Students from the Darkei Sarah Seminar in class
Students from the Darkei Sarah Seminar in class. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The heavy office door doesn't reveal what is happening on the other side: Not a sound. No stamping of feet, squeaking of chairs or giggling. Normal school sounds don't penetrate outside. I wonder: Is this the right door? But then the door opens and pony-tailed girls in light blue shirts traverse the corridor, their long skirts making a whishing noise.

The unlikely location of the "Darkei Sarah Seminar" ("Path of Sarah Seminar") in a Jerusalem office block is forgotten upon entering. The large classrooms are bathed in bright sunlight through large windows. In each classroom a small group of girls is deeply engrossed in study. Suddenly a Hasidic song serves as the school bell, and the typical noise of a school recess is heard.

Sixty high-school-age girls study in this small, intimate school. Unlike the large, tradition-bound ultra-Orthodox girls' schools, the hierarchical distance between students and teachers is replaced here by family-like familiarity.

Darkei Sarah is treading an independent path in the Haredi community. Sima Valess, the school principal, explains that it was established to meet a demand for matriculation certificates, a service unavailable in other Haredi seminars. "This is a Beit Yaakov in every respect," she says, referring to full-time schools for girls from religious families. "The parents realize that when their daughters want to enroll for higher education, they will be forced to waste money on a pre-academic preparatory course. They want to shorten the process."

The school is in its third year, but only this year will it really begin to grapple with the target it set itself, when 11th-graders take their first matriculation exams. Only 14 girls studied at the school in its first year, but since then it has grown steadily and now has a waiting list. The students who are accepted are meticulously chosen and have to pass exams to see whether they are capable of dealing with the high study level, which is far more advanced than the accepted level at other "Beit Yaakov" schools.

The compulsory curriculum includes six weekly hours of science and six hours of computer sciences, as well as matriculation studies in subjects such as Bible and literature. One student says she didn't expect the studies to be of such a sophisticated level: "I went through some crises," she admits, "because in my previous Beit Yaakov the level was much lower." She adds that after a year of hard work she feels she has reached the level of her class.

Hewing to Haredi line

"These girls will one day support their families [while their husbands study Torah and Talmud]" Valess says, in a way that could not possibly suggest that they will follow independent careers. It is apparently important to her to emphasize how much the school's line is Haredi, lest anyone suspect that they are teaching values unsuitable for a Beit Yaakov.

However, Darkei Sarah is revolutionary if only for its attempt to teach the regular national religious school syllabus and not the Haredi version. For example, in literature they study the writings of S. Y. Agnon, Haim Sabato and poems by the Hebrew poetess Zelda, whom other Haredi children have not heard of - not to mention international literature, such as Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

"The potential for friction between the religious outlook and the study material is great and constantly challenges us," admits the principal. For example, she cites the decision not to include certain books that use language deemed "inappropriate for our girls' ears."

The civics curriculum is also approved by Valess. "We emphasize the duty to obey Jewish law, before any discussion about democracy or the law," she says.

Any discussion about the study material is explosive, including the core subjects. Other seminars teach "secular" subjects, but there the girls are not allowed to matriculate. For many years this ban was enforced due to the steadfast view taken by the leader of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, against higher education. The great separatist maintained that matriculation would break down the barrier to the university - which is why the number of Haredi girls' schools offering matriculation studies can be counted on one hand. They are mainly in the Haredi periphery (Haifa, Rehovot, Petah Tikva ), far from centralized Haredi supervision.

Valess says she was due to head a similar school in Beitar Illit some 15 years ago, but the idea was apparently before its time. It's no secret that where Haredi youngsters study can affect their matchmaking possibilities. The school could not muster enough parents who were prepared to take the leap, and it never opened.

Darkei Sarah is trying to dance at three weddings simultaneously: to toe a Haredi religious line, being more liberal educationally, and insisting on a more rigorous level of studies. There are no such schools in the Haredi world. The establishment of such a school seems to attest to the strengthening of Haredim who are prepared to embrace modernism and play a role in society. Most of them study in a kollel (study center for married men ), and in setting up this school they have come out in the open. They appear to have mustered enough self-confidence and no longer fear that disengagement from the classic Haredi institutions will harm their daughters' chances of a good match.

Will we see in a few years Haredi women doctors who graduated the school? Valess says one of her students has already proclaimed her intention of doing so. "We will give her all the study and moral support she needs, but I still think that in terms of suitable employment for a mother, to become a doctor entails years of study and many hours of working shifts. We will not recommend it."