in the city, any information related to the actions of the municipality to compare the number of Sephardim with the number of Ashkenazim who registered for seminaries, including the amount of applicants who were actually accepted, and whether or not there is discrimination.

Last but not least, Lalum asked for any information related to the actions of the municipality regarding a lawsuit or criminal complaint against any of these institutions in progress, as well as any information related to the complaints received by the Jerusalem Municipality regarding sectarian discrimination in admissions to seminaries, how they were handled and by whom.

While school principals and the municipal Education portfolio holder did not/were unable to comment, a municipality spokesman responded: “The data provided (300 girls) is incorrect. 

“Out of 3,500 girls who finished the 8th grade, there are just dozens left without a school who are set to be placed soon. The municipality is currently completing the placement procedure for these girls, and as part of this, new and high-quality institutions will be opened to provide a long-term solution.” ❖