College opens engineering program for haredim

New five-year degree program for ultra-Orthodox students opens at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering (SCE) in Ashdod.

Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The first engineering degree program in Israel designed specifically for haredi students was set to open on Monday at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering (SCE) in Ashdod.
The college is launching a five-year degree program in civil and software engineering, which has been tailor-made for the lifestyle requirements of its 100 ultra-Orthodox participants.
Three years ago, the college, which also has a campus in Beersheba, began a pilot program for haredi students in Ashdod, including a 15- month pre-college course designed to bring the students up to the required standards in math, physics, English and Hebrew.
The majority of haredi high schools for boys do not teach any core curriculum subjects, so haredi men seeking to enter institutions of higher education often have to complete these kinds of pre-college courses.
The preparatory course started with more than 30 participants, all of them men, but only 17 finished for various reasons. Of those 17, only 11 decided to embark on the engineering course itself, again for different reasons, but partly because the college was not able to create separate classes for the haredi students because of the low number of participants.
But once the pilot program with the remaining students was progressing smoothly, Dr.
Avshalom Danoch, the head of academic administration at the SCE, encouraged the college to roll out a full-fledged program for the haredi students.
He explained that one of the general goals of the college was to broaden access to engineering degrees for sectors of society without such opportunities, and that one of the groups that the college believed would benefit and be interested in engineering was the haredi population.
“We’re helping these members of the haredi community to enter a prestigious profession, and this is good for them and for the Jewish people in general,” Danoch said.
The new degree program, comprising 70 men and 30 women, provides monthly stipends for the participating students totaling NIS 30,000 a year per student, which is paid for by the Halamish NGO, directed by businessman and industrialist Eitan Wertheimer.
The haredi track will be separated by gender, with the classes for the women taking place in the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
time slot, and the classes for men scheduled between 3 and 8 p.m.
According to Danoch, this time frame was agreed upon since it allows any married women students with children to drop them off at school before their classes begin and pick them up afterwards, while men can study in yeshiva in the morning and attend their university classes in the afternoon and evening.
Additionally, no male lecturers will teach the female students, and no female lecturers will teach the men. The haredi program will also be taught in a dedicated building on campus, separate from the college’s other students.
The five-year degree includes the year of preparatory classes taken by the pilotcourse students, and was formally approved by the leading rabbis of the Gur community in Ashdod.
According to Danoch, two-thirds of the haredi students are Ashkenazi, and one-third Sephardi. Of the Ashkenazim, the overwhelming majority are hassidim, as opposed to the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” haredim.
In addition to students from Ashdod, participants in the new course will come from Bnei Brak, Kfar Chabad, Ashkelon, Rehovot and beyond.
Shmuel, 28, is one of the students from the original pilot course. A Gur hassid, married with two children, he served in the civilian service program, an alternative to military service for haredi men, before beginning his studies.
For Shmuel, continuing with the course involved challenges to his strict haredi lifestyle that will not be faced by students beginning today.
Because the size of the pilot group was so small, the college could not hold separate classes for them so they had to study in the regular classes with the rest of the students.
This meant that Shmuel had to share a class with female students, something that one or two of the haredim who started the preparatory course were not prepared to do and that caused them to leave the engineering program.
However, Shmuel was not ready to sit in classes with female teachers, so Danoch helped arrange for him and others a system in which a male student from the general student body would help him learn material from classes taught by women.
Because the new program will be big enough for dedicated classes and schedules, these are not issues that the new haredi students will face.
For Shmuel, who is also an ordained rabbi, studying for an academic degree is something he feels he has to do to support himself and his family, rather than something he’s particularly excited or even proud about doing.
And even once he completes the degree and graduates, he says he would still prefer to work part-time in the morning and study in yeshiva in the afternoon.
In his Ashdod community, where there are approximately 2,200 families in the Gur hassid community, Shmuel estimates that the overwhelming number of men in his age group work for a living, but mostly in jobs that do not require an academic degree.
But the minority who study full-time in yeshiva are the elite, he says, in terms of what haredi society perceives to be the ideal vocation for a man, while the rest are second-class, Shmuel says, a future member of this “lower” social stratum himself.
The number of haredim attending institutions of higher education is on the rise. According to the Bank of Israel’s annual report for 2011, the number of haredim who have acquired a higher education or training oriented toward the labor market has grown from about 2,000 since the middle of the last decade to about 6,000 in 2010.