Ultra-Orthodox woman blazes trail for vocational education for Israel's haredim

Rivka Yeruslavsky, born into an Israeli ultra-Orthodox family, studied computer science and has gone on to open a vocational school designed to bring more haredim into the workforce.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Rivka and Yaakov Yerusalvsky run the Lomda vocational institute in Jerusalem, which is the largest college where ultra-Orthodox men and women can earn academic degrees without compromising their religious values.

Rivka Yeruslavsky grew up in one of the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Israel as one of 12 children. Her father was a plumber. Her mother, lacking the education for skilled labor, worked odd jobs.

But Ms. Yeruslavsky was a pioneer. She studied computer science – unusual for anyone with her religious background, but especially for a woman –and established Israel’s largest vocational institute for ultra-Orthodox Jews, which aims to help the insular community integrate into Israel’s workforce. 

In 2012 she and her husband, Yaakov Yeruslavsky, partnered with a nearby secular college to create a campus where ultra-Orthodox – also known as haredim – can obtain the same academic degrees but in an atmosphere that supports their religious values. Men and women study in separate classrooms with dry-erase boards and hi-tech projectors, giving them every modern advantage without compromising their adherence to Jewish law in everything from diet to Internet usage.

“The story of Strauss Campus is actually the story of myself and my family," says Mrs. Yeruslavsky, who calls the campus a model for a community that “never saw itself coming out to study academic professions because they could never find an institute that would enable them to keep their lifestyle.”

Strauss Campus, which offers degrees from computer science to management from Hadassah College, is the largest among roughly a dozen haredi colleges funded by the government in a bid to help haredim integrate into the workforce. It already accounts for 40 percent of the 700 students benefiting from such funding, and is growing quickly. Women’s enrollment is expected to jump from 170 to 250 next year, and many of the 150 men finishing a preparatory program will be starting their degrees this month.

Defying stereotypes

Though haredim are a quickly growing segment of Israeli society, they are often denigrated as backwards, maligned for refusing to join the Israeli army, and scoffed at for believing that Torah study is more critical for preserving the Jewish nation than military service.

The fact that most of the men study full-time in yeshivas, while relying on state subsidies and their wives' part-time income to provide for their large families, has created significant resentment in Israeli society. A demand for "sharing the burden" of protecting Israel and enabling it to prosper has become one of the most pressing domestic issues in the country. 

But the Yeruslavskys and their students present a much different image – one that they say is the rule, rather than the exception.

Menucha Rubanowiz may fit the outward stereotype – one of 10 children, raised in a haredi girls' school, already thinking about becoming a wife at age 18.

But she exudes confidence and eager ambition, which may have had something to do with her skipping 8th grade. She is pursuing a biotechnology degree at Strauss Campus, and hopes to go on to get a master's like her older sister.

"My family is very happy that I'll be able to get a well-paying job," says Ms. Rubanowiz, who hopes that when she starts dating next year she’ll find a husband who will support her desire to continue studying even after marriage. “Israeli haredim hold that it’s not as good to get education…. I hope that the guy I’m going to marry is going to want what I wanted.”

A pressing issue

The haredi share of the Jewish population has jumped from 3 to 13 percent since 1980. With growth rates triple that of Israel’s general population, haredim are expected to reach 20 percent by 2030

The Israeli government recently passed controversial legislation that will force most young ultra-Orthodox men to join the army, reversing a long-standing exemption. Many say that coercive approach has caused the community to retrench – both in terms of recruit numbers as well as those gradually taking up vocations outside the yeshiva.

“Instead of letting this slow, positive process … continue, is actually changing it for the worse because there is this dimension of enforced drafting,” says Mr. Yeruslavsky, who has to work perhaps a bit harder now to convince them that academic study won’t erode their beliefs or lifestyle.

But he and his wife are convinced that their community has a tremendous amount to offer the broader Israeli society, and that Strauss Campus can be a model not only for education but societal harmony.

“In spite of the difficult times and vociferously unpleasant atmosphere in the street, I see in Strauss Campus a hope for the fulfillment of a vision,” says Mrs. Yeruslavsky, “the vision where the ultra-Orthodox community is integrated into the workforce in Israel and turns the conflict between general public and our public into a productive and successful cooperation.”

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