Out of School

Long-standing discrimination within the haredi community excludes Sephardi girls from high-level ultra-Orthodox schools - but their parents are starting to fight back.

15-cover2 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from the cover story of Issue 15. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. "Keren," a Jerusalem mother of three small children in her late 20s, feels humiliated and defeated. "I had heard about the patronizing Ashkenazi attitude towards Sephardim. But I never imagined I would experience it myself." She is careful to reveal very little about her life and demands that she not be identified. She says she is not comfortable talking about her ultra-Orthodox world to the secular press and does so only because her children's education is so important to her. She is dressed carefully, modestly, according to ultra-Orthodox custom, her long somber-colored skirt hanging loose around her body and her sleeves touching her wrists, despite the heat. She covers her head tightly with a dark-colored scarf. She was born in Israel to Moroccan-born parents, Keren tells The Report, and her family always been pious. She married a man from a similar background and, since their marriage several years ago, she and her husband Ya'akov, also in his late 20's, have become even more observant. They are careful to consult with their rabbis over most of their life decisions and obey their rulings. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief rabbi and the undisputed head of the Sephardi religious world, is their revered leader and they live according to his teachings. As a child, Ya'akov studied in a yeshiva, but the couple does not have enough money for him to devote his adult life to study. So he works in a hi-tech firm, but spends most of his free time "keeping up with his Torah studies," coming home only late in the evening. Although she would prefer to stay home with her children, their financial situation does not permit them this luxury, so Keren, too, works as an accountant in a small firm run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Keren and Ya'akov live in a tiny apartment in a poor, crowded ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. They read only newspapers and books approved by their rabbis. They do not own a TV or even a radio. Their oldest child, a girl who is now six years old, had since the age of three attended a kindergarten belonging to the Beit Ya'akov school system, which has a near monopoly on quality education for ultra-Orthodox girls. "When she was ready for first grade," Keren recalls, "when the registration started after Tu Bishvat (in February), I went to register her for the local Beit Ya'akov school on my street." But Keren's plans for her daughter's education collided with the realities of long-standing and deep-rooted Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox prejudice against Jews from Middle Eastern or North African backgrounds. The Beit Ya'akov school system to which she wanted to send her daughter, widely regarded as the premier ultra-Orthodox school system for girls in grades pre-K through high school and including postsecondary teachers' training institutes, has a discriminatory admissions policy and accepts only a quota of non-Ashkenazi girls - usually from well-placed or influential families. So deep seated is the prejudice that even numerous calls from Rabbi Shalom Yosef Eliashiv, the most revered rabbinic authority in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world, for the schools to accept Sephardi girls have gone unheeded. Last year, he even called for a school strike if they did not change their admissions policy. But even the venerated and powerful Eliashiv has been unable to get the discriminatory practices changed. And, apart from ignoring their own rabbinical authority, the schools are also flouting the law. A petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, representing several unnamed ultra-Orthodox parents, was presented against the Jerusalem municipality and its education department, and the courts have forbidden them to continue to permit the discriminatory admissions practices. The schools denied that they were discriminating or operating under a quota system, claiming that the girls had been rejected because they were "not suited" to the schools' religious practices and mores. Noting that the municipality has only minimal control over these schools, since they are, in effect, private, the municipality promised the courts that it would take upon itself to guarantee that "equal criteria would be applied," according to Deputy Mayor Rabbi Uri Maklev (from the United Torah Judaism party), who holds the municipal portfolio for ultra-Orthodox education. Keren relates that the secretary at the school asked first for her family name. Hearing her answer (Keren has a typically Sephardi name), the secretary grimaced and told Keren that she should look for other options for her child. "I didn't understand why," says Keren. "I came on the first day of registration, the list couldn't already have been full. The secretary just repeated again and again, 'Don't count on us.' And she refused to give me the registration forms. She just told me to call them within a week or so." Keren did call back, at least ten times. "Each time I called, the secretary became more unpleasant. She refused to allow me to meet the principal and she refused to allow me to register my daughter." Then, Keren began to receive odd visits from her neighbors and even from women she didn't know. "They tried to convince me that it would be better for my family and my daughter to send her to a Sephardi school. One day, even the principal of one of those Sephardi schools came by and tried to convince me to send my daughter there." Her husband received similar phone calls and visits from people he didn't know. "They even came to his place of work, with the same message." Desperate, convinced that her tender daughter's future was on the line - not only her education, but her chances for a good shiddukh (marriage match) when she comes of marriageable age - Keren turned to the offices of the ultra-Orthodox educational department in the municipality, "but they refused to listen to me." The principal did agree to see an Ashkenazi neighbor, who interceded on Keren's