Nurturing the stalks of young womanhood

Midreshet Shiluv Balev meets each student where she’s at, for her to acquire the confidence and life skills to succeed in the path of her choosing.

Midreshet Shiluv Balev (photo credit: Courtesy)
Midreshet Shiluv Balev
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Midreshet Shiluv Balev, literally the seminary for integrating the heart, seeks to help young women reach deep inside themselves and summon reserves they didn’t know they had – all in the service of successfully navigating day-to-day life.
For many, childhood and the highschool years can be seen as a “greenhouse,” shielding inhabitants from the challenges of adulthood when they are still young, allowing them to grow at their own pace. When they are ready, equipped with the skills imparted by their families and teachers, only then are they released into the wilds of the “real world,” to flourish as confident young adults.
However, children from the periphery often do not have the advantages others take for granted. In some homes, many of them comprised of immigrants, violence and low socioeconomic status are a reality, with youngsters left to fend for themselves, taught to keep their expectations low. Consequently, when they turn 18 and are expected to decide their future army and career trajectory, many are left floundering, sinking into menial jobs and depression.
Midreshet Shiluv Balev – with classroom and dorm facilities based in a medium- sized building in the religious Kibbutz Ein Tzurim in the South, near peripheral areas such as Kiryat Malachi – seeks to remedy this imbalance. Its students, women aged 18 to 20, come from all kinds of religious backgrounds, from all over the country. With some 54 percent hailing from peripheral areas and a full 25% from “distressed neighborhoods,” all are in need of guidance.
Run by the genial Rav Ariel Yosefof, the live-in program incorporates National Service with practical confidence- and skill-building classes, on First Year and Second Year tracks. While the second year is optional, many students do continue, and this is reflected in the midrasha’s growth, which began two years ago with 10 students, grew to 18 last year, and climbed to 30 students this academic year – 20 first-years, and 10 second-years.
(Generally, 46% of students have opted to continue their National Service and move into the second year.) As of now, the midrasha is preparing to accommodate 50 young women next year.
This is due, in large part, to the force behind the midrasha – Rav Ariel – in creating, in partnership with his wife, Leah, what he calls this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these young women, at a pivotal time in their life.”
“My door is always open,” he says from his small, cramped office, as he offers me fruit juice and wafers. A bearded man in his late 30s with smiling eyes, he lives with his wife and young children on the midrasha grounds.
Rav Ariel knows what those from disadvantaged backgrounds are going through. “I was raised in Pardess Katz, or Pardess Texas,” so nicknamed due to its high level of crime and “Wild West” flavor.
“My father was a real academic, but he moved us there because he wanted us to see what many people were experiencing in our country.”
Though he wears the religious-Zionist kibbutznik’s uniform of a button-down shirt, dress pants and sandals with socks, rather than cowboy boots, Rav Ariel has never forgotten his father’s lesson.
Administrator Dvir Irani comes from the same strong stock, growing up in Kiryat Malachi and having devoted his career to giving back to similarly disadvantaged communities. The midrasha’s approach is essential, he says, as “even young women in [traditionally privileged areas such as] Herzliya require life skills and education to move on with their adult lives. What it is to be a woman, to have a woman’s strength – every girl in high school needs it today, especially in this era of 24/7 media, with its many unhealthy messages.”
But young women of low socioeconomic status need more of a boost, he explains, since often “their families get service from gmachim [charitable cooperatives]; some homes didn’t even have a table or refrigerator before the donation from the gmach. Because of this, the situation was very hard for these young women at school – it’s hard to concentrate when you don’t have lunch.”
WITH THE program rooted in the concepts of psychology, the midrasha seeks to create a warm environment where the young women feel at home, and are comfortable coming to the staff with any issue – emotional, academic, social or otherwise – allowing them to flourish.
Indeed, throughout my conversation with the staff, which is composed of Nurturing the stalks of young womanhood Midreshet Shiluv Balev meets each student where she’s at, in a warm environment designed for her to acquire the confidence and life skills to succeed in the path of her choosing 10 educators and counselors, there is a steady parade of young women strolling into the office with one concern or another.
Adding to the feeling of home, one of the seminary’s weekly classes is held in the Yosefofs’ living room.
A typical day for a midrasha girl will involve an early wake-up, followed by National Service directed to her interests. For example, because of her knowledge of sign language, first-year student Nitzan works with deaf children. “I brought one of the children in and we demonstrated sign language for the whole midrasha,” she says, eyes shining.
