Usher Bixenspan’s regular attire includes a black hat, a black coat and peyes, but for one afternoon in June, he wore a maroon gown, a graduation cap and a big smile.
Bixenspan, 20, was part of the first graduating class of B’Derech, an academic program geared toward ultra-Orthodox Jews. The goal of B’Derech — Hebrew for “on the path” — is to provide young Haredi men with the secular education and skills they need in order to be competitive on the job market.
The program launched in 2011 in partnership with the New York branch of Bramson ORT College. It operates through a federal initiative called Ability to Benefit, which permits colleges to enroll students who lack a high school diploma and have not yet passed the GED. Through B’Derech, yeshiva graduates — as well as yeshiva dropouts — can pursue an associate degree while also taking the courses that are required for a GED diploma. The students, who have spent their entire lives in religious schools, also have their first opportunity for in-depth study of science, mathematics, social studies and literature. B’Derech is unique because it offers Haredi students a learning environment and a schedule that’s suited to their lifestyle. For the most part, B’Derech students study separately from other Bramson students, to avoid gender mixing. Classes are in the evening hours, so as not to clash with yeshiva studies or work. To graduate, students need to earn the required credits for the GED — including courses in American history, U.S. government, literature and physics — and also meet the requirements of a major of their choice.
For Bixenspan, who studied in a Brooklyn-based Satmar yeshiva until he was 18, majoring in business management was an essential step in fulfilling his dream to become a music producer. Management skills will be essential “whether I have a personal business or I work for a music studio,” he said.
Bixenspan’s business sensibility is exactly what B’Derech founder Rachel Freier hopes to foster in the students. Freier, a Hasidic, Brooklyn-based attorney — and mother of six — said that she was motivated to found B’Derech when she realized that many members of her community are struggling to make a living. According to the UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 survey, a staggering 43% of Hasidic households in New York are under the poverty line, mainly because traditional Haredi industries, such as the diamond and textile trades, have moved overseas. In addition, other Haredi professions, such as plumbing or electrician work, now require licensing and therefore formal education. “The dynamics have changed and the industry has changed,” Freier said. ”Our yeshiva system is not going to change and I am not here to change it, but I am here to supplement it with ways to let the guys get the education that they need.”