Growing up in the notoriously strict and deeply religious Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jerusalem neighborhoods of Geula and Me’ah She’arim, I was expected to live only in very tightknit and ardently religious circles, raise my children with strong, Torah-centered values, and become a rabbi. While I started down that path, my early years as an educator revealed serious educational challenges in the Haredi community, and I could not turn a blind eye and perpetuate the status quo.
It became apparent that my goodwill and devotion simply weren’t enough to address the diverse needs of Haredi youth, and I knew that if I wanted to make a difference in the Haredi community, I would need to gain formal training myself. Now, many years later, I am still a rabbi, but I am also a lecturer at Ono Academic College, the very institution where I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees and discovered that it is possible to learn, teach and share opposing points of view without jeopardizing one’s ideology or religious observance.
When discussing the Haredi community’s relationship with education, it’s important to understand that our needs are far more complex than gender separation in the classroom, an issue that the media has fixated upon, and even villainized, in recent years. The real issue centers upon the community’s rejection of what is viewed as secular education itself, which is seen as a potential gateway to far greater obstructions to religious life.
When members of the Haredi community study law, business, medicine or anything else that is not inherently steeped in spirituality, it is understood that we will need to work within a foreign framework that demands our religious vigilance. But when we study education, our problem is somewhat more complicated. It is not simply a matter of stepping outside our comfort zone, but an unprecedented act of accessing tools beyond the Torah to educate ourselves and others about the complex and diverse aspects of human development and psychology that manifests itself in human behavior. Thus, harmoniously meshing supposed secular studies with Torah observance is, in this way, the ultimate tightrope walk.
My own balancing act began in Beitar Illit, Israel’s first Haredi city, where I became Israel’s first Haredi truancy officer and developed an after-school program for at-risk youth, enrolling 3,000 boys and girls from the community. I found adapting these outside perspectives on human psychology and behavior to the specific needs of the Haredi community to be extremely challenging, as it had never been done before.
Still, my efforts were seen as successful, and I was asked by the government to become the National Supervisor for the promotion of childhood education in Israel’s Haredi communities, a role I played for 20 years. But I eventually hit a wall, understanding that without the proper educational training my impact would forever be limited and the Haredi community would remain caught in a vicious cycle, applying stopgap measures where complete overhauls were required.
Initially, I found college overwhelming. I was exposed to concepts that were new to me. I began to read books that I never had access to before. I worked diligently to acquire an entirely new style of learning. Slowly, through this process, I was guided and helped to adapt to this new territory. I felt respected and honored at the Haredi campuses where I attended classes, which catered to the cultural sensitivities and educational challenges that we Haredim commonly encounter. But it was the fact that the faculty and the college believed it societally essential to welcome Haredim like me into the classroom that made my experience at Ono stand out.
This guiding principle of inclusion and equity enriched my undergraduate and graduate studies and convinced me to remain on campus as a lecturer after earning my degrees. I realized that what I had learned about Haredi at-risk youth could be expanded to all Jewish children and that my experiences would be something that others would want to learn from. It was thrilling to realize that a Haredi rabbi could become an authority on at-risk youth, sought out by people from all backgrounds for advice and guidance. Having become an expert in this field, it is now my challenge to effect change.
Thankfully, the Haredi community is now starting to open up to such change. Those who were once reluctant to participate in anything even perceived to be outside the bounds of a traditional Torah lifestyle are now enrolling in institutions of higher education like Ono by the hundreds, and thereafter joining the workforce. The reason for this promising new trend is twofold.
First, Haredim are starting to understand that it’s possible to participate more fully in society without compromising our religious identities and lifestyles. And second, these Haredi students are finally being provided with the tools they need to grow professionally and are ushered to the table for multicultural dialogue. That unified desire to change the status quo has sparked a revolution, with its roots in education and branches that extend to the workforce, the military and beyond.
A new survey by the Haredi research institution ‘Seker Kehalacha’ found that 48% of respondents believed that secular studies are very much worthwhile, highlighting the Haredi community’s desire to gain access to better jobs and participate more in mainstream Israeli society. From my own experience, I can attest to the fact that welcoming Haredim into institutions of higher education is not just a means to an end but a very valuable experience itself, as our time in academia strips away the stereotypes believed by and about the Haredi population and provides real opportunities to develop our individual strengths in a way that helps all of Israeli society.
As both a proud member of the Haredi community and a devoted lecturer at a wonderfully diverse college, it is clear to me that equity in higher education is just the beginning. The more the Haredi community interacts with the rest of the Israeli population on campus, at work, and in all other areas of life, the easier it will be for us to shed our preconceived notions of each other and make real and meaningful connections. Indeed, our national stability and societal health depends upon our ability to truly accept one another. We are already brothers, so it’s high time that we become friends.
Rabbi Pinchas Cohen is a lecturer at Ono Academic College, a model of multicultural graduate and undergraduate programming and education-based social reform, as well as the fastest growing institute of higher education in Israel.
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