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Law School Is Brave New World for Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Women

The heat in the classroom was stifling. The students, all of them women, leaned over their notebooks like diligent sewing machine operators in a garment factory and penned rivers of words. The lecturers spoke quickly, with no interruptions and no questions. At the end of the lesson, one woman raced to the window, where she fanned herself with her notebook to cool off.

Once a week, on Tuesdays, from morning until evening, a group of about 100 ultra-Orthodox women edge closer to attaining a law degree at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kirya Akademit in Kiryat Ono. The law students account for about one-third of all the ultra-Orthodox students on the campus. Most of them could easily conform to the image of the superwoman: mothers with full-time jobs, many of whom singlehandedly support their families, while their husbands study in kollels, or institutions of Jewish learning for married men. They vigorously object to the label “career women,” a concept foreign to the ultra-Orthodox world. “To them, career women are secular women who have two children and a dog and warm up meals in the microwave oven, whereas these women strive to be “women of valor.”

But they are career women, actually. When the ultra-Orthodox campus opened about a year and a half ago, these women added academic studies to their schedules — studying a demanding subject that is definitely controversial in their environment.

Some of the controversy was softened by Kirya Akademit’s commitment to “preserving ultra-Orthodox interests” as defined by college chairman Renan Hartman. To maintain the value of separatism, the ultra-Orthodox track was removed to outside premises, away from the campus. Women and men study on different days in an office building in a small industrial zone among wedding halls and huge branches of cheap supermarket chains. The place, far from the image of a campus where people of both sexes meet and lead a vibrant social life, spreads over one floor of offices, lacks a library — though one is being built — and screams practicality. It is all about teaching skills.

“The educational breakthrough among women is much stronger than it is among men, both because they have a higher general educational level than the men and because for them the decision is more personal,” said Yaakov Lupu of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies, who is conducting a comprehensive study of professional training in the ultra-Orthodox sector. “They dare to go step by step, sometimes without needing to ask a rabbi.”

About half of the 100 students began their studies this year, and there is a broad range of ages among them. In ultra-Orthodox society, it often happens that a mother and a daughter are in adjoining labor rooms at a hospital; here there are women studying alongside their daughters.

“We have young women here who are still anxious that studying law will harm their chances of making a good match, and there are grandmothers who have come to realize a dream,” said lecturer Rivi Schlesinger, dean of the law track for ultra-Orthodox women, and a “totally secular” woman.

At least two of these “grandmothers” followed a long path to get here: One of them is a secretary at the Knesset; the other is the principal of a Bais Yaakov school for girls who was active in social non-profit organizations and has pursued academic studies. There are teachers here who have had enough of teaching, but also very young women who have been married for only a few years, among them one accountant and a postal worker who is the daughter of Labor and Welfare Minister Shlomo Benizri of Shas.

It is no coincidence that Benizri’s daughter is enrolled here. About one-third of the women in the second year of studies are Shas voters. It was people from this movement who laid the foundations for opening academic frameworks for the ultra-Orthodox, the first of which was a failed attempt at Touro College.

The rest of the women in the class belong to various chasidic groups, especially Chabad, a movement that has always been open to the outside world. According to Hadassah Zwebner, of the Sarat-Vizhnitz chasidic group and a mother of four children who works in marketing, the rabbis give permission on an individual basis to women who want to study. There are also women who belong to the more Orthodox wing of national religious Zionism. The fact that only very few of the women come from the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community can easily be explained: The Lithuanians are the conservatives of ultra-Orthodox society. For them, there is still a stigma on anyone who works and the fear of the threat of non-religious education.

Up until a few years ago it was difficult to imagine that ultra-Orthodox women would engage in any academic studies, let alone the study of law. But these women have been locked in a paradox: According to the communty’s mores, a woman’s place is in the home, but she is also called upon to leave that home in order to support her husband’s learning.

“On the one hand, it is the woman’s obligation to support the family,” said researcher Neri Horowitz of the Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem. “On the other hand, this entails exposure to the modern world.”

Degree studies for the ultra-Orthodox began with social work. “Change always looks for a place to grab hold,” said Tamar Elor, a Hebrew University researcher of ultra-Orthodox society. “There is a dearth of social services in the ultra-Orthodox community. Therefore, they will study social work, but not sociology, and education and educational counseling, but not psychology. Only things that are practical. Not anything that has to do with ideas or philosophy. Law is already one step forward.” According to 1996 figures of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 50% of ultra-Orthodox women work outside the home as their husbands learn. In reality, some say, the figure may be closer to 70%.

