Learning the hard way

When the first Sephardim turned to the haredi education system, they discovered that they were not welcome. Some still aren't.

Rahel 13, wants to go to school. She's supposed to be in ninth grade now. She says she's a good pupil and likes her classes. She also insists that she is an honorable haredi girl, who dresses modestly, lives a modest life, observes the commandments, and wants a shidduch (match) to a good man. But Rahel still hasn't begun the school year because she hasn't been accepted into any educational institution within the haredi system. She is convinced that she has been rejected from four of the most prestigious schools, despite her high grades and commendable behavior, for one reason only: because she is Sephardi and the schools are Ashkenazi. She has heard that Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, a senior religious-Zionist leader, has ruled that she could change her name to a more Ashkenazi-sounding name, in order to get accepted, but she doesn't want to. "I don't want to lie about who I am. And I don't want to offend my father and grandfather, since it's their name. And anyway, it wouldn't help. The school principals ask all sorts of questions to find out if we're Sephardi. They'd know," she says. Batsheva Malul doesn't have any doubts about why her daughter hasn't been accepted into a school, either. "They did not want us because as Sephardi newly religious ("hozrim b'tshuva"), we do not act and behave exactly like they expect us to. They told me my little girl is not dressed like a real haredi. "But I say she is. There is nothing wrong with that way she is dressed, it is totally modest. But for them, it was a reason enough not to accept her. And so instead of beginning school at age six, she comes every day with me to my work and spends the whole day here, without studying," concludes Malul, who works as a cook in a haredi soup kitchen. According to City Council member Shmuel Yitshaki (Shas), at least 40 girls of Sephardi origin are still not registered in any school within the haredi education system in town. Yitshaki insists that racial discrimination is the only reason for this situation, since all of the haredi schools are in the hands of "our Ashkenazi brethren," as he says cynically. Ashkenazi girls have not been rejected from the schools of their choice in any such numbers. Officials in the haredi world quip that "even the patriarch Abraham, who was from Iraq, couldn't get into a prestigious Ashkenazi school." But Benny Cohen, director of the municipal department of haredi education, fiercely rejects Yitshaki's accusations and even accuses him of using the innocent girls and their families for his own political benefit. The situation is not new. In fact, rejection of Sephardim by the Ashkenazi establishment elite was one of the reasons for the founding of the political party Shas, more than 25 years ago. But as the number of Sephardi haredi girls grows, the situation is worsening. It has become so severe that recently, the Justice Ministry announced that it would investigate rejection of and discrimination against haredi girls by the Ashkenazi schools since the alleged discrimination constitutes, among other things, a violation of the Pupils' Rights Law, 2000. Officials from the ministry have even threatened to investigate the possibility of cutting off public funding to those institutions that discriminate. More than two generations ago, when the first Sephardim turned to the haredi education system, they discovered that they were not welcome. In a recent edition of the Hebrew magazine Eretz Aheret, Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recalled how insulted, frustrated and enraged she felt when she was sent to a less prestigious school to learn sewing instead of continuing her studies as she had dreamed. Almost 50 years have passed since then, but Bar-Shalom writes that she has never forgotten how wounded she felt. Tzvia Greenfield, herself an Ashkenazi haredi and director of Mifne, an institute dedicated to mutual understanding and cooperation between different religions and cultures, says, "Discrimination against Sephardim has always been systematic in the haredi Ashkenazi circles. The inferior status of the Sephardi haredim is based solely on a feeling of superiority shared by almost all the Ashkenazi haredim." Several years ago, she says, she asked a matchmaker if she had a policy of matchmaking between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. "She almost choked. She said it was unthinkable, that it wouldn't come into her mind to propose a Sephardi girl to an Ashkenazi fellow. "This is pure racism, and there is no explanation for it. Would you ask a white racist why he hates blacks? He hates them because they are black, and that's all." Not surprisingly, the situation is worst in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, with their large haredi populations. Every year, dozens of parents turn to Yitshaki, who frequently declares that he remains on the city council only to help them fight this discrimination. "I have recordings of school principals who talk to kindergarten teachers and ask them questions regarding the girls who graduate their kindergartens. I have recordings in which they ask questions such as, 'What is the color of that girl's skin? Is it fair or dark? Does she have good manners?' and so on. "What does that have to do with the academic capabilities of the girls?" Yitshaki demands. Says Cohen, "I am the first one who cares about maintaining real integration in the system. But the Sephardi parents are the first to refuse to register their girls in a school where there is a majority of Sephardim. They claim that these schools become ghettos." Furthermore, accepting the girls into the schools of their choice, says Cohen, would mean a large-scale operation of transporting girls from one school to another and from one neighborhood to another, sometimes across great distances. "Then the parents accuse us