Educating Israel’s religious young women

With educational options expanding, young women from diverse backgrounds discover they have more choices than ever.

Ohr Torah (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ohr Torah
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The early “ulpana” religious high schools for girls were headed by rabbis and stressed traditional roles for women. Wider societal changes, including increasing numbers of religious girls who enlist in the army, the flourishing of Talmud study for women and changes in women’s roles in society, have provided challenges as well as opportunities for educators.
Dr. Miri Shlissel says she isn’t a sociologist, but after three decades in key roles in religious girls’ education, she has gained a unique perspective on the history and future of the ulpana (from the Aramaic word meaning instruction). Several educators consulted for this article mentioned Shlissel as their mentor and a primary resource on religious education for girls.
To understand the ulpana, some background is required about Israel’s educational system – which is really four systems: secular, Arab, haredi and the state religious system, operating within the national-religious sector.
Members of both the haredi and national-religious sectors observe Jewish law, but haredi boys receive limited secular education and most don’t go on to serve in the IDF. The national-religious sector, making up about 12% of the Jewish population, is staunchly Zionist. It encourages military service and yeshiva studies for its sons, national service for its daughters and secular education at least for earning a living.
In this discussion, focusing on girls in the national- religious sector, the term “religious” will suffice.
To graduate an Israeli high school, students must pass a series of standardized matriculation exams known as the bagrut. Most exams test required subjects like math, English and citizenship, with additional exams in Jewish studies in religious schools. On top of that, each student chooses to take exams in one or two specializations from among those offered by the school. A school’s choice of specializations offers insights into its priorities and target population.
SHLISSEL FOUNDED and led Jerusalem's Midreshet Ohr Torah high school, directed the teacher training program at Herzog College and supervised development of materials for teacher training in various roles. From 2011 to 2015, she served as superintendent for Bible studies in the Education Ministry’s religious education department. The first woman to hold this position, conservative elements in the sector attacked her over educational materials they considered too secular.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently appointed Shlissel, who has a doctorate in Bible from the Hebrew University, to chair the ministry’s office of pedagogy beginning in September.
Shlissel begins by pointing out that historically, the sector’s rabbinic leadership was dissatisfied with the religious level of its constituents.
“The initial goal of the yeshiva high schools,” says Shlissel, “was to remove boys from their homes and immerse them in a strong religious educational environment. The home was seen as compromising, with little enthusiasm for religious life.”
The first ulpana for girls opened in Kfar Pines in 1960 and was affiliated with the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
“On one level, the idea of the ulpana is egalitarian,” says Shlissel. “Sending girls to a dormitory was a progressive step. Concern about the religious values of the home also came into play for girls. But the ulpana did not spring from some feminist ideal. It was headed by a rabbi and employed a rabbi in every grade, with a female counselor working alongside him. The female instructors were secondary to the men.”
Since teaching girls Talmud was out of the question, the ulpanot focused on Bible.
The late rabbi Yehuda Copperman, long-time head of Michlalah Jerusalem College for Women, revolutionized teacher education in Bible. Shlissel describes Copperman’s philosophy: “Girls need to learn, and women need to teach them. And they need to be the best teachers, with the widest knowledge.”
“While women taught at Michlalah, the halachic and spiritual leadership came only from men,” emphasizes Shlissel, “with no chance of appeal. The men spoke and the women summarized... there was no creativity.”
Only later on did some women’s institutions adopt the yeshiva model, including a beit midrash (study hall) and havruta (partner) learning.
AS THE system has grown larger, ulpanot and religious schools for girls have been better able to diversify and appeal to different subgroups. Shlissel describes what she currently sees as two major camps within the national- religious community.
The first group, which she calls the “Religious Zionists,” dominates the Tel Aviv area and in the center of the country. “Religious Zionists put great emphasis on the Land of Israel, Jewish thought and philosophy,” explains Shlissel. “And the Bible is central.”
Not all members of this group are strictly observant of Jewish law, but they remain conservative in their outlook.
