Haredi girls can now study for cutting-edge careers and be traditional

JERUSALEM — Chani, a charming, 17-year-old student at Jerusalem's Beit Ya'acov Batya School for haredi girls, would like to be a lawyer. She has no doubt that she is both academically and intellectually capable.

"But you can only study law at a university or a college in the secular world," she says, with no trace of wistfulness. "And I won't go there, it wouldn't be good for me."

Chani's outlook points to some of the developments and challenges facing educators in Israel's haredi, or fervently religious, world today.

New areas of secular study are opening up for haredi girls. In the Beis Brocho girls' school affiliated with the Karliner Chassidic sect, more than 500 girls study in Yiddish. In Beit Ya'acov Batya, the 200 girls complete a full, formal graduation exam in both secular and religious studies. And at schools throughout the haredi school system, girls are now being told they will probably work outside their homes and should consider their career possibilities.

"Only a decade ago," says Jonathan Rosenblum, a haredi publicist and director of Am Echad's Israel office, "there were only two courses of secular study open for girls — they could be kindergarten teachers or preschool child-care workers. That's not true anymore."

Today, girls are offered majors in computerized graphics, architecture, interior design, physical education instruction and computer science, including computer engineering. Schools are building advanced computer labs and graphic studios.

Several haredi schools in Jerusalem are using the state-of-the-art equipment at the Hebrew University's Belmonte Science Laboratories Center to teach physics.

An new emphasis on graduation and standardized testing has also entered the haredi world. Until five or six years ago, no haredi girls' schools even allowed their students to take matriculation exams. Today, although some of the more conservative schools — especially those allied with Chassidic sects — continue to resist, many more girls are taking these exams than before.

So while haredi boys' schools continue to guide their students toward yeshiva and traditional learning, at the expense or disregard of their secular and professional studies, many girls' schools are encouraging pupils to explore new worlds of study and thought.

The trend is propelled by developments from within and outside of the haredi community.

On the most obvious level, expanded secular education for girls is economically driven. Traditionally, the haredi community encourages its men to continue their full-time Torah studies well into adulthood, if not for their entire lives. Men and women marry young, average family size is increasing and continued state support is uncertain. Someone — usually the wife — has to make a living.

Increased secular studies for girls is also a response to pressures from the outside world. Haredi girls are developing contemporary sensibilities and expectations.

"Even a woman who thinks her task is raising her children has additional expectations for herself," says Rosenblum, who writes a weekly column for the Jerusalem Post. "These girls are getting top scores on standardized tests. They are bright and alert and knowledgeable. And like any person they want to use their minds."

Rabbi Binem Hacohen Levin, a principal at the venerable Beit Ya'acov Hayashan School, recognizes the changes. More than 2,500 students are enrolled in its six-year program.

"Our primary goal for girls' education is to inculcate love of the Holy One, blessed be He, and positive Jewish qualities such as compassion and devotion. But today's world is completely open. In the past, our girls did not know of worldly things, and they were not tempted by the outside [secular] world. Today, they are. So we must teach them, in our own way, so that they will be able to cope with this modern world and struggle against their yetzer hara [the evil instinct]."

Actually, contrary to popular misconceptions, devout Jewish women have been working outside of their homes for generations. In the yeshiva world of Eastern Europe, women supported their husbands and families. Many maintained small business and cottage industries; some even managed larger-scale factories.

Moreover, the prohibitions on secular education have always been more lax for girls than for boys, contends Deborah Weissman, director of the Kerem Teachers College.

Weissman has researched the social history of Jewish girls' education and she notes that in the 18th and 19th centuries, haredi women were much more worldly than haredi men.

"Since girls are not obligated to learn Torah," says Weissman, "studying secular subjects was not considered bitul Torah — that is, wasting time by studying anything other than Torah…Secular studies were an ancient form of finishing school for Jewish girls."

Formal education for religious Jewish girls was instituted in 1917, when Sarah Schenirer established the first Beit Ya'acov schools in Eastern Europe.

According to Weissman, Schenirer was also responding to economic necessity while trying to protect Jewish girls from the subversive influence of the Polish feminist movement.

Now, as then, schools emphasize girls' natural inclinations and personal excellence, says Rabbi Avigdor Silver, principal of Beit Ya'acov Batya: "We are happy when our girls fulfill their abilities, and each girl is unique."

Rabbi Abraham Shor, executive director of Beis Brocho, agrees. Quoting religious sources, he says, "A person should always study what his heart desires." But his — or her — heart should desire only certain things, and the girls are cautioned to walk a thin line between personal preference and what educators see as self-indulgence.

Beit Ya'acov Batya's brochure says the ideal student "is being groomed to take her honored place as a Jewish mother, and at the same time, being trained for a fulfilling career that will enable her to help support her family."

And while the girls at Beit Ya'acov Batya do take Hebrew literature exams, they do not read authors such as Amos Oz or Meir Shalev.

An avid reader, Chani has heard of A.B. Yehoshua, but has never read any of his works. "I don't need to read this kind of literature," she says. "It is not clean and not good for me."

The girls are encouraged to ask questions, but not to challenge their belief system. Although they are offered numerous courses, the focus is on technology, professions and commerce, with less attention to the social sciences, and less still to the humanities.

To some, the high-tech computer laboratories at Beit Ya'acov Hayashan seem out-of-sync. Dozens of girls, modestly and uniformly dressed in dark- and light-blue, are seated at computer consoles. Some are using sophisticated graphic programs and viewing the results on 19-inch monitors. Others are using Microsoft Office to complete their homework assignments.

To the side of one of the large rooms, several girls are at recess, reading psalms or praying fervently. And one thing is blatantly missing from the complex computer setup — there are modems, but no Internet connections.

The Internet, haredi rabbis have asserted, is a heinous source of bad influences. It is not just the erotica, pornography and violent imagery that can pop up, unbidden. To the educators at Beit Ya'acov, Beis Brocho and the dozens of schools like them, the Internet represents the permissiveness, the heretical questioning, the everchanging quality of the modern world, which contrast so sharply with belief in unchanging traditions and inviolate truths.

The Internet symbolizes the bargain that some in the haredi world are trying to strike with modernity and with the secular society that surrounds them. It represents their belief that they can choose high-tech, with all its advantages and benefits, without being contaminated by the guiding forces and social milieu in which high-tech developed.

"There are fundamental, irreconcilable values conflicts between the haredi and the secular world," says Rosenblum, who became haredi in his late 20s. "I've seen that secular world, and I don't want to be part of it."

Some, like Levin of Beit Ya'acov Hayashan and Shor of Beis Brocho, believe that haredi girls should never work outside of the haredi world. "The language, the lack of respect, the temptations, the mixing between men and women — those are not the values we want our girls exposed to," says Levin. "The secular world…leaves scars on the soul."

At Beis Brocho, where the language of instruction is Yiddish, the dress is deliberately "old-fashioned," Shor says. "We want to keep the connection to the past alive. It is the eternal past that will protect our future, and our girls know this."

But other educators, such as Silver, know that in order to survive economically, some, if not most, of their graduates will have to find employment outside of the fervently religious world. So they must teach the girls to be vigilant, to always remember that they are different. They must move through secular society as if they were encapsulated within a bubble, untouched by the society in which they float.

"Our school has helped us to be strong, good Jews," says Chani. "I could always ask questions, and there were always people who knew the answers. This has helped me to build myself as a mother and a wife of the future, to be able to give, to be able to understand others' needs, to be able to forgo my own needs. It has taught me that I can fulfill myself in my profession, but even more so in my family. It is why I am strong and fulfilled today."