of sending their girls away, while some Ashkenazi girls enjoy studying in the schools in their neighborhood," Cohen continues. (It is important to note that pupils in the haredi educational network do benefit from organized free transportation.) Aliza, mother of a school-age girl, rejects Cohen's explanations. "I have worked in this system for decades. The parents of Sephardi girls accepted into good institutions do not even dream about complaining about the distance. They try not to be noticed, so that their younger girls will be accepted into the institution, too." And Malul retorts, "I don't want to send my daughter to a school far away. There is a very good school just opposite our home. Why should she have to go away?" But the school near her home is Ashkenazi. Overcrowding in the haredi schools is another source of the problem, Cohen maintains. "The conditions for many of the youngest children of the haredi system are sometimes unbearable - children are studying in shelters, without windows. They are studying in apartments, year after year, without even one break in the fresh air of a courtyard. Last year, there were even classes in warehouses and storage rooms." Yet the answer to the simple question, "Who is responsible for this situation?" is not simple. According to law, the Education Ministry bears the budgetary responsibility and the municipality should provide the land. Secular opposition members of the municipal council contend that the problem of overcrowding could have been solved long ago, if representatives of the haredi public weren't more interested in making political gains on the backs of their constituents' children. "They [the haredi representatives] avoid all the procedures to obtain the land and the budget to build new schools," councilman Pepe Allalu (Meretz) has argued for years. "They prefer to create a shortage of places and then they come to the city council, screaming that children cannot study in these conditions - which are indeed awful - and obtain parts of buildings belonging to secular or national-religious schools. This causes the exodus of secular residents from that neighborhood, until it becomes totally haredi." Yitshaki maintains that the haredi schools for girls operate according to a quota for the maximum number of Sephardi girls. "They do not allow more than a third of Sephardi girls per class. In order to maintain this policy, they create a false situation of crowded classrooms, so they can have an excuse to send extra-quota girls to faraway schools, which are also, of course, on a lower level." Yitshaki charges the case of the Hassidim family, whose youngest daughter was rejected from Beit Ya'acov North school, even though her elder sister had graduated from that school. Yitshaki accuses that "someone decided that one girl from that Sephardi family was enough." In some cases, he says, the school principals don't even bother to respond to the parents, and leave "the dirty work" as he calls it, "to the secretaries, who sometimes talk to the parents in a very brutal and impolite way." In one case, Yitshaki asked one of the mothers to initiate a telephone conversation with the school and to record the conversation secretly. The results shocked him. "The secretary was rude to the mother, told her that her girl 'was not good enough for the school,' refused to let her talk directly to the principal and ended the conversation by screaming at the mother," he reports. And this is not an isolated case, he insists. Hezi Shennelzon, an expert on the haredi community, does not believe that this is an issue of arrogance or discrimination, but rather a genuine fear of external influences. Shennelzon says that although he himself is from an Ashkenazi background, he will continue to struggle against the rejection of Sephardi girls. "In Sephardi families, for example, often some parts of the family are not religious," he explains. "That happens in Ashkenazi families, too, but in those cases, there is almost a complete disconnect between the parts of the family or, if there is an event and the non-haredi part of the family attend, they make an effort to arrive "in haredi costume" so as not to offend or cause problems. In the Sephardi families, and maybe this is because they are generally more tolerant, the non-religious part of the family will behave as they do everywhere else: the men, and especially the women will not be dressed modestly. "When they are checking out a girl to determine if she is appropriate for a specific educational institution that is very strict regarding limits and demands a very strict haredi lifestyle, this is a serious problem. It can't be swept under the rug as if it doesn't exist," he says. According to Shennelzon, the behavioral codes are different outside of the family, too. "If, for example, I make the error of going to a place that isn't appropriate for a young haredi man, and I meet a family member who is no longer haredi - not only would he not ignore me - he would reprimand me and inform my parents. But in most Sephardi families, that situation would end there, with mutual understanding and maybe even a wink. "This troubles the principals. They feel that they have been sent to do a mitzva [perform a holy commandment]. They believe that they have been handed something very precious - the children of the families who want them to guard over their children and prevent any penetration from the external, liberal and secular worlds. Accepting Sephardi girls, when not all of their families are as strict as the Ashkenazim could ruin a school's reputation, and they want to avoid that. Even if a specific girl really is worthy of acceptance." Aliza describes Sephardi attitudes as tolerant rather than lax. "We, the Sephardim, see things differently. We think that what really matters is a good education in a good institution." It is worth noting that the problem doesn't exist in the boys' schools. "First of all, the involvement of Sephardi boys in the haredi system began quite long