Haredi College for Women celebrates first graduating class

Haredi community is undergoing a gradual, yet radical, transformation.

haredi woman stroller 88 (photo credit: )
haredi woman stroller 88
(photo credit: )
The Haredi College for Women, backed by Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is leading a silent revolution. The graduation of the college's first class of 44 social workers, which was marked on Monday evening at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, is another sign that the parochial, conservative haredi community is undergoing a gradual, yet radical, transformation. "It is a cause for celebration," said Dr. Tami El-Or, a Hebrew University anthropologist who specializes in "women, knowledge and religion" and is an expert on haredi education for women. "For the first time the haredi community has dared to openly legitimize university-accredited degrees for women," she said. "This is not just a computer programming course that allows haredi women to compete in the outsourcing market with Indians." When the college was first established in March 2001, it was attacked by conservative circles in the Ashkenazi rabbinic establishment. The rabbis feared that the women, who are required to complete the equivalent of a high school matriculation and who are exposed to the social sciences, would abandon Orthodoxy. In the first year of the college's existence, functionaries close to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv issued a declaration in his name attacking the college. But the criticism died down in part because the college enjoyed the backing of Yosef, the most respected halachic authority in the haredi Sephardi world. Yosef's daughter, Dina Bar-Shalom, established and chairs the college. "Only someone with the stature of Rabbi Ovadia has enough clout to do something like this," said MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) ahead of the graduation ceremony. Yosef, who was present and blessed the graduates, is considered more moderate than many haredi Ashkenazi halachic authorities when it comes to openness to non-Jewish culture. For instance, he is known to be an expert on Arab music. The Jerusalem Post had difficulty interviewing students, who rushed around in turquoise graduation gowns during the reception that preceded the ceremony, since there was strict separation of men and women. However, the Post managed to speak with Hadassah, one of the graduates, who studied at the haredi Beit Ya'acov high school before attending the college. "All of my friends have encouraged me," she said. "Nobody tried to talk me out of it." A father of a graduate said it was one of the happiest evenings of his life. Asked whether he was concerned about the opposition of certain rabbis, he replied, "My rabbi advised me to send her to the college. Besides these girls will be able to serve the haredi community better than secular social workers. They'll be doing a big mitzva." Bar-Shalom said that much effort was invested in fostering a learning environment that is suitable to graduates of Beit Ya'acov high schools. "I have young women 18 and 19 years old coming to the college," she said. "They need spiritual strengthening. Our curriculum includes a heavy load of Judaism. Although we learn social sciences, including psychology, there are no humanities." The college has 400 students. Four new classrooms are being added. In addition to the social sciences and social work program, which is accredited by Bar-Ilan University, there is also a course for speech therapists and medical laboratory technicians via Hadassah College. Bar-Shalom said she was negotiating with Ben-Gurion University to receive an accredited course of training for educational advisers and clinical pharmacists. The celebration coincided with the publication of the poverty report, which pointed to a large percentage of haredi families living under the poverty line. Deep cuts in state child allowances, aimed at pushing the unemployed into the workforce, have drastically reduced the available income of many haredi families, which are often headed by fathers who choose studying Torah over work. In many cases, women have become the primary salary earners. Although she denies that her college's student body, which is about half Sephardi and half Ashkenazi, has grown as a result of these cuts, Bar-Shalom admits that the purpose of her college is to get her graduates jobs. The course in most demand is speech therapy. "We only accept women with a psychometric grade of at least 650 and five units of math and English. We only have room for 35, so we will pick only the very best," she said. The college is not the only institution in the haredi community which provides college accredited bachelor's degrees. There is another college in Jerusalem, one in Bnei Brak and a law degree course at the Kiryat Ono College. But Hebrew University's El-Or said that the college is unique. "The entire institute caters solely to the haredi community, unlike the Bayit Vegan college which has a majority of modern religious women," she said.