Jewish scholars toggle torah and technology

As an ultra-Orthodox Jew, Yosef Cohen has spent much of his life immersed in the language of Torah, Talmud, and other ancient Jewish tomes.

As a middle-aged man, he's now considered mature enough, by Judaistic tradition, to study the mystical writings of Kabbalah. Instead, Mr. Cohen is learning a more secular tongues: C++, Java, and other programming languages.

Cohen is part of a small but growing vanguard in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community that is pursuing a revolutionary alternative: training for a paying job.

Among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a life of spiritual study has always been prized. But only a few could afford it until the birth of Israel in 1948. In a political deal, founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to allow ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to study on public support and receive exemptions from mandatory Army service. Initially, only 400 students signed up. Soaring birth rates, immigration, and a religious renaissance has fed an explosion in the ultra-Orthodox population. By 2010, the ultra-Orthodox community will reach half a million, or 7.7 percent of the population, Boston University economist Eli Berman says.

According to Prof. Berman's research, in families where fathers are full-time religious students, only 18 percent of family income is earned, most of it by mothers. More than 70 percent comes from government transfers.

The Israeli state budget for 1998 accounted for over 65,000 students enrolled in full-time yeshiva study. Of those, 35,000 were in yeshivas oriented for older or married students with families.

A looming secular backlash and the threat of cutbacks in state support are now putting pressure on the community to earn more.

"I had to start searching for a source of income," Cohen says during a break from class. "I saw that this [technical] school was OK for people like me."

Cohen says he made the decision because it was getting harder to live on state subsidies he collects to support his wife and eight children, so he can study full-time in a yeshiva, or religious seminary. The high-paying jobs in the computer field are what lured Cohen to computer programming.

With an estimated 1,500 high-tech startups, and more than 100 companies traded on the Nasdaq, the Holy Land is second only to the United States in high-tech industry growth.

Still, it's not an easy jump. Cohen's leaving a cloistered world. Those who attend yeshivas are so devout they are called "haredim" or trembling, as in God-fearing. Such a change of career is sharply controversial in a community whose leaders recently ruled that the faithful are forbidden from using the Internet.

The Jerusalem-based Haredi Center for Technological Studies, which Cohen attends, is fashioning itself as a college for ultra-Orthodox students with little or no education in secular subjects such as math or science.

Inside, the sight is striking. The men wear a uniform traditional attire: black pants, white shirts, black skullcaps, and white fringes that dangle from their waists. Together, the students struggle through a lesson with terms in English, sending many scrambling for a popular elective course in the global vernacular.

Many here, like Cohen, never learned much more than the Latin alphabet. The parochial track of the Israeli school system forgoes mathematics, science, and literature in favor of religious teachings.

The school, in accordance with ultra-Orthodox custom, keeps strict standards of modesty by teaching women in the morning and men in the evening. Such separation means Cohen does not have to compromise on his observance the way he would at a coed university deemed off-limits in ultra-Orthodox circles. "I love it," he says of his foray into computer programming.

For conservative voices, that's troubling. Many rabbis are against the idea of luring the pious into a sector of society that is predominantly secular. They fear religious students will be exposed to immoral behavior in the workplace as well as illicit material on the Internet.

"We are not happy with this," says Rabbi Menachem Porush, the senior leader of Agudat Yisrael, a political union of ultra-Orthodox sects. "Our fears are very simple. They are teaching some subjects that we want to be as far away from as possible.... We don't know what kinds of bad things will be able to reach us through [the Internet]."

A bit like America's Amish community, most ultra-Orthodox don't believe in owning televisions, shun modern music and films, and dress much like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. But unlike the Amish, they don't spurn modernity all together - they drive cars, use electric appliances, and even computer software designed for analyzing Biblical passages. While many leaders tell their followers not to use computers at all, others say it's fine as long as they don't have a modem, or at least not one that's used for anything more than faxes.

"We consider ourselves a school for people who need us," says Rabbi Yeheskel Fogel, the school's senior director. "As our community becomes bigger, so does its needs."

When graduates of the school enter the workplace, however, they are bound to come across the same taboos that rule out university study: colleagues who date, women in mini-skirts, and co-workers who don't keep kosher or observe the Sabbath.

That, says Rabbi Fogel, is not as serious a problem as college fraternizing. "A campus is more social. When you're at a company, you're there to work, not to socialize. At companies, most of the time you're working by yourself, in your own cubicle. Our slogan is to live and let live."

But the school, the first of its kind in Israel's history, has not yet gained wide acceptance. Also offering subjects like architecture, engineering, and accounting they know that the very idea of pursuing any secular profession is still a contentious one.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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