At the age of 33 and as a mother of six, Inbal Tivon is far from matching the profile of the typical student. At a ceremony to take place today at the Binyanei Ha'uma convention center in Jerusalem, in the presence of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Tivon, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Bet Shemesh, will receive her undergraduate degree in social work along with another 43 women graduates of the Haredi College in Jerusalem, most of whom are much younger than she is. But her story accurately reflects the revolution underway in ultra-Orthodox society regarding attitudes to education in general and social work in particular.

When Tivon graduated the Beit Yaakov seminar in Jerusalem, there was no option of academic studies in an ultra-Orthodox framework. In the absence of any alternative, she relates, like all her friends, she did as expected and studied to be a teacher. Over the years, she found that she was increasingly drawn to positions involving family counseling and support. So she worked in a therapeutic center that caters to children with emotional problems. At the same time, she studied parent counseling. But she did not make do with her accumulating experience in community work. "I felt that I want to learn a profession," she said. "I realized that there aren't enough people in the therapeutic professions in ultra-Orthodox circles." Up until a few years ago, she was prevented from realizing her dream. The rabbis and ultra-Orthodox activists considered studying social work to be especially problematic, given that it entails studying psychology or such subjects as social perversions that clash with the ultra-Orthodox system of beliefs. The need to expose innocent young women to the darker side of society prompted opposition. The few ultra-Orthodox social workers that were present were either from among the newly religious or of Anglo-Saxon origin. What eventually led several rabbis, headed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and others (who silently consented) to approve of the field was recognition that the ultra-Orthodox did not have confidence in non-religious social workers, and the realization that such sensitive issues as taking children out of their homes and sending them to dormitories must be handled by someone from their own community who understands the sensitivities involved. In addition, the opening of ultra-Orthodox frameworks, including shelters for abused women and facilities for troubled teenage girls and for children who were the victims of sexual abuse, also created an urgent need for professionals in this field.

The number of students doubled

All of these factors prompted the opening five years ago of the Haredi College by Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In the early years, even though her father and the entire Shas Council of Torah Sages backed her, Bar Shalom endured sharp criticism from within for linking up with academic institutions, Bar-Ilan University foremost among them. It seems that the university's demand that the studies for a degree would not entail any adjustments to suit the ultra-Orthodox population, is what angered some opponents to the program. Nevertheless, it seems that of late the college has started to gain momentum. Over the last three years, since the social work program started, the institution has doubled its number of women students. There are now 280 women enrolled at the college studying, in addition to social work, social sciences (sociology, psychology and criminology) and medical lab sciences.

Around 40 men are also studying there, some in computer programs and others in pre-academic programs. Later on, they will also be able to study business administration and economics.

Half of the women also go through a one-year preparatory course before being accepted into the college. Many of them, says Bar Shalom, are turned down right away because they are unprepared, which she feels is due to a lack of contact with the world.

Unlike subjects such as law or computers, it is hard to say that choosing one of the least financially rewarding professions, such as social work, is for the purpose of earning a living. Bar Shalom says that this new program is associated with performing good deeds, which is something ultra-Orthodox society is accustomed to. Although the new social workers are not restricting themselves to working only in the ultra-Orthodox sector, men and women have always worked as unofficial social workers in the community, with various aid organizations or in therapeutic frameworks.

The first class of ultra-Orthodox social workers is undoubtedly the ultimate achievement for Adina Bar Shalom. Lacking any academic education ("because I was a woman and from a Sephardic background, and in those days, what could be expected of me?"), she went through some personal changes several years ago. One day, she abandoned the world of elite sewing where she worked and taught, and decided to take part in moving the ultra-Orthodox sector toward higher education and professional training. Today she is fully associated with this process. According to Bar Shalom, her father did not hesitate to support her.

En route to an ultra-Orthodox university

No one should be misled by the appearance of this short, pleasant woman. The name of the institution, the Haredi College, was meant to facilitate the entry of the ultra-Orthodox public, but it misses the object of Bar Shalom's aspirations for this sector. She sees it as the start of an ultra-Orthodox university in every sense, where every subject will be studied, including clinical psychology, medicine and advanced degrees. According to her, she hopes that she has found the formula that permits an intense study of religious ideology parallel to academic studies. Consequently, the women, under the guidance of Rabbi Daniel Nasi, a doctor of education, learn about Judaism's approach to therapy or Freud, and learn to resolve the various contradictions between the material they study and their own outlook.

A forum of three leading rabbis, of Sephardic and Lithuanian backgrounds, was set up to assist the women as they deal with halakhic and ethical questions that may arise at work, such as, for example, sensitive issues like abortion. And this is the real question that arises when sending ultra-Orthodox social workers out into the world: Will they be able to tone down their personal views when coming to treat someone in distress? Tivon says that many of the students experienced some kind of sobering during their studies.

"Once, when a lecturer discussed sexual inclinations in ultra-Orthodox society, homosexuality and lesbianism, one woman said: 'It can't be, they're not real Haredim.' In general, many women are taught to think that in Haredi society there are no drugs and there is no abuse. During the course of their studies, they realize that while it may be a values-oriented society, problems do exist and they will not go away if we sweep them under the rug."

Prof. Haya Yitzhaki, who heads Bar-Ilan University's school of social work, does not hide her concern over the involvement of rabbis in day-to-day work. According to her, the university has been on its guard and set limits for the academic side of the program. For example, a request that Rabbi Nasi be present during the classes was rejected. Yitzhaki says the more important part of the studies in the case of the ultra-Orthodox sector is the process of making positions more flexible.

"The culture of ultra-Orthodox society is a culture of permitted and forbidden, black and white. It is a culture that can be very judgmental and therefore it was important to work with them on professional ethics."

Yitzhaki relates that the college was required to have a full semester of fieldwork during the first year specifically for that objective. "A social worker cannot be judgmental and certainly cannot tell a client to give birth to a child. Will this social worker treat this client afterward?"

The issue of being judgmental was also discussed in a survey researching ultra-Orthodox views on social workers conducted by women students at the college taking a course on research methods. The survey among a cross section of approximately 200 people, found that the ultra-Orthodox public preferred ultra-Orthodox social workers, but for sensitive and confidential matters, there was a marked preference for a social worker who was not ultra-Orthodox.