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The heat is stifling in the crowded classroom. The students, all of them women, lean over their notebooks like diligent sewing machine operators in a garment factory and pen rivers of words.

When the lecturer speaks too quickly for their taste - the lesson on the law of damages is conducted as a lecture, with no interruptions and no questions - they raise their heads to request that the last line be repeated. At the end of the lesson, someone leaps up from the front row and goes to the window and fans herself with her notebook to cool off a bit.

Once a week, on Tuesdays, from morning till evening, ultra-Orthodox women come to complete a law degree at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kirya Akademit in Kiryat Ono. Most of them could very easily conform to the image of the superwoman: mothers of children, they hold down full-time jobs, sometimes in senior positions. Some of them are the sole or major breadwinners in their families ); their husbands study in kollels (institutions of Jewish learning for married men).

When the ultra-Orthodox campus opened about a year-and-a-half ago, these women added academic studies to their schedules - studying a demanding subject that is definitely controversial in their environment. They vigorously object to the label "career women," a concept foreign to the ultra-Orthodox world, like "self-fulfillment" and self-realization. "Career women," after all, are secular women who have two children and a dog and warm up meals in the microwave oven, whereas they are the embodiment of "the woman of valor." It remains to be seen whether these concepts will be translated into family planning.

About 100 women, who account for about one-third of all the ultra-Orthodox students on the campus, are taking the law course. About half of them began their studies this year. There is a broad range of ages. "We have young women here who are still anxious that studying law will harm their chances of making a good match, and there are grandmothers who have come to realize a dream," says lecturer Dr. Rivi Schlesinger, the dean of the law track for ultra-Orthodox women.

In ultra-Orthodox society, it often happens that a mother and a daughter are in adjoining labor rooms at a hospital; here there are women studying along with their daughters. At least two of these "grandmothers" followed a long path to get here: One of them is a secretary at the Knesset and the other is the principal of a Bais Yaakov school for girls, who was active in social non-profit organizations and has already pursued academic studies.

There are teachers here who have had enough of teaching, but also very young women who have been married for only a few years, among them one accountant and a postal worker who is the daughter of Labor and Welfare Minister Shlomo Benizri.

It is no coincidence that Benizri's daughter is enrolled here. About one-third of the women in the second year of studies are Shas voters. It was people from this movement who laid the foundations for opening academic frameworks for the ultra-Orthodox - the first of them was Touro College, which was initiated by Shas activist Gabi Abutbul and eventually fell apart. Some of the students continued at the Kirya Akademit. The rest of the women in the class belong to various Hasidic groups, especially Chabad, a movement that has always been open to the outside world. According to Hadassah Zwebner, of the Sarat-Vizhnitz Hasidic group, a mother of four children who works in marketing, the rabbis give permission on an individual basis to women who want to study. There are also women who belong to the more Orthodox wing of national religious Zionism. The fact that only very few of the women come from the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community can easily be explained: The Lithuanians are the conservatives of ultra-Orthodox society. For them, there is still a stigma on anyone who works and the fear of the threat of non-religious education.

Trailblazers

Some of this threat was softened by the Kirya Akademit's commitment to "preserving ultra-Orthodox interests" as defined by college chairman Renan Hartman. To maintain the value of separatism, the ultra-Orthodox track was removed to premises outside the academic campus. Women and men study on different days in an office building in a small industrial zone among wedding halls and huge branches of cheap supermarket chains.

The place, far from the image of a campus where people of both sexes meet and lead a vibrant social life, spreads over one floor of offices, is lacking a library (which is being set up) and screams gray practicality. It is all about teaching skills. Deep thought or intellectual pretensions are foreign to this place.

Only Schlesinger's impressive character belies this image. Schlesinger, in a black pants suit and with a glamorous look that seems not to belong here, defines herself as "totally secular." She hands out superlatives to her class and calls her students "pioneers" and "trailblazers." The achievements of this class of women, she says, leave behind not only the class of ultra-Orthodox men, but also the other students at Kirya Akademit.

Are they also impressed by her achievements, as an ambitious young woman, in the field of law?

