Is this Jerusalem's most sought-after school?

This state-run haredi girls school, Bnot, Yerushaliayim, is the most sought-after school in the city. * Part III in our series on education in Jerusalem.

 BNOT YERUSHALAYIM: New state option for haredi girls. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
BNOT YERUSHALAYIM: New state option for haredi girls.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Surprisingly, the most sought-after school in Jerusalem is not one specializing in arts or nature but a state-run, ultra-Orthodox school – Bnot Yerushalayim elementary school. This school is part of the Maoz chain, where the girls are taught religious studies, as well as a full curriculum of math, science and English. 

This school is one of the most promising among the new establishments in the Orthodox-state education system – one that could only have been founded in Jerusalem. Bnot Yerushalayim was created with the aim of being an educational institution based primarily on Torah values and mitzvot alongside vocational learning and a full academic curriculum. 

Although this might sound trivial, it is a significant departure from the norm. Consequently, it has led to a significant degree of concern and even strong opposition in some quarters.

For Bnot Yerushalayim’s founder and principal, Bitya Malakh, her school’s main task is to help the girls realize their full potential, while still remaining true to their religion. Thus an appreciation of the Torah as the stepping stone to building their home is paramount.

Malakh firmly believes that nothing is beyond the reach of haredi girls. Medicine, engineering, sports, and the arts are just some of the areas in which haredi women will excel in the future.

 Young haredi girls on the way to school in Jerusalem. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Young haredi girls on the way to school in Jerusalem. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

BUT WHAT is a public haredi school? 

It all started in 2014, with a decision by then-education minister Shai Piron to establish a haredi state education network (mamlahti-haredi) whose goal was to create an alternative framework with a full state curriculum for those ultra-Orthodox parents who were interested. 

The decision was made on the back of a growing number of parents in the haredi sector who were looking for an educational institution that would guarantee a strict haredi education, alongside a full curriculum for their children. This would give the students the necessary tools to enable them to enter the labor market on a level playing field with their non-religious peers, thus increasing their chances of making a good living and leading a fulfilling life.

However, even for ultra-Orthodox parents who are willing to risk having to deal with the harsh reactions of their community and the establishment, there is still a long way to go. 

According to research from the Israel Democracy Institute, the main reason that schools join the state-Orthodox stream is economic crisis. Although the state has a vested interest in expanding the ultra-Orthodox state education system with the introduction of core studies, the Ministry of Education has done little to help them. 

According to estimates, between 60 and 80 groups of haredi parents are interested in joining the state-Orthodox stream, but for most of them it is just a pipe dream.

One of the factors preventing schools from joining this stream is opposition from the municipalities, which fear an increase in their expenses. Pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition is another factor. 

Some haredi parents, fearing a loss of control over their children, have placed huge stumbling blocks in the way of those who want a broad education for their children and are willing to face the consequences, such as problems in matchmaking and rejection by the mainstream haredi community. 

MK Yitzhak Pindrus of United Torah Judaism, who has denounced the new curriculum, declared that he would willingly face poverty and misfortune “to ensure that children have a better chance of remaining Torah-observant and carry out mitzvot.”

In 2018, according to the Knesset’s Information and Research Center, only 12,666 students studied in the state-Orthodox stream: 4,139 children in 164 kindergartens, and 8,527 students in 60 schools. To illustrate how low this number is, the number of ultra-Orthodox children of preschool and elementary school age is estimated to be 300,000 across the country, and over 100,000 in Jerusalem alone. 

BACK TO the Jerusalem-based Bnot Yerushalayim school, where principal Malakh is building programs to teach the dual curriculum adapted to the haredi lifestyle. Most of the girls at the school come from the Lithuanian stream, but there are also some who are hassidic. All these students are aware of the price they will pay for joining Bnot Yerushalayim with its secular studies, but chose that path.

“With us, it’s not just what, but how, you learn and teach. We have face-to-face learning, but there are many more ways. This is differential learning – changing, flexible, adapted and very creative.”

Bitya Malakh

Malakh explains why her school is special, since there were core studies for girls before she became the principal: “With us, it’s not just what, but how, you learn and teach. We have face-to-face learning, but there are many more ways. This is differential learning – changing, flexible, adapted and very creative.

“But most important is the pursuit of excellence as a central message. We tell the girls, ‘Get the most out of yourself.’ We don’t say you learn math because you have to, but let’s do our best; let’s work on science experiments; let’s think in a way that involves the student at every stage of the learning process. 

“This is an aspiration that did not exist in Beit Ya’akov. God forbid, I do not belittle a good and righteous student, but there is no aspiration for excellence in lay school studies. With us, the message is: learn and learn everything in pursuit of excellence from your strengths and abilities.” 

Malakh points out that today, it is not only the teachers who are knowledgeable; it is important for the students to be responsible and study by themselves, as well as with their teachers. 

She also points out that it is similar to the study method adopted in a yeshiva fellowship, where the yeshiva focuses on bringing out the best in the boys. “That’s why we also use the fellowship method – a method from our Jewish tradition for studying, where you have to make an effort. But we also teach our girls to learn in order to pass it on. Studying is not only for yourself but also so that what you acquire in your studies, you can convey to others. That is what is expected of the girls here.”

Regarding the opposition or suspicion by the haredi sector, Malakh says, “It comes in waves. Some say ‘Why are you introducing secularism? Who gave you permission?’ And there are times when everything is calm. Some will come and slap us: ‘Who are you to make changes?’ Personally, I do what I believe,” she retorts.

Her vision?

“My big vision is for the girls to start life with two pockets – one pocket is the holy one. Who and what we are so that she has knowledge of Torah, history, Halacha and self-knowledge – so our girls know what and where to open sources. On the other hand, I want the basis of the potential to be general studies. I want our students to feel that they find themselves and fit into the general world.

“A gifted girl who is capable of being a doctor has no reason to be a kindergarten teacher.” ❖