In contrast, a group Shlissel refers to by the borrowed American expression “Modern Orthodox,” is prevalent in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. This group was influenced to some extent by institutions with American roots, such as Midreshet Lindenbaum and the Har Etzion Yeshiva, co-led by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein for over 40 years.
“Rabbi Lichtenstein was traditional,” says Shlissel, “yet he saw his sons and daughters as equal in terms of their commitment to observing Jewish law and Torah study. However, they were not equal in the realm of [determining] Jewish law. And don’t say the word feminism.”
A defining feature of the Israeli “Modern Orthodox” today, in Shlissel’s view, surrounds the role of women. “Do women have a say in the public sphere, or to put it more strongly, in the public religious sphere?” Shlissel asks. “During the days of the National Religious Party, women were members of the Knesset. But they did not give Torah lectures, get called up to the Torah, or participate in wedding ceremonies.
“Girls today have mothers who trained as doctors and lawyers, but stayed behind the mehitza [partition separating men and women] in the synagogue, and that was enough for them. But the daughters ask why the men who are lawyers can give a talk on Torah in the synagogue and the girls’ mothers can’t.”
A subgroup in the sector known as Hardal, short for haredi-leumi or nationalist haredim, occupies the border between the religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors.
“They are very influential,” says Shlissel. “They say, ‘This is the way that the truly religious need to behave.’ They offer security. The Religious Zionists will say, ‘We will take our children to the beach in the summer,’ even though the school doesn’t sanction mixed swimming.
“It’s a state of mind,” Shlissel says. “Even if you don’t observe strictly yourself, you know ‘what’s right.’ This preserves the idea that the home environment is compromising, while the educational institution is stricter.”
The “Modern Orthodox” reject that dichotomy. “Modern Orthodox parents want the institution to reflect the home,” says Shlissel. “Modern Orthodoxy involves accepting the modernity. But a conservative approach accepts modernity out of necessity, and will try to limit the damage.”
Some ulpanot and religious high schools accept nearly every student from the area, especially if it is the municipality’s official ulpana. But others carefully screen incoming students.
“The Religious Zionists in the center of the country talk a lot about unity,” says Shlissel, “but the institutions are selective. Some screen by religious level, while others focus on socioeconomic status or IQ. We might say that the segregation is according to religious observance, but it’s more an issue of social status.”
THE PELECH school in Jerusalem, the first to offer girls Talmud, opened in 1965. It offers strong humanities and sciences, and doesn’t deter students from enlisting in the army.
“The original Pelech in Jerusalem is elitist, accepting students solely on test scores and drawing from the strong core of the Modern Orthodox. But the offshoots of Pelech [in Zichron Ya’acov and Kiryat Ekron] take a more social-minded Modern Orthodox approach, and by necessity include children of parents who don’t buy into the entire philosophy.”
While she doesn’t have statistics to back it up, Shlissel senses that fewer girls from the national-religious sector, particularly the “Modern Orthodox,” are choosing to go into teaching. The ones that do often end up teaching in secular schools.
“They didn’t like to be told what to wear while in high school, and they don’t like it at work either,” says Shlissel, referring to the fact that most ulpanot require teachers to wear skirts and elbow-length sleeves, and a head-covering if married.
“The elementary national-religious schools have many haredi or Chabad teachers,” says Shlissel. “In secondary schools, most teachers are hardal or more conservative. These girls choose education out of ideology and this creates a large gap between the teachers and the students.”
Shlissel identifies additional trends in the ulpana world.
“You now see a female head of ulpana, who is seen as the spiritual figurehead, alongside a female principal, even in the more conservative systems. Both the Bnei Akiva and the Tzviya chains of schools are seeking out women. This is a new development.”
“There are also big challenges among the student population. Few ulpanot in Israel encourage girls to go to the army, but now girls from more traditional ulpanot are enlisting, too. The administration could ignore it when there were only a few, but this generation of students doesn’t allow them to do that, they push.” The number of religious girls enlisting has nearly tripled since 2010, standing at about 25%.
