Head of the class

She doesn’t call herself a feminist, but Adina Bar-Shalom’s efforts at the Haredi College are opening up a host of new opportunities for the next generation.

Adina Bar-Shalom 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Adina Bar-Shalom 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The first thing that I noticed on my way to meet Adina Bar-Shalom, the founder and president of the Jerusalem Haredi College, was the daycare center. Located opposite the entrance to the college building in Malha, it is surrounded by green grass, with a large playground where a bunch of toddlers were playing together. These were the children of the students of the Haredi College – the only institution of higher learning in Israel that provides such a facility.
“In the first year, we had 27 students, one of whom was already a mother. She had no choice but to bring her child to school with her, so I took care of the baby while she was in class,” recalls Bar-Shalom.
The following year, the school had two students with toddlers, so Bar-Shalom gave them her office, and she and her staff looked after the children.
“When the babies numbered six and more, I realized that we wouldn’t be able to continue that way, so I decided to open an in-house day-care center,” says Bar-Shalom. “Our students marry early. They build a family, which is the most important thing in our eyes, so for me it was natural to provide the help necessary to enable them to study in peace,” she explains.
Adina Bar-Shalom, the eldest daughter of former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is well known to the Israeli public. She has participated in numerous encounters – between secular and religious, Arabs and Jews, leftists and right-wingers – went to Auschwitz with a delegation of Jews, Muslims and Christians and has appeared on many news programs and talk shows. She is a highly valued partner in many social projects and is a member of a long list of organizational boards.
But in her eyes, her most important achievement is the Jerusalem Haredi College, which caters not only to haredi women but to haredi men as well. The latter attend classes on separate floors, observing strict gender separation.
Next month, the college will mark its 10th year, and Bar-Shalom is already working on her next objective: to build a new campus for the institution in the city.
Bar-Shalom, who is in her 60s, is an elegant, wellgroomed woman with a ready smile. She is married and the mother of three and grandmother of many. In keeping with her father’s rules, she does not have a wig but wears a hat as her head covering.
She is frequently interviewed by the media, and a documentary about her life has recently been screened. She admits that she is still not used to the “fuss” that is made about her, but she understands that there is no other way to promote her ideas and her aims.
A few years ago, she candidly admitted that “charity work” was not for her, feeling that her capabilities were much better suited to the academic world.
The seeds of the Haredi College were sown when she was 14. As a young girl she was sent to learn sewing, but her profound desire was to continue in theoretical studies. The idea began to germinate, brought to fruition many years later, to pave the way for haredi girls to study while maintaining the conditions required by their community.
But Bar-Shalom is quick to emphasize that she is not a feminist but genuinely wants to provide young haredi women and men with the means to earn a good living.
“The requirement in the workplace today is an academic education. You can’t earn a decent salary without it. So I decided that my task was to provide such a high-level academic education, but to create it within a strict haredi environment so that our young women and men could feel at ease while acquiring such an education. This was pure social interest, not anything connected with a feminist agenda,” she points out.
Although she is very cautious not to step on anyone’s toes, Bar-Shalom does not hesitate to express her opinions on issues related to haredi society and its interaction with general Israeli society, including some political aspects. However, she delineates that on any issue, the only point of view that really matters to her is her father’s.
“For me, he is the only authority.
He is the only one who decides if I should start a certain project or not; if I become involved in a social public activity or not. To this day, anything I do, I do only after I consult him and receive his blessing. Even here, with this wonderful thing, the Haredi College, if he told me to close it down, I would do so immediately.”
Bar-Shalom emphasizes that although the college is the result of her tremendous effort and input, there is no question in her mind that it is, first and foremost, the result of her father’s courage and capacity to grasp the importance of the revolutionary project in terms of haredi society and what it means for the promotion of haredi girls and women.
“I think my father deserves all the credit here. I came up with an idea, but he was the one who went far beyond anything that existed or was acceptable in our community at the time. And despite the fears and the concerns, he told me to ‘go for it.’ I consult him on every step: what to include in the curriculum, which courses to add. He listens, asks questions and eventually asks for some written material on it. Then he gives me his answer a few days later. He will never answer right away. He always brings the issue to the Council of Sages over which he presides, though it is clear that he presents those issues only after he has already made up his mind to accept them.”
