Shutting the door to those who knock
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 16, 2003
In his classic work Tradition and Crisis, historian Jacob Katz describes the relationship between traditional Jewish society and the surrounding gentile world.
On one level, Jews had an extensive web of economic relationships with the surrounding Christian society. On another they lived their lives completely within the confines of Jewish society. The social norms to which they responded were those of the Jewish society, and the approbation they sought was exclusively that of their fellow Jews.
Traditional Jewish society may offer a partial model for the relations between haredim and the secular population of Israel. The values of haredi society and the broader Israeli society are frequently antithetical, just as the values of Jews and Christians in pre-Emancipation Europe were antithetical. Haredi Jews cannot be fully integrated into Israeli society without ceasing to be haredim.
On the other hand, complete separation of haredi and secular society is neither possible nor desirable. The two share an interest in fostering the increased integration of haredim into Israeli economic life. Secular Israelis seek to dramatically decrease the economic dependence of haredi society on the shrinking public purse. And haredim need to become more economically self-sufficient. That self-sufficiency, ironically, requires a greater integration into the Israeli economy.
Yet despite the mutual interest of both the general Israeli society and the haredi community in increased haredi economic participation, such participation is by no means a given. The rate of haredi economic participation will be largely determined by haredi perceptions of the intentions of secular public.
If haredim view secular Israelis as bent on the destruction of the haredi community, the community will circle the wagons and shun any structural changes. If, however, the haredi community views the outside society as accepting its continued existence, it will be much more open to economic integration.
Haredi perceptions depend on the degree to which the general society is willing to accommodate haredi needs to foster economic integration. The current debate over curricular reform of the haredi educational system is a case in point.
The Education Ministry proposes conditioning support for haredi education on the acceptance of a curriculum comprising 75% of the allotted school hours and leaving little time for the study of religious subjects. Implementation of that curriculum would end haredi education, and has no chance of being accepted no matter what the price.
On the other hand, the state has an interest in ensuring that graduates of the haredi school system have the basic mathematical and language skills to enable them to earn a living. That does not require, however, making a fetish of the secular curriculum as the key to future employability.
Little specific information is retained from any education. At best, education develops certain analytical abilities. On this score, talmudic training is unsurpassed. A Hebrew University study, for instance, showed haredi teenagers with talmudic training to be superior to their secular counterparts in terms of solving new types of mathematical problems.
Rather than imposing requirements on haredi schools in terms of classroom hours, haredi schools could be evaluated in terms of student performance on standardized national tests. That would allow the haredi schools the flexibility to determine how many hours they require to meet national standards.
RECENTLY the Hebrew University Paul Baerwald School of Social Work sponsored a conference on haredim in the workplace. The focus of the symposium was a Hebrew University social work course specifically tailored for haredi women.
Prof. Uri Aviram, then dean of the school, pushed the program over the objections of a number of faculty members and administrators. In light of the deep suspicions entertained by many in the haredi community toward social workers, and the widespread fears that secular social workers are quick to remove children from haredi homes and place them in secular homes, Aviram felt it crucial that there be professionally trained haredi social workers.
To encourage the participation of haredi women, who would have been reluctant to study on the Hebrew University campus, the two-year course was offered on the campus of Neveh Yerushalayim, an institution for haredi women. The course requirements, however, were identical to those for the regular Hebrew University bachelor's degree, and the lecturers were all Hebrew University faculty members.
Besides the location of the lectures, the only other difference in the course was a series of meetings for students and staff with a haredi rabbi with academic training in psychology to discuss possible conflicts between religious norms and professional standards of social work.
By all accounts, the program was a success. Faculty members - many of whom had been openly skeptical of the program - reported that the students were active classroom participants and highly motivated. The students were open and willing to raise issues of specific concern within the haredi world.
Despite the fact that many of the students were mothers of large families and/or working, the level of academic work was judged to be high. Of the first cohort to complete its coursework, one was described as outstanding, eight as doing well and two as satisfactory. Only one was described as just meeting the minimal standards. The average course grade was 84.
Teachers and supervisors reported having developed a newfound sensitivity to the haredi community and its special needs. For their part, the students shed many of their stereotypes about secular social workers, and were able to successfully integrate professional social work standards into their work.
Prof. David Ribner of Bar-Ilan University described an even more radical program to train male haredi social workers. Unlike the Hebrew University program, participants in the Bar-Ilan University program were not required to possess a previous BA degree, and none did. All candidates for the course were first vetted by a group of leading rabbis in Bnei Brak.
While all the lecturers were male and the lectures given off the Bar-Ilan campus, students were expected to use the Bar-Ilan library and work with female field work supervisors to whom they might be assigned.
According to Ribner, the program was considered a success by all involved. Particularly positive was the feedback from the institutions in which the students did their field work placements or subsequently received jobs.
Despite the apparent success of these two programs, each was ultimately terminated by the sponsoring university - the Hebrew University program after two cycles and the Bar-IIlan program after only one.
The question posed by these programs is whether the efforts to accommodate the desire of haredim to acquire professional training in order to serve their community or the subsequent termination of the programs will become the model for the future.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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