Hebrew U. students help former haredim acclimate

10 trained tutors from program were matched with 10 formerly haredi students, all of whom became secular recently.

Mount Scopus 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mount Scopus 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A pilot program sponsored by secular student leaders from Hebrew University’s student union to assist former ultra- Orthodox men and women at the university acclimate to college life both academically and culturally, was launched shortly before Passover.
The program, called Yotzim Lilmod (“we’re going out to study”), was created by Yael Sinai, chair of Hebrew University’s Student Union.
“This project was initiated to bring hearts closer and to diminish gaps between various Jerusalem groups,” said Sinai. “This is an opportunity to create a bond between Jerusalem and [its] academic institutions regarding the subject of education.”
One week before the holiday, 10 trained tutors from the program were matched with 10 formerly haredi students, all of whom became secular recently or in the past several years.
Roughly half of the students are either enrolled in the university or studying to pass its entrance exam.
Each student and tutor is scheduled to meet one-on-one for several hours every week to brush up on basic math, science and English skills that were not adequately taught at their religious schools.
One of the students, Rafael Rosenthal, 23, of Petah Tikva, said he eventually lost his faith and decided to join the IDF.
He is now living in Jerusalem with three secular roommates and hopes to pass the university’s entrance exam and study psychology or computer science.
“This is an excellent initiative, but I also think it’s the responsibility of the state to fund the completion of a high school education,” said Rosenthal.
“Until the age of 18, it’s not our decision not to learn all the subjects we should have, and that makes it very hard to complete matriculation exams after the army and fill in all the missing [academic] complete gaps.”
Indeed, Gedalyahu Wittow, a thirdyear philosophy major who is one of the program’s coordinators, said it is long overdue.
“In my opinion there is a great need for this because haredi students have to fill in a tremendous gap in their education because they are barely exposed to any secular studies,” said Wittow.
“They’re not learning English, chemistry, physics, biology or literature – just mainly religious studies. Secular studies came last and were treated as expendable.”
Wittow said the demand among students who used to be haredi and have embraced secular life has already exceeded available spots within the program.
“We had 15 former haredi students ask to be part of the program, but because we’re still in an early phase we have only been able to accommodate 10 so far,” he said. “For now, the program is figuring out its way, but I think it’s very important because this is a group that needs a lot of help.”
Wittow said the academic limitations many such students face are compounded by the dearth of current social programs to assist them integrate into secular society.
“Once former haredim make this change, many lose their connections with their circle of friends and their family ties break down,” he said. “Things are not the same as they used to be, so we need teachers to help guide them through a very difficult process.”
One of those teachers is Gonen Sas, a freshman psychology major who is tutoring a former haredi student in basic math.
“I heard [about the program] through the student union and immediately thought it was a good idea,” said Sas. “I think these guys and girls are doing the bravest thing they could do and I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone.”
Sas said he met with his student for the first time on Tuesday.
“He’s 28 and became secular four years ago,” he said. “He’s very sharp, but at the moment has maybe a fifth-grade level of understanding [of math]. We have to start from scratch because he learned very little at his school – so it’s helping them with stuff they just didn’t learn.”
Sas said they will meet once a week for three hours in his apartment. He added that all 10 students will gather with the 10 tutors every two weeks to work on socialization skills and cultural development.
According to Sas, the challenge faced by former haredim is two-fold.
“The first challenge is school – they have to catch up on what they didn’t learn,” he said. “The second [challenge] is culture. You see, the problem with us [as teachers] is that no matter how hard we try we can’t put ourselves in their shoes, or take anything for granted.
They haven’t read the books we’ve read, seen the movies we’ve seen or even know the history of Israel.
“For example, I could mention [David] Ben-Gurion and they might have no idea who he was – just like I have no idea who their rabbis are,” he added.
Sas emphasized that their induction into secular society must not stop at one-on-one tutoring.
“It doesn’t stop with us – society also has to help. Think of it this way, for them to come into secular society makes them like immigrants, and society needs to recognize them in those terms and support them with social workers and financial aid so they can adjust,” he said. “It’s a problem becoming secular and they need our help.”
Meanwhile, Shira Amiel, a first-year politics, philosophy and economics major, said she began tutoring math to a 24-year-old man who left haredi society as a teenager to help him pass the college entrance exam.
“We started today for an hour and a half at the Student Union to just get to know each other and begin studying a bit,” she said. “He’s really good at math, but he doesn’t know the basics, like long division, because he wasn’t taught it in school.”
Amiel said she decided to become a tutor to help unite the divided haredi and secular communities.
“In Israel we’re supposed to be united, but it’s really not like that today with all the conflict about haredim and the army and other things,” she said. “If we can help people who are different from us it will help unite us.”
“Also, when someone leaves their community to go to a new place it’s important for them to have someone to count on,” she added.