By creating the first structure in which ultra-Orthodox women (and recently, men) are able acquire academic qualifications and professional skills in harmony with their identities and traditions, Adina Bar-Shalom is not only contributing to their economic well-being, but also opening a door to inclusion and improved status within larger society.
If information is power, knowledge is a pivotal personal and social asset, and education is an essential gateway for economic, political, and developmental progress. The integration of the several large ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities within wider Israeli society—henceforth “the ultra-Orthodox community”—in terms of education, employment, obligations and contributions, and general mutual acceptance, is one of the toughest faced by the state and the community. By creating the first structure in which ultra-Orthodox women (and recently, men) are able acquire academic qualifications and professional skills in harmony with their identities and traditions, Adina Bar-Shalom is not only contributing to their economic well-being, but also opening a door to inclusion and improved status within larger society.
Since the ultra-Orthodox community is growing at a disproportionately rapid pace in comparison with the rest of Israel, and now constitutes almost 15 percent of Israel’s population, the challenge of integration, transformation and self-sustainability is growing more urgent and acute. Adina has set out to change the situation of the ultra-Orthodox community. Her innovation is to offer “academization” as she calls it, to ultra-Orthodox women (and now men) in Israel, while fully respecting their traditions, and the range of other demands on them. She observes that Israeli society as a whole is becoming increasingly academized, and those without academic degrees miss out on employment opportunities. The women who enter the college she founded in 2001, Haredi College in Jerusalem, are often the main or sole support for their families, which are often large, and live under the close supervision of rabbis or rabbinical bodies. The men are often restricted to a life of religious study that does not include paid employment. For both, the opportunity to learn academic subjects (education, economics, computer programming, or laboratory sciences are just a few examples) and to acquire professional skills (law is popular) provides personal dignity, much needed remuneration, and access to the wider society on the basis of mutual respect. Menachem Ben-Sasson, President of Hebrew University, says “Society must adjust itself to the changes taking place in traditional societies around the world, to encourage the acquisition of higher education and to take part in bearing the economic responsibility borne by the society as a whole.”
Like other entrepreneurial and successful projects that deal with coexistence and the integration of marginalized communities, this initiative deals with “the politics of interests” much more than with the trendier “politics of identity.” Rather than talking about mutual understanding and the acceptance of the other’s values and beliefs, Adina’s Haredi College equips its graduates with concrete knowledge and tools that enable them to satisfy their personal, communal, material, and spiritual interests, yet also feel a bit closer to the rest of the society. Rather than discussing emotions and fears in what often turn out to be pleasant, yet fruitless, mixed group deliberations, Haredi College faces the issues of exclusion, inadequate skills and alienation head on by addressing the most crucial practical needs and the most concrete interests of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. Doing this in ways that are accepted and recognized by the rest of society brings the graduates and their families a step closer to the social mainstream.
Through influencing public policy, speaking engagements, and conference participation, her message is brought to traditional communities, as well as policymakers in many countries. A good example of her influence—beyond the activity of her college—is the new ambitious program of Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to specifically encourage employment of ultra-Orthodox women via tax breaks and other incentives, and by so doing improve Israel’s general GDP and ranking in terms of productivity and economic performance.
Judaism covers a wide range of cultures and practices, ranging from strict belief and observance, with cultural separatism, to cultural identification combined with a secular or humanistic outlook. “Orthodox Judaism” refers to the various streams of Judaism which adhere, to a large extent, to ancient beliefs and practices, based on a particular choice of ancient texts—the Old Testament, for example. Within this category, “Modern Orthodoxy” allows for some reinterpretation of religious law to accommodate social and historical changes, and for some measure of participation in and contribution to the secular world. In contrast, “ultra-Orthodoxy” (in Hebrew, the views of the Haredim or a Haredi outlook) tends not to accept the process of reinterpretation of religious law, but favors seclusion from the wider world, particularly from secular education and secular places of commerce. The Jewish law in question applies particularly to food, the Sabbath, sexuality, and synagogue practice.