But their exposure to the working world was never to the rabbis’ liking. “They do the dirty work, they earn the living,” Elor said, “but they have always taken the trouble to stress that ‘the honor of the king’s daughter is inward,’ that the place where women should be is in the home.”

For years, education was the only profession that ultra-Orthodox women were permitted to join. But recent times have seen the teaching field become saturated, leaving the ultra-Orthodox with a severe unemployment problem.

“Among the 3,000 graduates of Bais Yaakov seminaries, only 30 find jobs in the [teaching] profession each year,” said Adina Bar-Shalom, the main developer and proponent of higher education for ultra-Orthodox women..The problem was highlighted in a recent article in the ultra-Orthodox journal Mishpacha — Hebrew for “family” — which warned of a dearth of employment possibilities for women in the Jerusalem suburbs.

Bar-Shalom, the founder of the Haredi College, is the daughter of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. She is open about her conflict with the Ashkenazi rabbis. In April of this year she was attacked with the usual ultra-Orthodox arsenal when wall posters against her were pasted up in the streets of Jerusalem. The struggle against the Haredi College reflects the ambivalent attitude of the ultra-Orthodox establishment toward the new trend in women’s education. From the outset the rabbis intended that these trends would be under supervision and that the study centers would be open only to married women or men over the age of 27. However, Haredi College — a branch of Bar-Ilan University — also accepts younger women. Bar-Shalom can allow herself to stand up to the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment, as Ovadiah and the Shas Council of Sages are standing behind her.

In every other respect, however, the college tries to conform to the rabbis’ instructions. The college regulations, which hang at the entrance, list permitted hairstyles, sleeve lengths and restrictions on make-up, nail polish and jewelry. Head coverings for married women are obligatory, though not for lecturers.

When asked if she is leading a revolution, Bar-Shalom demurs. “I don’t know if this is a revolution,” she said modestly. “But it is possible to talk about a significant change in the attitude of ultra-Orthodox society toward education. The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community realize that it is impossible to sit on the fence if they don’t want the community to wallow in poverty all its life. I entered this field in order to open a door to masses of girls. This is my aim.”

But will the education of ultra-Orthodox women signal changes in their larger community?

Some observers have noted, for example, a growing tension between ultra-Orthodox husbands and wives. “The processes of professional training and academization stress even more the ability gaps between men and women,” said Menachem Friedman, a researcher of ultra-Orthodox society. “As long as the man sat in a yeshiva, they did not know this. Now, when he enters life, it turns out that the woman is smarter. This leads to great tension and to an increase in the number of divorces among the ultra-Orthodox.”

“The ultra-Orthodox realize that ‘the woman of valor’ is a problem,” according to Kimi Kaplan of Bar-Ilan University. “There are books of guidance and advice on the subject of relations between husbands and wives, along the lines of ‘it is necessary to understand the woman.’ Although the aim of these books seems to be to relieve pressure and preserve the status quo, the hidden message is that [the wife] is both bearing the burden and better than you.”

There also seem to be a shift in attitudes among ultra-Orthodox women. Nicole Dahan of the Hebrew University School of Social Work followed the segregated program in social work at Neveh Yerushalaiyim for her doctoral thesis. The report, which was written in conjunction with Uri Aviram, indicated that the women — most of whom came from English-speaking countries and were newly observant — gradually lost their exclusive concern with ultra-Orthodox issues and began to focus on professional issues. One woman who took part in the study recalled a conversation she had with a rabbi’s wife, in which she spoke frankly about the possibility of abortion for young girls in distress.

“There was a kind of silence. Really absolute silence… as if I had said something wrong in the wrong place …. I feel that I am opening myself more and more, and the ultra-Orthodox world is not entirely going along with me,” she reportedly told Dahan.

Still, when a reporter asked a group of the ultra-Orthodox women law students about such revolutionary changes, the reaction was fierce. “I’m not a feminist,” said one law student.

But change is undoubtedly underway. Law student Zwebner has already seen to it that her two older daughters are attending a Bais Yaakov school where they can earn matriculation certificates. As for the boys, she cannot say whether the change will ever trickle into their yeshivas. “Perhaps,” she laughs, “this is why Hashem has not blessed me with sons.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Ha’aretz, whose Web site is

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