behalf. "But as I waited outside, I heard the principal telling my neighbor, 'let her go to the Sephardisher place,'" in a pronounced Yiddish accent, Keren recalls. The story - and Keren's unexpected persistence in her efforts to send her child to the more prestigious local neighborhood school with her friends from kindergarten - became the talk of the neighborhood. A woman she did not even know called her and told her that the only solution would be to send her daughter to a religious school that is accredited by the state - an anathema to ultra-Orthodox Jews, most of whom oppose the establishment, which they view as anti-religious. "I was horrified," she says. After months of frustration, and only after intervention by her brother-in-law, a respected rabbi in another city, Keren's daughter was accepted into a more prestigious Sephardi ultra-Orthodox school than the one in her neighborhood - but not to the Ashkenazi Beit Ya'akov neighborhood school that all her friends from prekindergarten attend. "At least our efforts to give our daughter the best haredi (ultra-Orthodox) education won't be lost," Keren concludes. "But I must tell you, that after that experience my conclusion is that for a Sephardi to stay haredi today is equal to a real 'mesirut nefesh' [sacrifice]." The story of Keren's daugh-ter's rejection and humiliation repeats itself every year all over Israel, hundreds of times. Despite legislation defining discrimination according to ethnic background as a criminal offense, in late October, well after the school year had begun in late August, officials in the Jerusalem municipality acknowledged that at least 30 ultra-Orthodox girls in first through ninth grades in Jerusalem, and several dozen others throughout the country, all from Sephardi backgrounds, were still not in school because they had not been accepted into the school of their, or their parents', choice. Activists claim the numbers are much larger, possibly totaling several hundred. And countless other Sephardi girls are attending schools they do not want to go to, convinced that their entire future rests on acceptance into a more prestigious Ashkenazi school, but having resigned themselves to an inferior life. Most of the ultra-Orthodox school system, including the Beit Ya'akov network, is made up of what are known as "recognized but unofficial schools." Unlike the "unrecognized schools," such as those run by the virulently anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, or the schools run by various hasidic groups, the "recognized but unofficial schools" accept the same per-child public funding as "official" schools, yet, at the same time, these schools have effective autonomy over their curriculum, registration and tuition fees. Tuition at Beit Ya'akov schools can reach hundreds of dollars a month per child, and the schools have full discretion over whether or not to provide scholarships for some or any of their students. As a result, despite the public funding, they are effectively private schools. Of course, officially, there is no such thing as an "Ashkenazi" school or a "Sephardi" school. But in reality, as Keren has now learned, the wealthier, more prestigious Beit Ya'akov schools are reserved for Ashkenazi girls, while their Sephardi peers are relegated to "their own" schools. Attempts to eradicate this long-entrenched, systematic discrimination, including appeals to the secular courts, have achieved only moderate success. Yoav Lalum, a rabbinical student and Shas activist employed by a prestigious rabbinic institution, who is studying at the Kiryat Ono law school preferred by the ultra-Orthodox, is leading the fight for equal rights for ultra-Orthodox Sephardim within their community. It is a fight in which, he tells The Report, he "takes no prisoners." Two years ago, Lalum had an experience similar to Keren's, when he tried to register his daughter for the Beit Ya'akov elementary school in his neighborhood, Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem, whose principal was none other than Yoheved Eliashiv, daughter-in-law to the esteemed Rabbi Eliashiv, who later told Lalum that while she respects her father-in-law's dictates, in this case, the child was rejected because her mother, Lalum's wife, is not "modest" enough. (She covers her head according to Sephardi custom and not with a wig, as most Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox women do.) Lalum appealed to the education ministry's ultra-Orthodox education department. "I was very naive," he says. "Then I discovered that the inspector of the haredi high schools at the education Ministry, Ruth Elmalihi, who is herself a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox woman, sends her own children to study in Ashkenazi schools - but she wouldn't admit that there is a problem regarding registration for Sephardi girls." Elmalihi declined to respond to The Report's questions. Describing himself as an "activist by nature," Lalum galvanized a group of parents and rabbis. Realizing that since even Eliashiv's calls have gone unheeded, he would have little sympathy in the rabbinic courts, Lalum created a website - originally known as Frenkim, an in-your-face use of the term used by Ashkenazim to put down Sephardim, but later changed to the more politic "Noar Kahalakha" (which could mean "Halakhic youth" or "Youth as they should be") - and gathered names and cases. But then Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef, son of Ovadia Yosef and an esteemed rabbi in his own right, encouraged Lalum to take a most radical step and appeal to the secular courts. In a public statement posted on Lalum's website, Yosef wrote, "I am issuing a religious ruling that there is no reason not to turn to the legal institutions in such cases, because they [the Ashkenazi school system leaders] are not obeying the halakha and the word of the Torah, and so it is best to turn to the courts or any other institution in order to put an end to the disgrace." In the eyes of most of the ultra-Orthodox, turning to the secular courts is a quadruple sin: spurning the community's internal batei din (religious courts), supporting the secular courts, which the ultra-Orthodox view as antireligious, supporting the secular establishment and washing dirty laundry in public. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.