ago and most of the problems have been solved by now," says a haredi municipal council member who does not want his identity revealed. "Also, the Sephardim created a network of elementary schools and yeshivot for the boys, and it works." Aliza says that the problem doesn't exist for boys because "Ashkenazi haredim have a feeling of duty, to "save" our boys, so they accept them into their institutions." They don't have that sense of responsibility towards girls, for whom the issue of the shidduch is more important. "In the Ashkenazi institutions for girls," says Aliza, "the yihus [family lineage] of the family, the exact level of religious feelings, and the reputation of the families dictates who will be accepted into that school." And furthermore, she notes, the fact that Sephardi boys are accepted into Ashkenazi institutions is, at best, a mixed blessing. "The boys, educated in the Ashkenazi institutions, have become 'Ashkenazi' themselves. They have forgotten our customs and ways, our tolerance and openness. Now they have become much more extreme, more radical and strict in their observance. I am grieving for this, and I am not the only one, believe me." For many years, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has called for the establishment of schools for Sephardi girls. In response, Yitshaki established the Beit Margalit school (named after the late wife of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef). Says Yitshaki, "Beit Margalit accepts lots of girls and the level is good, but it cannot solve all the problems. And also, some of the parents insist that their girls have to go to Ashkenazi schools, fearing that going to Beit Margalit would definitely classify them as second best." Another school for haredi girls, Darkei Rahel, has recently changed its status from an independent institution to a municipal institution, thanks to the intervention of city councilman Eli Simhayoff (Shas). But the educational authorities do not require Ashkenazi girls to register for attend the school, so it remains a "Sephardi school." Aliza says, "Look what happened to Beit Margalit. There isn't a single Ashkenazi girl there. It is overcrowded, filled with Sephardi girls who have nowhere else to go. So we're back to square one." Recalling her own pain, Bar-Shalom established a college for haredi girls, which is renowned for accepting Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls alike. But it is, she notes, the only one of its kind. Since he assumed office, Mayor Uri Lupolianski has made changes in the municipal structure and these have made the situation even worse. Until Lupolianski assumed office, the educational department of the city was split into the general (for both national religious and secular pupils) and the haredi departments. But now the haredi education has its own, totally independent, department. Officially, Deputy Mayor Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) holds the portfolio for haredi education. But according to most municipal officials, the real power is in the hands of Benny Cohen. Legally and officially, Yehudit Shalvi, deputy director-general, supervises the department. Formally, Shalvi has said that she "has nothing but admiration" for Cohen, but in other circumstances, Shalvi herself has acknowledged more than once that the department is a "one-man show" - and that man is Cohen. Recently, the municipal comptroller, Attorney Shlomit Rubin issued a harsh report on Cohen's management, in which she accused him of exceeding his budget by millions of shekels without proper authorization. In response, Allalu has filed a complaint with the police, but Cohen is still on the job. At a recent press conference, Cohen dismissed the report and made it clear that he has no intentions of resigning or even suspending himself. Yitshaki says that he feels hurt by the indifference of his colleagues from Shas. "They have all become collaborators," he complains. Noting that the mayor is himself haredi, he has repeatedly called on the mayor "to do something to put an end to this unacceptable situation," but has not received any response. Shennelzon believes that the situation is actually improving, noting that most institutions now accept between 30% and 35% Sephardi girls, compared to the "less than 10% a few years ago." He attributes the change to a ruling by Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, considered the foremost authority in the Ashkenazi haredi world today, who strongly opposes discrimination against Sephardi girls. Shennelzon says that this ruling is the reason that he himself devotes most of his time to this issue. Furthermore, he notes, more and more Sephardi families are becoming "Ashkenazied" and assumed Ashkenazi mores and standards, so the problems are easing. Thus, he believes, more principals are focusing on the prospective candidate herself, and less on her family. Although, he notes, the problem of the hassidic institutions persists. "They will not accept any Sephardi girls," he says categorically, but adds that since Yiddish is the language of instruction in the hassidic schools, very few Sephardi families are actually interested in applying. In response to queries from In Jerusalem, the municipal spokesman wrote, "All of the student who did not find a placement through their own efforts were placed in schools in the city. However, some 40 pupils refused the placements offered to them and insisted on their preferred school, even though those schools have informed them that they are full to capacity." Still at home, Rahel says that is discouraged and fears that her reputation has been ruined. She is ready to "give in," she says, and attend a less-prestigious school. "All the pupils there will be Sephardi. It's not that I'm prejudiced against Sephardi pupils, or something - after all, I'm Sephardi, too, and I'm proud. But if I don't go to a good school, I won't have a good shidduch. My life just won't be what I had dreamed it would be," Rahel says sadly.