In the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi world, certain cultural practices are followed to indicate belonging; among these are modest dress for women, especially the covering of the hair in some fashion, and formal dress, head coverings, and full beards for men. It is the custom in these communities to have very large families, for wives to support the families, and for men to engage in religious study for as long as possible in their lives. The sexes are traditionally strictly separated outside of the home. Because of their beliefs and practices, the community frequently lives in isolated “ghettos,” which are afflicted by poverty and a variety of social problems—made worse by a general taboo to discuss these issues. Their attitudes to employment—i.e. to participation in national economic life—as well their traditional exemption from the otherwise universal army service, arouse the distrust and resentment of mainstream Israelis.
The Jewish ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is perceived by the rest of the Israeli society as one of the most unproductive, exploitative, and willfully alienated. More than 60 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, this community—concentrated in the cities of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Beitar and Elad—continues to grow at a rapid rate (i.e. with an average of 5.6 children per family, compared with the national average of 2.3), to rely heavily on public funding, and to stick, by choice, with relatively low-skilled jobs. In general, it continues to serve as an irritant to the secular majority. At the same time, the community suffers widespread poverty and its related social problems, due to the employment structure and choices. Women are under particular pressure in being expected to manage large families and to earn the family’s living.
Adina understood that in order to improve the socioeconomic condition of the ultra-Orthodox population, as well as to raise its status and image in Israeli society in general, much better employment solutions had to be developed. This, in turn, required much better, more accessible and broader higher educational opportunities. Since non-religious higher education, or indeed, any sort of academic training, was considered impermissible in this community prior to her innovations, Adina used her pedigree and connections—as the daughter of an eminent Mizrahi (i.e. Jews who immigrated from Muslim lands) rabbi—in order to launch her quiet revolution, trying to remove these obstacles to higher education slowly and respectfully from within.
Adina’s solution was to establish an academic college that meets the highest academic standards and which uses the knowledge, experience and personnel of the best Israeli universities—but at the same time, caters for the special needs of the ultra-Orthodox community. She has achieved this with the blessings (literally) of the most prominent and respected leaders of this, her own community, and the college provides its services in the most nonthreatening and accessible way, and at minimal cost to the students. Adina also widened the array of possible career choices; where once teaching was so popular a career choice for women that it could only absorb a small fraction of the graduates qualified to teach, now a number of practical and professional subjects can be studied. This has greatly relieved the widespread unemployment of women in the community, and thus raised the general economic level.
Believing in social change rather than charity—that is, in finding practical solutions as opposed to waiting for help from heaven or other quarters—Adina decided to create an institution that would be accepted by the ultra-Orthodox community (i.e. ultra-Orthodox women, at the outset), but which, at the same time, could serve as a possible bridge to the rest of society, a gateway for inclusion, self-esteem, and better socioeconomic conditions. Social problems in the ultra-Orthodox community are now being addressed by graduates who are positioned to open up discussion on “taboo” topics. After the first five years, academic tracks were also opened to men at Haredi College. (In accord with tradition, men and women do not mix, and traditional dress and presentation is expected of the women, though not of lecturers.) This, too, constitutes a major change in the culture, as men have traditionally been expected to study and not to work for pay—or, if required to work, to work in low-skilled and low-paid jobs.
Haredi College in Jerusalem opened its gates in 2001 (i.e. with an initial intake of 23 women and approval from the Council of Higher Education) and is now offering a variety of degrees to both ultra-Orthodox women and men. Courses of study in social work, medical laboratory science, computer programming, speech therapy and other communications disorders, social work, and economics and logistics, are all taught by teachers from Bar Ilan University (i.e. Israel’s second largest academic institution, in Ramat Gan) and elsewhere. Scholarships are given to students in need and a daycare center is operated on campus to help married students, many of them mothers of babies and young children.
The results are unequivocal: Two such colleges, Haredi College in Jerusalem and another in Bnei Brak produce 540 of graduates every year who, in turn, achieve impressive placements rates of 94 percent in a wide variety of jobs. In Israel and other places, not only colleges are being established following Adina’s pioneering work and ideas, but also other, less academic employment initiatives, which show both the religious communities and their surroundings the power of professional integration: Call centers have been opening in ultra-Orthodox towns in Israel and a dozen of local high tech companies realized that this community can provide reliable and skillful workers, if the companies are clever and sensitive enough to cater for their special needs.
In a statement summing up her approach and beliefs, Adina says, “I don’t know if this is a revolution. But it is possible to talk about a significant change in the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox community toward education. The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community realize that it’s impossible to sit on the fence if they don’t want this community to wallow in poverty all its life, I entered this field in order to open a door to masses of girls. This is my aim.”
