Beyond the pale and into advertising
It could be the middle of the day in Jerusalem's Shabbat Square at the intersection of Geula and Strauss streets, adjacent to Me'ah Shearim. But the time is 8 P.M., a regular day with the regular hustle and bustle. As is their custom as evening approaches, ultra-Orthodox couples pushing baby strollers stop next to the stalls, rifle through the clothing, glance at the books.
Others are so engrossed in a conversation in Yiddish while waiting in line for the bus that will take them to one of the ultra-Orthodox satellite cities such as Beitar, Kiryat Sefer or Beit Shemesh, they don't even notice the traffic jam they are creating on the sidewalk.
And, in the midst of all this, pious women are rushing off to somewhere. Several of them, in pairs or groups of three, stride toward the center of town. Where are they going at this hour? Who is putting their children to sleep?
Their confident strides indicate they have a purpose. And then some of the women are swallowed up in the side entrance to the Histadrut building in the middle of Strauss Street. After a few minutes, they reappear in one of the classrooms, writing down the words of the lecturer, an ultra-Orthodox ad man who has come to teach them the secrets of advertising in the sector.
This building, a former Mapai (Labor party predecessor) stronghold, once symbolized to residents of Me'ah Shearim and Geula the border beyond which stood the roily secular world. In recent years, as these neighborhoods expanded, the building came to be used (alongside the offices of the Histadrut branch) for ultra-Orthodox cultural events for residents of the very religious neighborhoods.
As of this year, there is also a seminar for girls. Beyond the entrance used by the women there was, until a year ago, an ultra-Orthodox fitness club with separate facilities for men and women called Geula Fitness. But the neighborhood was unable to get accustomed to its challenging presence, and it closed.
In its place the Lomda Institute, an ultra-Orthodox computer school with separate study days for men and women opened. Its future is also in question as it is but a few steps away from the homes of the extreme among the extreme, but what is happening inside it reflects precisely the mood among the ultra-Orthodox sector.
The school's motto, "transforming skills into a livelihood," attests to the caution that must be exercised when dealing with matters of secular studies.
Among the ultra-Orthodox public, which is focused on Torah study for men and teaching for women, studying a profession is till seen as something alien, and it is unclear how it will be received. So, for example, there was the rabbis' decision this year to oversee the supplementary study centers for secular subjects for Beis Yaakov seminary teachers and substantially reduce the courses of study in various subjects.
Even if it obtained the rabbis' approval, a new framework is constantly being watched. Therefore, the package is no less important than the content: above all, it is best that there is no talk of the institute being a place that provides an education, which, as is known, can potentially push people away from religious observance.
For this matter, "livelihood" is a good word to use, whereas the side entrance indicates to the public that the institute "knows its place"; there is no subversion here of the true calling of women to maintain a house of Torah and to teach.
The seminary girls will use the main entrance while the women studying advertising will take the side entrance for fear of the evil eye. However, some of the old reservations have been lifted. In most of the ultra-Orthodox frameworks under supervision, single women are not accepted, only married women, for fear that single women are still not settled down and stable enough from a spiritual perspective. Here there is no such restriction.
So far the Lomda Institute has offered courses in adapting to a computerized environment in fields where ultra-Orthodox women have been working for a long time: graphics, secretarial work and bookkeeping. These jobs, according to all opinions, are appropriate for women to supplement a family's income or obtain part-time work and correspond to the ideal of motherhood and of "the king's daughter is all glorious within." And yet in advertising, the name of the game is subversion, market economy and money.
"It's another channel for jobs," says Miriam Sharvit, the course coordinator. But it is hard to ignore the difficulty the field presents to ultra-Orthodox women, from the long hours at the office, especially before the holidays, to the clash with the competitive world and the independent nature of the people working in it.
Yet these difficulties did not prevent a rush of ultra-Orthodox women who wanted to take the course, including some from the most closed quarters of ultra-Orthodox society. It seems that the proximity to their homes in the adjacent neighborhood ended all objections:
"We arranged an information night and close to 300 women came. There was no place left in the room," says Sharvit.
Advertising is a field now in demand, says Sharvit. According to her, many small ultra-Orthodox advertising agencies and newspapers are being started. Among the candidates, 36 women who already had a background in graphic arts were carefully chosen. The group includes hasidic Jerusalemite women in conservative dress wearing hats on top of their wigs, alongside women with a more modern look.
Sharvit, 36, and a mother of six who lives in Jerusalem, has been promoting advertising and graphic design in the ultra-Orthodox sector for many years. She teaches advertising at Michlala-Jerusalem College for Women in Bayit Vegan and in assorted other religious teaching frameworks. When she decided to study the subject, there were no ultra-Orthodox ad agencies and of course no ultra-Orthodox study frameworks.
"Don't think that it was easy to study in a general study course," she says. "Mostly it's unacceptable." She studied at ORT College and the Tirza Granot Copywriting school.
She is a trailblazer in the field, but like many ultra-Orthodox pathbreakers, Sharvit also allowed herself to deviate from the norm (among other reasons) because she had the full backing of her father, the Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar.
When asked how she resolves the conflict between the long hours and motherhood, and how one approaches a despised sentiment such as "competitiveness," she shrugs her shoulders. "They want to go out and work. It's not even a question," she says.
One night around two weeks ago the class was riveted by a young lecturer whose hand movements were reminiscent of a yeshiva student working out a passage of Gemara. This was because he was one until not long ago. The lecture was delivered in highly professional language, translated into ultra-Orthodox references.
"Does anyone know how to make handmade matzahs?" he rhetorically asked. "It's a process. So is a advertising. It's mostly a manual process."
Advertising, according to him, is "a bridge between the general world and the world of the sacred." Even though the lecture lingers mostly on the glamour of the profession, the professional spying and the defection of clients, the fascinating lecture manages to also be a little subversive. During it, the women will hear that the ultra-Orthodox are normal people, not the Chosen People. "The customer that Bezeq, Tnuva, Egged doesn't understand is the ultra-Orthodox public," says the lecturer. "That is why ad agencies focusing on ultra-Orthodox society have been set up. There is no king without a nation. We are here to make it clear that the ultra-Orthodox person is someone with motives and urges just like anyone else. He wants to buy bread and drink milk and is interested in spending money on quality. But the way to reach his heart is different."
Some foreign words are tossed out: planner, creative, brief, strategic partnership and regulation.
Occasionally, when one of the women in the room looks at the lecturer with eyes widened in shock, Sharvit stops him in order to simplify things. One student, Pessy Sheinfeld, a member of the Gerer hasidic sect, and a mother of the three in her late 20s, travels every day from Jerusalem to her job as a graphic artist at Kupat Ha'ir in Bnei Brak. Though she says she works "irregular hours," she sees no clash between motherhood and her job. "You manage," she says. "What don't you do to earn a living?" The organization where she works collects donations for needy families by distributing colorful flyers.
Sheinfeld studied to be a teacher, but did not find a teaching job. She went to study graphic design in order to earn a living. However, now it is possible to hear that she speaks differently, that her language has changed. Instead of just earning a living, she speaks of job satisfaction, and says she is looking "for creativity and a job in a challenging and unusual field."
However, she stays away from the accounts manager's job at ad agencies, because that is the person who is in contact with the client and handles the account. She is deterred by the sharpness required by the job. On the other hand, Racheli Goldhirsch, 21, who studied at a teacher's seminary is not deterred. Goldhirsch, a graphic artist for the ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Mishpaha, says she always thought she would be one of the backroom types. "At first I wanted to work in front of a computer with no one bothering me. But I know that maybe I thought that because I didn't know that something could interest me."