THE JERUSALEM Haredi College is located in the Technological Park in Malha. It was founded in November 2000, and the first courses began in March 2001. The academic curriculum is provided by some of the highest educational institutions in the country, thus enabling a strict academic level: Bar-Ilan University, Hadassah Academic College, Ben-Gurion University and the Open University.
This year, 350 women and 250 men graduated from the various courses of the Haredi College, and almost all of them are already employed.
Bar-Shalom is a champion of empowering people to sustain themselves, though she is reluctant to use the Western political terminology. Instead of talking about “empowering women,” she quotes Maimonides and relies on his teachings to explain why a haredi woman should study and be able to earn a good living, just like any other Israeli woman.
Being involved in so many public issues, Bar- Shalom is used to expressing her opinions on such topics, though she is very careful in her choice of words and much concerned that nothing should be misinterpreted.
Bar-Shalom believes that fear is the reason behind the growing pressure from haredi circles on issues of modesty, especially in regard to women.
“The haredi community is far more exposed to the secular world than ever before. In our community, they always spoke about issues of modesty, even 50 years ago, but they didn’t make such a fuss about it in public as they do today. We all agree that it comes from extremists, who climb on a bandwagon and say.
‘Let’s make an additional separation so it won’t disturb us.’ The fear is that someone won’t be able to restrain himself, to control his urges. It’s simple as that,” she says.
“I believe that it’s also because there is much more openness in secular society,” she continues. “You can see it when you walk in the streets, especially in the summer – I don’t have to tell you how women dress these days – not to mention the Internet, the newspapers.
Take the [former president Moshe] Katsav [rape] trial, for example. In the haredi newspapers it was mentioned very briefly, while in the secular media they were given every detail. Children read about it and ask their parents. You can’t hide things like that. The haredi community doesn’t want these things to reach the children, so there is a genuine fear,” she says.
On gender issues, Bar-Shalom says that while today the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi women are reduced to “almost nothing,” the interesting point is the attitude of the rabbis toward women’s employment.
“First of all, there are more Sephardi haredi women working than Ashkenazi haredi women. But there is more to it. It is acceptable that Sephardi women work for their own satisfaction and not just to earn a living.
It comes from an understanding that a woman who works at a job that she enjoys won’t feel that it is such a burden. She might earn less, but if she has a job she likes, then the money becomes secondary. In Ashkenazi society, it is different. There, the main issue is the family’s needs. The woman takes care of the family so the husband is free to study Torah.
Women will pay a very high price to remain teachers, for instance, so that it ensures the income needed. I would say that in Ashkenazi haredi society, the focus is on women as educators, while I believe – and I am very cautious not to generalize too much – that among the Sephardim, the focus is on what the woman likes and is interested in doing.” She adds that she sees indications that, over the years, Ashkenazi haredi society has become more pragmatic. She attributes this to the influence of her father, who she says has always been encouraging people to think for themselves and not become totally dependent on the rabbis’ rules.
One thing that disturbs her is what she calls the “accusation” of the secular community that haredim produce generations of people who do not really think but just obey.
“How can one say such a thing? The highest level of spiritual thought is inside our world, that’s written clearly. God created good and evil, and we have to choose every day, every moment – so how can one say that we don’t think?” she says.
“It was the social worker issue,” she says. “We had a shortage of social workers in our community because it was so crucial that on this particular issue we had people who understood exactly what the sensitive points and issues were. But that was the same in every new sector, I want to add. Of course, my father’s status among the council is different, but still he always brought the issues to them. This generation is very fortunate to have such a great spiritual leader, a father.”
BAR-SHALOM is reluctant to speak for her father, although he is ever-present in the conversation. Hinting at the recent criticism regarding his curses, particularly those heaped on the Palestinian leaders, she agrees only to say that she has no doubt that Israeli society – secular and haredi – understands exactly who her father is and what his achievements are. “I don’t feel he is diminished,” she says.
However, she adds that things were not easy for him from the start. She remembers her mother trying to persuade him not to go into politics, warning him that he would have to face slander and hatred and criticism.
