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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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Unique college brings academia to haredim

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Adina Bar-Shalom

Her father – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – remains one of Israel’s most powerful figures as a former chief Sephardi rabbi and current spiritual head of the Shas party.

And it’s that influence, his eldest daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, says, that enabled her to usher in a quiet revolution a decade ago by creating the Haredi College of Jerusalem, an academic centre for haredim that replaced welfare with work and destitution with dignity.

The haredi young adults who go there earn academic undergraduate and graduate degrees in various fields of study, among them social work, psychology, computer science, management and economics.

They receive their diplomas from linked institutions including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University and Hadassah College, and the degrees serve as stepping-stones to working careers and productive lives.

At the same time, the college fully respects haredi customs. Its leased premises at the Jerusalem Technology Park are reserved for haredi students, with separate classrooms and floors for men and women.

There is also a free daycare facility for mothers attending the college who have toddler-age children.

The soft-spoken Bar-Shalom, 67, explained the raison d’être of the college simply: “I had to do something to get haredim involved in the Israeli community,” she said during a recent visit to Montreal to raise the profile of the college. “We needed to raise their status.”

Without her father’s blessings, she told The CJN, it would have been impossible to open the school. His support helped blunt the opposition she faced – and still faces – from some haredi rabbis who see her college as a secularizing, corrupting threat to “authentic” Judaism.

They see non-religious education as the “road to oblivion,” Bar-Shalom said, while her father had no such concern, because of his conviction that God helps those who help themselves.

She was joined for the interview by Eric Setton, head of the college’s external relations department, and they pointed out that haredi unemployment, impoverishment and reliance on government handouts are among the most pressing issues facing Israel today.

“We speak a lot about the Iranian bomb, but this is the Israeli society bomb,” Bar-Shalom said.

Many Israelis, they acknowledged, consider haredim “parasites” for seeming to trade work and military service for impoverished lives spent on the public dole in kollelim and yeshivot.

Bar-Shalom and Setton pointed out that haredim now comprise 12 per cent of the population (and growing), with more than half of haredi men unemployed. One-quarter of Grade 1 children in Israeli schools are haredi

While growing up one of 10 children in her own haredi family, Bar-Shalom never got a chance to spread her academic wings as she once dreamt she might. She was taken out of school at 14 and became a seamstress while raising a family of three children (her husband is a respected rabbinic judge).

Bar-Shalom began to realize the need for her school in the 1990s, when she heard an economist warn that Israel’s economy would one day crumble because of the huge haredi unemployment level.

Her solution was to create an institution that would allow haredim and Israeli academia to work collaboratively for Israeli society’s greater good.

But the hurdles were many.

Bar-Shalom raised initial funding for her project through the Avi Chai, Kemach and Glencore foundations, but said her greatest obstacle was to bring onside the universities that would be granting the degrees. They first had to be convinced, Bar-Shalom said, that haredi students were even capable of taking on higher-level academic studies. “It took two years to get their support,” she added.

Within the haredi community itself, since it has been considered more prestigious for girls to marry full-time kollel or yeshiva students, it took five years for men to start attending the college. In 2001, Haredi College had 23 female students. Now, the total number of students is 1,200 and the number is growing. Two-thirds are women and one-third men, about equally divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The teachers come from the universities involved, and range from secular to observant in their own practice.

Students are responsible for about one-third of their annual $1,500 tuition, with the balance coming from state subsidies. Students from families with lower socio-economic status also have access to funding from a variety of other sources. The college’s annual budget is about $3 million.

According to Ashoka Israel, a website devoted to social entrepreneurship, by creating the college, Bar-Shalom “understood that in order to improve the socio-economic condition of the haredi population, and to raise its status and image in Israeli society in general, much better employment solutions needed to be developed.”

In Montreal, Bar-Shalom met with community leaders and spent a special Shabbat at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, where she spoke and was joined by one of her college’s strongest supporters, Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was with her in New York earlier to promote the college. Bar-Shalom also addressed the Sephardi community at Congregation Or Hahayim.

Future plans for the college include building its own campus and launching independent study programs in collaboration with Israel’s Council for Higher Education.

“Public opinion is very important,” Bar-Shalom said. “This is a place where there is no compromise in the level of study or admissions policy, where the haredi can learn from the secular without any conflict.”

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