By 4 p.m., students will have returned to the midrasha for free time, with the option to hang out with other girls or sprawl out, reading a book, in the comfortable Culture Room, with its wellworn couches.
At 5:30 p.m. the seminary portion begins, with four classes stretching until 10:30 p.m.
The young women also rotate responsibility for cooking dinner and cleanup.
When I pop into the large communal kitchen, with its big pots of rice and meat patties on the stove, the girls are chatting away happily while completing dinner prep.
It’s a tough schedule, but the energetic students I meet, in the blush of youth, seem energized.
This is because classes are targeted at their multi-layered needs as young women who will be making their mark in the world – hopefully with careers, and families and homes of their own. As such, they learn life skills that include financial management – reading a payslip, balancing a checkbook, paying income tax and reasons to avoid black-market dealings; first aid; and cooking 101 – shopping and putting together a meal, appetizer through dessert.
Classes also focus on building emotional intelligence, learning to give and self-motivation, through sessions on self-image and the power of women in Judaism, marriage and partnership, problem-solving, and setting boundaries with family and friends.
Weekly movie nights teach the impressionable young women how to interpret the pop culture around them, and involve screening a contemporary movie, and discussion of themes and lessons learned. The entire student body also gets together on a weekly basis in the cavernous conference area, a former beit midrash, to discuss pressing issues of the day with Rav Ariel and their fellow midrasha attendees.
Exploring Israel is another priority at the midrasha, helping the young women create a bond with the country they are serving – but may just have inhabited before. Israel comes alive through an all-day rafting trip; a three-day trip to the Golan Heights; and another threeday jaunt to “conquer Jerusalem on foot,” with stops at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, “when one can see a girl who didn’t have much of a connection to the country before dancing with the Israeli flag,” says Rav Ariel.
There are also weekly extracurricular talks, with professionals from a variety of creative and academic fields – including a film director and an accountant – showing the young women that any career is within their grasp, and to reach for the stars.
Rav Ariel illustrates the process students go through in envisioning what is possible.
“When I asked one student who was beginning her first-year studies what she wanted to do with her life, she said she wanted to be a cleaner. A few months later, I asked her again, and she said she wanted to be head of a group of cleaners.
“I acknowledged the upgrade in her thinking, but said, ‘Why do you even have to be a cleaner at all? If that’s you want to do, it’s fine, but have you thought about what you really want?’ It turns out that cleaning is what those around her did, and it didn’t occur to her to think otherwise.
“Today, she has completed an academic mechina [preparatory program], and has many options open to her.”
WHILE THE midrasha is religious in its orientation, it meets each girl where she’s at, allowing her to become more observant if that’s what she desires, at her pace. Always, the focus is on her as an individual, helping observance lead her to the place in life she wants to go.
“I’ve always loved sport,” says the willowy Sivan, who comes from a traditional home in Yavne, “and I thought that if I became more religious, it would no longer be available to me. But when the staff heard this, they incorporated a Zumba class into our regular schedule – and it has become one of our more popular classes.
“Now I see that it’s possible to make athletics my career – even as an observant woman,” she enthuses. “Whenever I’ve gone home to visit, everyone has noticed my improved attitude, and it has given my family new energy.”
“Luckily we got the Zumba mats donated,” laughs Rav Ariel.
Indeed, while each student pays only NIS 400 a month, including dorming, classes and meals, subsidizing the tuition and operating the midrasha does not come cheap. And while the administration does its best with limited resources – recently equipping classrooms with individual heating and air-conditioning units – there is a lot left to be done. Makeshift classrooms are in former bomb shelters, the library area is stuffed with crumbling books and leaks are a sadly familiar occurrence.
Rav Ariel has big plans to renovate all of these areas and expand the growing student body. “Every donation makes a huge difference,” he notes gratefully, and goes toward the purpose of giving coming generations of young women a chance to benefit from a good year or two to really assess what they must overcome and are lacking, and what tools they need to acquire to lead a fruitful and rewarding life.
Perhaps Midreshet Shiluv Halev’s approach, of putting in the hard work today, at this critical juncture, on the road to tomorrow’s success, is best summarized by this saying emblazoned on one of the classroom walls, “Whoever breathes the dust of the roads, will merit to inhale the air of the peaks.”
To donate: Contact Dvir Irani, 072-221- 3030; 052-311-5996; The midrasha’s website: