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Just a few decades ago, secular education was not uncommon in the Hasidic community. But today, many Hasidic leaders see secular topics as a distraction from Jewish studies, and so yeshivas typically teach only the state-required minimum of non-religious courses. Nevertheless, Freier, who previously founded Ezrat Nashim, a first-aid service run by women, insisted that her goal with B’Derech is to work within the Haredi environment, not challenge it. “I was looking for a way of respecting the traditional yeshiva system,” Freier said, “but at the same time, giving the opportunity for those who are either unsuccessful in yeshiva or are looking to earn a living.”
Freier reached out to Bramson ORT to host her program because of the school’s history. It was established in 1942 to serve Holocaust refugees, and for decades after its founding its student body consisted mainly of New York’s immigrant community, including a large number of Jews who came over when the Soviet Union fell apart. Today, the student body at the college’s Brooklyn and Queens campuses is ethnically diverse. Freier told the director of Bramson ORT’s Brooklyn Extension Center, Yair Rosenrauch, that she could bring in a group of young men who are like immigrants because they speak mostly Yiddish, with English as their second language. She told Rosenrauch that her goal was to set up a program that would acclimate young Haredi men to a non-yeshiva learning environment without asking them to sacrifice their strict standards. Rosenrauch said he was happy to accommodate Freier’s initiative because it was in line with Bramson’s founding ideals. “The only class which I was once concerned about was the graphic design class, that the imagery be appropriate for them,” said Rosenrauch. He instructed the graphic design teacher to make sure to avoid using images of women in bathing suits during class demonstrations.
Graphic design and computer programming are the two most popular majors among B’Derech students, according to Rosenrauch. Students can choose how many classes to take per week. Some, like Williamsburg native Shmuel Frankel, 24, have set up a rigorous weekly schedule in order to complete the coursework as fast as possible. Frankel works until 6 p.m. everyday — as a salesman in a Brooklyn-based plumbing supply business — and then takes four hours of night classes at Bramson ORT. He’s married and has a child, but during the week he barely has time to see his family. At age 15, he hardly knew a word of English and had a third-grade-level math foundation. Today, he’s majoring in graphic design and hoping to become a professional in that field.
“I decided to educate myself and I really wanted to step up and get a really good job for good pay,” said Frankel, who will graduate in June 2014. “I think today that a person without secular education is living out of the world.”
Contact Yermi Brenner at Brenner@forward.com