To summarize Shlissel’s analysis, it might be helpful to imagine prototypes of high schools in the two camps.
• A typical “Religious Zionist” ulpana in the country’s center would be headed by a rabbi alongside a female administrator. The teachers studied in seminaries emphasizing religious faith, and attended religious teachers’ colleges. Specializations offered would be career-oriented or in the arts, and may or may not be on a high academic level. The school would acknowledge only the option of national service, and discourage secular university. It would emphasize the unique role of women in the Jewish family. If selective, it would screen along religious lines, or possibly social or socioeconomic determinants.
• A typical “Israeli Modern Orthodox” school would more likely be found in Jerusalem or Gush Etzion. Headed by a woman, teachers are likely to have studied Talmud and have post-high-school secular education. The school would offer a high level of secular and Jewish studies, including Talmud. Specializations would include both science and humanities. If selective, screening would be according to academic ability. The school would accept the idea of girls enlisting in the army and attending secular university. Finally, girls would be explicitly taught that they are as capable as boys in all realms.
Of course, either prototype with any number of variations can be found throughout the country.
The expansion of advanced Talmud education for women has resulted in more girls learning Talmud as well. One example is Ulpanat Amit Noga in Beit Shemesh, currently the only school to prepare girls for the education ministry’s five-point matriculation exam in Talmud. Pelech in Jerusalem also offers a fivepoint program it developed, which hasn’t yet been approved for other schools.
Miriam Reisler has headed Noga’s Talmud program since the school opened in 2001. She also works closely with the ministry’s superintendent of Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan, to train teachers and prepare materials and sample tests.
“I’ve helped set up the way to discuss the tractate of Kiddushin [laws of marriage]. Because I’m loyal to the superintendent’s system, we have built a relationship.”
Most students in the sector, both boys and girls, take the Toshba (Torah she’be’al peh – Oral Law) matriculation exam, which may include one or two units of Talmud instead of five.
But Reisler explains that the level of difficulty of the Talmud matriculation is comparable to five points of math or physics.
“I’d be happy to help any school that would be willing to set it up,” offers Reisler. “The program suits strong students who want a challenge. They don’t have to be the next gedolot hador [talmudic prodigies].”
Reisler also opened a parallel Internet-based program.
“I give one class a week via Skype,” Reisler says, “and once a month the girls [in the Skype class] spend Thursday night at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, which has generously provided accommodations. Twice a year, the girls come to my home for Shabbat and we learn the entire day.
“Pelech Jerusalem has a special program, which gives it flexibility and independence,” acknowledges Reisler. “But being a part of the official system helps me be part of the discussion and improve the system. A unique program may be good for its students. But there is a lot of good in the system that has been created and being part of it is important.”
Shlomit Shvut, who studied Talmud in the Migdal Oz midrasha, coordinates the Talmud program at Pelech Jerusalem. About half the girls in each grade study for two years in the school’s independent program, which offers five points toward the matriculation certificate.
“During their six years of Talmud study, we try to raise their level until they can learn independently. Even if they don’t all love learning at school, afterward they appreciate it. We try to focus on the depth of learning and not the number of pages.” For the matriculation exam, the girls study the tractate of Gittin (divorce decrees), concentrating on the chapter about tikun olam, divorce payments and redemption of captives.
DR. CHANA FRIEDMAN, principal of the new Pelech Tel Aviv, began her career teaching Talmud at Pelech in Jerusalem. After receiving a doctorate in Talmud and Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University, she began teaching adults exclusively.
When her family moved to Tel Aviv from Gush Etzion, she searched for a high school for their oldest daughter.
“We wanted a school for girls with high ability, enabling them to go as far as possible with secular and religious knowledge, where the religious discourse reflects the way we speak in our home, doesn’t close itself off from the outside world, and recognizes both the army and national service as options for religious girls.”
“I found that the religious discourse in the Center is conservative and more representative of the previous generation.”
Her daughter ended up commuting to Pelech Kiryat Ekron, outside Rehovot.
When their second daughter approached junior high school age, Friedman approached the Tel Aviv Municipality about opening a school in the Pelech model.
