Academic degrees sought by growing number of haredim

Founder of Haredi College: Most rabbis realize not every yeshiva student is cut out to be a Torah scholar.

Haredim 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Haredim 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A growing number of haredi women - and men - want professional careers based on academic training, says Rabbanit Adina Bar-Shalom, founder and chairman of the Haredi College (Michlala Haredit) in Jerusalem, which teaches both. Bar-Shalom, daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said at a conference yesterday that "most rabbis" realize not every yeshiva student is cut out to be a Torah scholar, and they allow such men to go work if economic hardships are causing a serious crisis in the family. Bar-Shalom, who married at 19 and whose husband studied in a higher yeshiva for seven years before becoming a rabbinical court judge, was speaking at the seventh annual conference of Nefesh Israel, a network of Orthodox mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers). The organization is headed by Shaare Zedek neuropsychologist, Dr. Judith Guedalia, and veteran social worker, Leah Abramowitz. Some 300, including some from abroad, are attending the two-day conference that began Wednesday at the Bayit Vegan Guest House. Bar-Shalom, a mother of three and grandmother of 13, addressed the participants on "Realizing a Dream: Torah Values Encounter Modern Reality." She said that mental health is still mysterious in the religious community, and that mental illness continues to bear stigmas. "People are afraid, but conferences like this help to break taboos." Studying at university is widespread among haredi Jews in the US and Europe, but it is still eschewed by most haredim because they fear content and environments in secular universities that conflict with Halacha and could lead believers astray. But Bar-Shalom said that "Israeli society is marching towards academization. It is harder now for those who don't have academic degrees to find work. So I decided that instead of sending our young people to [secular] universities and colleges, we can create our own with our own content." Started in 2001 with 23 young women after receiving approval from then chairman of the Council of Higher Education, the Haredi College has over 400 students studying social work, medical lab technology, speech therapy and other disciplines. A few dozen haredi men study separately with the aim of learning a profession. "I am practical," said Rabbi Yosef's daughter. The academic program for social work is provided by faculty of Bar-Ilan University and on the same level as that taught in BIU. The medical lab technology degree is in affiliation with Hadassah College. But a committee of rabbis who receive course materials in advance decide which "touchy" issues should not be taught students of social work. Nevertheless, said Bar-Shalom, the haredi women - many of them already wives and mothers - are well aware of the "unpleasant" facts of life in Israeli society such as crime, violence, homosexuality and abuse, and rabbis teach them and strengthen them spiritually for four hours a week to discuss these issues and answer questions. Bar-Shalom said some would-be students asked to study law, but the rabbis‚ committee refused, saying this was "gentile law," even though haredi men with law degrees can easily find jobs. Grade averages are as high as those in the same curricula in Bar-Ilan, she said, even though many of the Haredi College's students also have growing families to take care of, she said. The school, currently in Romema, also has an in-house day-care center, and mothers nurse their babies during class breaks. "People who can earn a living with honor should be respected. Two social work classes have already graduated. Our graduates leave as equals and work in the free market, and their degrees are accepted by all employers." Students pay tuition, and the college also receives support from the Council for Higher Education, but there are not enough scholarships and stipends to meet the demand, she said. The religious community "needs observant social workers, psychologists, speech therapists, educational advisers and other professionals," added Bar-Shalom. Social work students do practical training in religious and non-religious settings and after graduation, they work in a variety of work environments. Haredi society "won't forever have to take professionals from abroad. Haredi professionals can understand problems unique to the community, such as the terrible difficulty of women who have to ask their yeshiva student husbands to earn a living instead because of severe economic hardship." A haredi professional can understand the conflict, as haredi women whose husband do not study Torah "lose status," and starting to work without a secular education means the husband will earn little, at least initially. Although the college has asked Bar-Ilan to create a masters degree program in social work, BIU thinks it is "not necessary," she said, adding she would like to offer a degree in psychology as well, even though it takes seven years. Over 100 women want to do a masters degree in educational counselling, but the college has still not received permission to grant it," Bar-Shalom said. The Nefesh conference is dealing with a large variety of subjects, including children and cyberspace, fragmented families, juvenile delinquency in Israel and the US, what religious school teachers have to know about hyperactivity, pre-marital and marital conflict resolution, overcoming depression, psychotherapy through the lens of the Torah and eating disorders. One session will salute Israel Prize winner Prof. Reuven Feurstein, the founder of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning, which helps Down syndrome youngsters and others to reach their potential.