Taking a leading role

Body image, Torah reading and mediation are just a few of the invitations at Shalom Hartman Institute Midrashiya Girl's High School, which is developing an Orthodox feminist curriculum for the Education Ministry.

education 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
education 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘How far we have come. I, who was spurned for my feminist views, now see these very views recognized and even funded by the Education Ministry,” observes Prof. Alice Shalvi, one of the founding mothers of the Israel Women’s Network and former principal of the pioneering Orthodox feminist Pelech Girls’ High School in Jerusalem.
Shalvi was commenting on the Education Ministry’s decision to designate a Jerusalem Orthodox girls’ high school as an experimental school charged with developing an Orthodox feminist curriculum for the state religious school system.
“I left Pelech in 1990 after serving as its principal for 15 years because I was called in by the head of religious education in the ministry and told to desist from feminist activities and from my political involvement or the ministry would withdraw Pelech’s accreditation,” Shalvi says. “Because I wouldn’t give up either activity, I resigned.”
Feeling somewhat vindicated, Shalvi adds: “I am happy that the ministry is finally catching up with what it should have been supporting a long time ago.”
Now, in an unprecedented move by the ministry, the Shalom Hartman Institute Midrashiya Girls’ High School has received a five-year mandate to develop an authentic and coherent educational vision that fuses respect for Jewish tradition and learning, obligation to Halacha and feminist ideology.
“This move by the ministry is a recognition of feminism and the fact that to empower religious women, you need to speak to them in the language of feminism and Jewish identity,” notes religious feminist Channa Pinchasi, leader of the Hartman Institute’s feminist beit midrash and doctoral candidate in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“One of the great challenges today is the integration of feminism and Judaism,” says Chana Kehat, founder of the religious feminist forum Kolech, who worked with the Midrashiya in writing a part of its feminist curriculum now being adapted for use. “I am happy that the ministry is supporting a religious feminist curriculum.” With this mandate, the Midrashiya is taking a significant step forward on the road pioneered by feminist girls’ schools, like Pelech, over the past 25 years.
“For years, there was no real answer for a segment of the religious population that was looking for an Orthodox girls’ school that views Judaism from a feminist and pluralistic point of view,” says Merav Badichi, principal of the Midrashiya. “Many girls and their parents eagerly awaited a school that not only offers academic excellence, is open to the wider world, encourages leadership and social awareness but also teaches girls to lead prayer, read from the Torah and be leaders not just in general society but also in Jewish life.”
SINCE 1918 and the founding of the original Beit Ya’acov, the pioneering women’s institute of higher learning, women’s education within Orthodox Jewish society has made great strides. But many women (and men for that matter, too) feel that women’s roles and status within Orthodox circles in Israel still face significant restrictions that limit not only self-realization but also women’s contributions to the larger society.
They say that the advances made in women’s education have involved adapting male pedagogy to the female classroom and are not intrinsically for women.
Being relatively new, the Midrashiya is in a special position to develop a genuine Orthodox feminist approach. Now in its fourth year, it has 280 students in grades seven through 12 and a staff of 60.
“The Midrashiya, unlike older, more established schools, has a younger generation of teachers, many of whom are only in their late 20s or early 30s. These are women who grew up in a world in which feminism was a part of life. They see religious feminism as natural,” explains Pinchasi.
Moreover, the Midrashiya is under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Founded more than 30 years ago by Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, the Shalom Hartman Institute serves as a research, training and enrichment center for the development of educational programs and religious leadership based on a spirit of modernity and pluralism.
Some 25 years ago, the institute initiated the Charles E. Smith High School for Boys as a way of translating its ideas into practical application. In May of this year, the boys’ school was awarded the Israel National Education Prize, the highest award of the nation’s educational system.
“The boys’ school is a model of what Hartman believes a boys’ school should be,” says Hana Gilat, executive director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “But we cannot be a truly pluralistic and egalitarian institute if we only have a school for boys. It was clear that we should also have a girls’ school.”
“The boys’ school was founded to create a new model of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew committed to Halacha yet embracing modernity and living within the modern world and a Jewish and democratic Israel,” says Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the man who pushed for the creation of the Midrashiya and its innovative feminist approach.
“As an institute that embraces gender equality, without a girls’ school our platform was incomplete. After many years of negotiating with the educational authorities and the Jerusalem municipality, the environment was finally created in which it was possible to start our girls’ school and develop an Orthodox feminist curriculum,” he says. “Our mission was to create a school built from the bottom up around the challenges facing young Orthodox women in the modern world,” he continues. “We did not want to use a male model but rather a structure that answers the fundamental questions of these young women – their status, finding a voice in Jewish tradition and feeling good about themselves. We wanted a holistic approach,” he explains “The Midrashiya is built around this concept.” Hartman goes on.
“There is no Orthodox male rabbi for the school and almost all the teachers are women, thereby providing role models of knowledgeable, confident religious women anchored in the modern religious world. We strive to reinforce the feeling that women have a place in tradition, as well as general society. The curriculum is centered around the beit midrash so that the girls can develop their own voice and discover what it means to be a modern Orthodox woman spiritually, morally, intellectually and physically. The Midrashiya completes a key part of what the institute hopes to do as it tries to create models for a new vision of Jewish life.”
Badichi is quick to point out that the school and its vision are not just for Jerusalem’s elite. “We have a real cross-section of the population here – including new immigrants,” she notes.
The Midrashiya receives two-thirds of its funding from the government and student tuition and one-third from private donations.