Adina speaks widely and participates in numerous conferences on a variety of topics, including social work, psychology, and mental health. Through these activities, her message is spread. It is a message that extends to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe and the U.S. and elsewhere: As noted above, colleges inspired by hers have since opened in the U.S., the U.K., and France. Beyond that, as the president of Hebrew University was quoted as saying, her message extends to “traditional societies around the world,” in which women (and men) can be helped, through education, to participate in the economic life of the nation, and to draw closer to the nation’s mainstream.
Born in Israel in 1945, Adina was the first child of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi from Basra who has served as Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and who later become the unchallenged spiritual leader of the Sephardic/Mizrahi (i.e. Jews from Muslim lands, or originating from Spain) religious community in Israel. Rabbi Yosef has also worked to improve the status of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. Adina believes that she inherited her sense of leadership and social justice from her father, who continues to be her source of inspiration and advice, and who has consistently backed her project. Indeed, to quote HaAretz (the Israeli New York Times), “Adina can allow herself to stand up to the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment as Rabbi Ovidiah and the Shas Council of Sages are standing behind her…” Her father’s support and her own determination and strategy show some powerful results—the outcomes speak for themselves.
Adina first developed her skills by taking responsibility for her ten brothers and sisters in her youth; assuming the burdens of housework and the care of her siblings when her mother became ill. One of her turning points occurred just before high school, when her parents decided that she should attend a professional school (i.e. in which she learned dressmaking) instead of the more prestigious general high school, to pursue a teaching career. Her mother dreamt that Adina would become a seamstress, and she did indeed become one as a married woman, making wedding dresses and wedding wear. Adina is not resentful, but regretted having been unable to pursue her education or to choose her own future, and she was unhappy with the limited options open to young women like herself.
At the age of 17, she was married to a Yeshiva (i.e. religious academy) graduate who was introduced to her by her father—after she discussed with the man the principles which have guided her throughout her life, and was sure they were compatible with his. When he had difficulties in finding a suitable rabbinical job in Jerusalem, the couple moved to Tel Aviv. In an unorthodox (if one may use the term in this context) step, they decided to settle in the north of Tel Aviv, in a secular neighborhood, confident that they could become part of the social tissue of this neighborhood, while both retaining their beliefs and ways of life; indeed, they hoped to live among and learn from other groups in Israeli society. When her husband was appointed judge in a rabbinical court and her children were old enough, she hoped to pursue an academic degree in psychology. However, her husband, with her father’s support, vetoed her wish to study, so instead she studied fashion design in the (secular) Shenkar School of Engineering and Design in Tel Aviv. Of this she wryly says, “…my father convinced my husband that it was just a school for seamstresses.”
Adina was struck by the polarization of Israeli society that followed the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 (by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords). She felt a personal responsibility to try to bring the animosity to an end. Adina’s attempt to convene mixed groups of secular and religious citizens to try to listen to and understand each other led her to the realization that such initiatives—even if important culturally and helpful socially—would not bring about the needed sea change.
Adina’s development as an educationalist and a social activist was a long and slow one, living as she did within the restrictions of her family background and famous father, and it was forged through enormous strength of character and great patience. When her three children were all married and settled, she finally hit upon the idea of a university offering professional skills to ultra-Orthodox women. Her father had once suggested that the community was in need of its own social workers; that was one of the seeds of her vision. “When I came to him with the idea of establishing a Haredi University, he was happy and blessed me. Apparently everything has its own time,” she says. HaAretz commented, “Her whole life story seems to be arranged to culminate in poetic justice. She, who was not allowed to study, opened the gates of education to Haredi women and men.” “I think Haredi society should be based on Torah learning,” she says, “but at the same time everyone who wants to acquire a profession should be allowed to do so.”
The latest development at Haredi College is a collaboration with the Ben Gurion University of the Negev to offer a course in clinical psychology for women identical to the course offered at the Be’er Sheva campus. The four-year course will be taught by Prof. David Leiser of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and will result in a certificate to practice clinical psychology. The students are to undergo therapy (with female therapists) as part of their studies—and her father has again given his blessing. “This is a new Haredi femininity,” she says, “the recognition that a 40-year-old woman can still develop and realize one of her longings…I was searching for meaning…I looked for something to do that would remain after me, something to generate change.” She has found it.