RAMAT GAN, Israel (WOMENSENEWS)–While most of her friends from high school have chosen to become teachers, 20-year-old Rooth has opted to earn a college degree and work in the high-tech field of computer engineering.
Rooth, who asked that her last name not be used, is a member of the Haredi community, which practices the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, where many men study Torah full-time and their wives are often the main breadwinners.
"I want to make a living so that my (future) husband will sit and study Torah," says Rooth, a third-year student at the Lustig Institute in Ramat Gan. "In that way, we can live in dignity, not at the expense of my parents. Being a teacher is difficult and the wage is not so good."
Rooth is part of a small but growing minority of ultra-Orthodox women in Israel who are earning full fledged academic degrees in nontraditional fields to work in the outside world and earn a higher income.
In general, Haredi rabbis here do not condone academic studies for men or women since it opens the door for interaction with open society; only a minority of adults from the community’s mainstream earn college degrees.
Partly for this reason, jobs in education, many of which do not require college degrees, have traditionally been a popular means by which Haredi women support their families.
But in a blow to continuing education for Haredi women, a panel of rabbis voted late last year to eliminate equivalent bachelor’s degrees in education at Beit Yaakov schools, the country’s largest network of ultra-Orthodox schools for women.
The education panel eliminated the equivalent degrees to ensure focus on the schools’ foremost goal; preparing women to be good Jews and mothers.
Leading Haredi rabbis felt the schools were becoming "too academic" and vocationally minded as opposed to "value-minded," says Rabbi Yonah Taube, an educational counselor and a supervisor of the Committee of Rabbis on Education Matters, which made the decision.
Rabbis, however, are speaking with government officials to see whether teachers can receive the same pay without the equivalent degree, he said.
Rabbis also object to new Ministry of Education regulations requiring instructors to have a master’s or doctorate, which they say will force Haredi schools to turn increasingly to professors outside the community, who may embrace unorthodox perspectives or theories, such as Darwinism.
Income and Advancement Stymied
Without an equivalent degree, Haredi women who study at schools in the country’s Beit Yaakov (House of Jacob) network can still become teachers but will earn less income and are limited in their professional advancement. The decision could affect thousands of Haredi women and their families.
The Haredi community–estimated at 8 to 11 percent of Israel’s 5.4 million Jewish population–suffers from some of the highest levels of poverty in the country due to men’s obligation to study Torah and the large numbers of children in their families.
A Haredi family was three times as likely to be poor than a non-Haredi family with identical characteristics, a 2004 Israeli Parliament report citing 1999 data found. Many Haredi families supplement their income with charity and government welfare.
"What they are facing is a small process of deterioration from the old customs of Haredi society," says Menachem Friedman, a professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University. "In the past, no one thought that it would be possible that Haredi women would look for jobs in open society and get a degree to enable them to get those jobs."
Some women in the community have protested the panel’s decision through Haredi Internet forums and in Haredi newspapers.
In a critical and highly publicized poem published in the Haredi newspaper "Mishpacha" (Family) in January entitled "Dirge to the Working Woman" that cites the decision, a Haredi journalist and mother wrote:
"Don’t get me wrong
You must work,
and worry about the finances
But no way, do not learn!"
Nontraditional Training Opens Up
But as economic and other pressures have built on ultra-Orthodox women working in the conventional professions of education a handful of institutions have, at the same time, opened in recent years to afford women the opportunity to earn academic degrees in a variety of nontraditional fields.
The Lustig Institute in Ramat Gan, for instance, allows Haredi women to not only earn full degrees but to do so in sex-segregated religious settings. This affords them the ability to compete in the overall job market, earn more money for their families and the freedom to choose a career of their choice, says spokesperson Gadi Weisberger.
Haredi women at Lustig, such as Rooth, earn degrees in fields such as computer engineering, computer science and business administration while receiving a strong Jewish education.
Part of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the Lustig Institute opened its doors in 1999 with nearly 30 young women and today enrolls 450, the vast majority of whom are married to men who study in kollels, schools for the study of classic Jewish texts.
"Whoever graduates with us, earns three times more than a teacher; at least three times," said Zvi Ilani, one of the rabbis who heads the college.
Ilani says the school faces no formal opposition because ultra-Orthodox rabbis realize there aren’t enough jobs for women coming out of the traditional Beit Yaakov system.
In addition, he says, there is no contradiction between technology–the main thrust of the institute’s courses–and Judaism, and thus there is little concern about how these courses are being taught.
The institute consults with Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a well-known Haredi in Bnei Barak, who supports its work.
Group Contracts Negotiated
Yet Lustig remains in the margins, Ilani says, in part because of fears that graduates will go on to work in the non-Haredi world. The institute addresses this by making agreements with high-tech companies and offices to hire groups of eight, 10 or even 20 graduates from Lustig so they are surrounded by a like-minded community.
Another institute, the Haredi College of Jerusalem, allows ultra-Orthodox women to earn academic degrees in fields such as social work, speech therapy and medical laboratory science through arrangements with Israeli universities and colleges.
The college, which also provides Haredi education to its students, opened in 2001 with 23 women. Today it has 453 women and 80 men. The two groups enter the building from separate entrances and study on different floors to prevent interaction.
Adina Bar Shalom, the eldest child of the renowned ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, co-founded the institute after consulting with her father and receiving his approval.
The 63-year-old college chairwoman, a former fashion stylist who does not hold a degree, said she believes that her community is intelligent enough to earn university degrees and work in advanced professions.
"I don’t want them to continue to suffer from poverty," said Bar Shalom, who has a daughter studying interior design at the college. "We have large families with 10 kids, sometimes more. We need more than one person to support the family . . . Our way, in my eyes, is the most perfect way, to combine Torah with the way of the land; to make a living with honor."
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.
This series is supported by The Sister Fund.
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