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.”
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