The city initially approved the idea as a track within Zeitlin, a religious high school hosting boys and girls on the same campus but in separate buildings. Friedman’s program would benefit from Zeitlin’s infrastructure, while the influx of students would help retain religious students in Tel Aviv. “Tel Aviv has changed,” notes Friedman, “with many religious families having been priced out. Those who remain either have business or cultural ties to the city.”
In the fourth year of the program, relations with Zeitlin soured. As a result of the discord, reflecting the conservative outlook of religious Tel Aviv parents, the municipality and Education Ministry gave the go-ahead to open Pelech Tel Aviv in September 2018 as an independent school with classes from seventh to 11th grades. About half the students in the incoming 7th grade live in Tel Aviv, with the rest from the surrounding area.
“I started the program for my own daughter,” acknowledges Friedman, “but also because there was a need in Tel Aviv. Starting a high school is a better way of influencing the religious world than working in adult programs, which are more isolated and tend to attract only motivated students.
“The high school students bring content back to their families and do projects within the wider community.”
Friedman chooses incoming students according to three criteria: medium to high academic level with a thirst for learning, the family’s commitment to Jewish observance, and positive personal traits.
WHILE THE new Ulpanat Bnei Akiva Hadar Ganim in Petah Tikva falls on the more traditional end of the spectrum, its programs also reflect changes in society.
“My main ambition when I took this position,” says ulpana head Tal Navoni, “was to help students develop positive personal qualities as well as love of Torah, self-confidence and a connection to the Land of Israel. I hoped for the students to develop true ‘bagrut’ [maturity] and not just a ‘bagrut’ [matriculation certificate].”
The ulpana draws graduates from two Petah Tikva elementary schools, and serves both affluent and low-income families.
Navoni studied in the Maon and Midreshet Harova seminaries and the Efrata College for teachers, and earned a master’s degree in education management from the Kibbutzim College.
The ulpana’s Otzarot (“Treasures”) program brings professionals from all walks of life to speak to students. Another program devotes a month each year to a discussion of “femininity.” In each grade level, the students focus on a different theme such as sexuality and gender. Seminars encourage open discussion of topics such as pornography, intimacy, sexual abuse and “opposite inclinations,” i.e. homosexuality.
When the ulpana’s first class enters 10th grade this fall, students will choose from among five primary and four secondary specializations, including computer engineering, physics, theater and graphic design. The ulpana will be the second religious girls’ school in the country to offer physical education as a specialty.
The ulpana will also offer preparation for the five-point Talmud bagrut in a program led by Shifra Mishlov, head of the Jewish Law Center at Bar-Ilan University.
As a religious woman, Ronit Mashiach sees herself as fulfilling a mission through teaching science at a secular junior high school in Petah Tikva.
“At first, I taught at any school that would take me. But after [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s murder [in 1995], I felt it was important for secular students to have interaction with the religious.”
Mashiach has seen that her colleagues in the ulpanot are expected to do a lot of extracurricular activities, like attending youth-group bonfires or inviting girls to their homes.
“Our principal warned us not to participate in activities like this, because they aren’t covered by insurance. We can visit a bonfire, but only for a few minutes. We put in our effort, but our work ends when the day is over. We know we will get a paycheck.”
Navoni is also concerned. “At least in the upper high school, teachers receive pay for an extra three hours of work from home, but [the pay] was cut for junior high, which is a scandal. Teachers working without pay is a serious problem and I don’t have a solution.”
Ultimately, Shlissel sees a positive side to the tensions and ideological disagreements within the national religious community.
“There are many views within the spectrum,” she concludes. “Shabbat meals in the community need UN-level negotiations to complete, because of the broad religious spectrum among the children in the family. This is the case from the hardal to the Modern Orthodox families. Children check out all of the options; it’s very dynamic. They are less obedient and ask questions that push at the borders.”
“This makes me optimistic. Young people today are less obedient than they were, but they continue to ask questions.”
The writer’s daughter is a student at Pelech Tel Aviv.