It is housed in the Evelina de Rothschild School on Rehov Ussishkin in Rehavia but will move to Rehov Rahel Imeinu in the German Colony at the beginning of the 2011/2012 academic year, where it will be nearer to the Shalom Hartman Institute and the boys’ school, with which it shares some programs.
THE NEW curriculum, which the Midrashiya is in the first year of developing and hopes to have finished within four years, will first and foremost reflect the school’s ideology in that it will be open to questions, encourage respectful critical discussion, introduce textual female models and discuss topics from a feminist angle. It aims to create a religious and spiritual atmosphere bound by Halacha, which honors Jewish tradition and way of life but also enables women to play an active and leading role in the religious life, spiritual dialogue and the religious public sphere. It is already being implemented and tested in the school.
“We work with teachers in the field to develop this curriculum,” explains Renana Ravitsky Pilzer, head of the school’s beit midrash and one of three educators (the other two are from the Hartman Institute) writing the new Orthodox feminist curriculum for the Education Ministry. “No ivory tower here. We are interacting with the teachers and the girls as we go along. We write the curriculum, and then we check it out in the field and refine it. So that when it is ready, we know it will really work.”
There are three main components of the new curriculum – the intellectual through beit midrash studies; the spiritual through public prayer; and the physical through the body-soul consciousness program.
“For us, the beit midrash and Jewish learning is not just another field of knowledge,” Ravitsky Pilzer notes. “It colors the entire school and enters into all aspects of life. When we have a class trip, we look at how it relates to parashat hashavua [the weekly Bible portion].
When we deal with the anti-drug program, we go to the texts and Jewish values. The language of the Jewish texts is the starting point for all our studies. We want the girls to have the language, knowledge and tools of the Jewish texts. And we want them to look at the large questions of God, man, the world and the relationship between them.”
All Jewish studies are taught in the format of the beit midrash. Students learn in small groups of 10 to 15 girls under the guidance of a mentor. The studies are in depth, relevant and open in the spirit of the Hartman Institute. The girls are exposed to a variety of sources and teachers, as well as various ways of learning. Studies are carried out in hevruta (studying with a partner) and joint discussions, with emphasis on the development of the ability to learn and read independently. Integrated into studies are trips, study days, seminars and creative projects.
Since public prayer is the central public expression of religious life, the Midrashiya sees it as an important component of the curriculum. The school has daily classroom prayer. Twice a week and before holidays, the girls all pray together.
“Public prayer serves as an opportunity to impart spiritual leadership in the religious public sphere,” says Badichi. “To enable the girls to play an active and significant role in leading prayer, we teach the laws concerning prayer and its philosophy. Our girls learn to read from the Torah and have aliyot le’Torah [are called up to the Torah].”
The body-soul consciousness program is, for religious girls’ education, a real groundbreaker. “Young girls receive many conflicting messages,” Badichi says. “On the one hand, they are told they need to be beautiful, thin and smart. The body image they get from society is an unrealistic one that often leads to low self-esteem and eating disorders. On the other hand, religious young girls are told they need to be modest, hide their bodies and not speak out too loudly. These messages are extremely potent during the adolescent years when girls are developing physically and emotionally, and it can be very confusing. We expect our girls to be educated, fluent in Halacha, have faith and, at the same time, to be modest. Davka a school such as ours, which is a flagship of in-depth learning, must… make the integration between modesty and physical development and intellectual growth,” she says.
The body-soul consciousness program deals with emotional, psychological and physical development during the teen years. Students are presented with a direct encounter with their bodies and their ability for physical movement so as to develop young women who are self-assured, aware of their bodies and their souls and the connection between them as a basis for learning, growing and quality of life.
Working with the professional staff of Studio 6, headed by Yael Turner Grossman, the girls engage in meditation and dance – tap, modern, movement and more – four times a week. They receive critical information concerning self-awareness, nutrition and life skills. There are also workshops for the teachers.
THE PARENTS that In Jerusalem spoke to had nothing but praise for the Midrashiya and its approach.
“We wanted a school for our daughter that was both religious and open,” notes Saul Singer, co-author of Start Up Nation. The Singers have a daughter in ninth grade. “We attend Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox egalitarian minyan, so we wanted a school that would also have an egalitarian Orthodox approach, accept women reading from the Torah and encourage their being more active in participating in Jewish life,” says Singer. “We also wanted a school in which secular studies would be on a high academic level. When we heard that Hartman was starting a girls’ school, we knew it would be great because Hartman is serious about education. The Midrashiya fulfills our needs. We did not have to compromise between academics and religious studies. Both are on an extremely high level.”
Eyal Goldstein is a graduate of the Hartman boys’ school and now has two daughters in the Midrashiya – one in 10th grade and the other in the eighth. “The main reason we chose to send our girls to the Midrashiya is pluralism,” he relates. “This was something I found important in the boys’ school, where I was free to express my opinions. I learned there that I can influence things and I live in a society where I can make a difference. The Midrashiya is open to other opinions, and the girls are allowed to develop their ideas and opinions. Plus, the school teaches values. One of the things I remember that was exemplified by the boys’ school was their social involvement program. The girls have continued in this path. They are encouraged to become socially involved and be active both in society and in Judaism. In most schools, the students get material, learn and then regurgitate it for the test. At the Midrashiya, the girls get involved in the texts and their meanings. They are educated to think, get involved and make a difference,” he says.
“This is really a very special school,” Badichi insists. “I have been in the education system for 23 years, and I have never been in a school like the Midrashiya. I have found in the school and the Hartman Institute my spiritual home, based on values that I identify with and believe in. I too am growing and developing from year to year together with the girls and the teaching staff. I hope that the curriculum we are developing will open up this experience to other schools and their students.”