“His answer was astonishing and remains an example for me,” she explains. Yosef had said to his wife, “So what shall I say to God when my time comes? That I abandoned my mission because I didn’t want to be criticized? I have a duty, and I will perform it.”
Bar-Shalom says she is concerned about the future of Jerusalem. “I wish I knew how to heal its wounds. I don’t want the secular community to leave this city. I don’t want the haredim to be afraid of the secular. I would like to see more respect here. I want to see a secular person being glad that a haredi family was moving into his neighborhood, and I don’t want to see a haredi expelling a secular neighbor.
“I used to live in Tel Aviv. For years my father lived on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv and then in Rehavia in Jerusalem. I raised my children in Tel Aviv, and my son is a rabbi and his sons are in yeshivot. I don’t see anything unusual here. My father raised a family of 11 boys and girls. All the boys are rabbis, yet we didn’t grow up in a religious neighborhood. I think that, on the contrary, we have something to give to each other instead of hating each other. I don’t want to see even one young person running away from this city, neither secular nor religious.”
Asked if she could understand the fear of the secular community facing haredim moving into a secular neighborhood, Bar- Shalom says, “It happens because haredim don’t feel comfortable seeing secular Jews driving their cars on Shabbat. Well, there are peaceful solutions for this. If we had buildings where people could park behind the buildings and take the cars from there and not close to their neighbors, that would make things easier for everyone. Look at Chabad. They live everywhere, and they manage.
I am against ghettos under any circumstances. It’s not healthy for our children. I want my children to know my neighbors, especially those who are not observant. I don’t know, perhaps one day that neighbor will want to get closer to us. People ask me, ‘What if the opposite happens?’ I reply that I believe we have the best tools to deal with it. Fear is not a solution.”
On the issue of gender separation in the haredi neighborhoods, Bar-Shalom says she is not a national commentator for everything that happens in Israeli society, although she admits that the choices made by the haredi community are not always the best ones.
Regarding the issue of segregation of Sephardi girls in the haredi education system, Bar-Shalom says that she grew up in the Ashkenazi haredi world and must admit they have done a tremendous thing for the haredi education. But she says the rules of separation must be eradicated. She particularly denounces what she calls “the new trick: hassidic schools.”
“It is just another name for segregation,” she says.
To the remark that Ashkenazi haredim just want to ensure that no secular or even traditional values will harm their children, Bar-Shalom says sharply, “Oh yes? Then how come they have so many cases of youth who leave the religion? In any case, to send someone away because of his origin is an outrage in my eyes...
Everyone should be accepted as a human being. If the family is observant, if the child is observant and modest, and the father is studying Torah, there is no reason to look at the family name. I say loud and clear, this is blasphemy!” BAR-SHALOM is also known for her willingness to participate in various encounters, be it between Jews and Palestinians, Israelis from the Left and the Right, or secular and religious. She has emphasized on many occasions that she is a great supporter of dialogue, of breaking down the barriers between opposing parties.
What does she look for in these encounters? Her main objective, she says, is to chip away at the walls that separate people.
“I want to be respected, and I want to respect others,” she explains. She admits that although she knows it is not in her power to bring all the Jews in Israel to religious observance, she insists that “We have to learn how to live together, and it is the same with the Palestinians. I really wish they would understand that this is the state of the Jews. I know that a large part of the conflict is about their refusal to recognize this state as a Jewish and democratic state; but still, when I meet with Palestinians, I explain my position in a direct and informal way, and I get an encouraging reaction from them. They say to me, ‘Yes, you have a partner in us.’” As a haredi woman, Bar-Shalom emphasizes that she believes she has more in common with religious people as such, whether they are Jews or not. “I believe there is a special language of believers that connects and brings people closer. That is why Rabbi [Shlomo] Amar meets with sheikhs; and I, with a group of religious women from Shas, meet with religious Muslim women on that common basis. I feel very close with women who cover their heads in the sharing of a common belief in God and, as a result of this faith, we all have to keep on with life down here.
As believers, we share a common mission in this world, and we have found among these women that the disregard for the sanctity of life hurts all of us in the same way,” she says.
“This running from war to victory through bloodshed is not what God is expecting us to do in His world. Life is holier than that,” she concludes.