Schlesinger merely says: "They maintain mutual respect and are not at all trying to persuade me to become religiously observant." But she does offer the observation that the studies are leaving their mark on the ultra-Orthodox women students. "They came with prejudices, to the effect that the Supreme Court was against them, against the ultra-Orthodox as a whole. After a while, you can see how their thinking is changing. They realize that there is not one, sole truth."

But are they really trailblazers? How will the encounter with academic education affect these women? Up until a few years ago it was difficult to imagine that ultra-Orthodox women would engage in academic studies, and especially law. The opening of tracks for professional training for women, as well as men, began about six years ago with the support of some rabbis and with some rabbis looking the other way. About four years ago, another process began that was tantamount to a great leap forward: academization.

It is not surprising that degree studies for the ultra-Orthodox began with social work, not law. An experimental program of the School of Social Work of Hebrew University opened in 1997 at the Neveh Yerushalaiyim college for ultra-Orthodox girls in Jerusalem. Although the program shut down after two years, it accelerated the process.

"Change always looks for a place to grab hold," says Dr. Tamar Elor, a Hebrew University researcher of ultra-Orthodox society. "There is a dearth of social services in the ultra-Orthodox community. Therefore, they will study social work, but not sociology, and education and educational counseling, but not psychology. Only things that are practical. Not anything that has to do with ideas or philosophy. Law is already one step forward."

These processes are occurring parallel to a gradual change within the establishment itself, in the Bais Yaakov teachers' seminaries where they strive to educate the ideal women who will marry Torah scholars. During the past decade, computer studies, nature study and English have been introduced there, of course without academic degrees. About two years ago Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman (one of the two successors to Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach), initiated through his intermediary, MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism), the integration of high-tech subjects in the Bais Yaakov seminaries. But this intention was not fulfilled. In the nature of things, in a society as conservative as ultra-Orthodox society all these processes occur within internal contradictions and create many pressures.

Like men in ultra-Orthodox society, who cannot go out to work before they have served in the army, ultra-Orthodox women are caught in a trap of their own. They are supposed to bear the burden of supporting the family, but their exposure to the outside world happens under the close supervision of the rabbis. According to 1996 figures of the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 50 percent of them work outside the home as their husbands apply the principle of "his Torah is his profession." In reality, the figure is about 70 percent.

Their exposure to the working world was never to the rabbis' liking. "They do the dirty work, they earn the living," says Elor, "but they have always taken the trouble to stress that `the honor of the king's daughter is inward,' that the place where women should be is in the home."

Ultra-Orthodox society has been living with this paradox for a long time, says researcher Neri Horowitz of the Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem. "On the one hand, it is the woman's obligation to support the family. On the other hand, this entails exposure to the modern world." For many years, the leadership had qualms about this, which were expressed in the limitation of professional training to teaching.

Unemployment among ultra-Orthodox women is one of the severe problems troubling ultra-Orthodox society today, and it must be taken into account as one of the factors for the literacy revolution that is taking place today. The establishing of teaching as the only suitable profession on the one hand, and the shortage of jobs in the field on the other, have led to a chronic problem in finding places of employment for women.

"Among the 3,000 graduates of Bais Yaakov seminaries, only 30 find jobs in the profession each year," says Adina Bar-Shalom, who founded the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) College in Jerusalem. Evidence of this distress may be found in an article in the ultra-Orthodox journal Mishpaha ("Family") about a month ago, which warned of a dearth of employment possibilities for women in the outlying ultra-Orthodox locales of Kiryat Sefer, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Betar Illit, as no infrastructure exists for such employment.

It so happens that women are better candidates for professional training or the acquisition of an academic education because their starting point is better. As opposed to ultra-Orthodox men, who do not pursue any general studies beyond ninth grade, high school studies for girls are of a reasonable level and women are required to close insignificant gaps. "The educational breakthrough among women is much stronger than it is among men," says Dr. Yaakov Lupu of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies, who is conducting a comprehensive study of professional training in the ultra-Orthodox sector, "both because they have a higher general educational level than the men and because for them the decision is more personal. They dare to go step by step, sometimes without needing to ask a rabbi."

Great hunger

A baby carriage standing in an empty classroom at the Center for Professional Training in Bnei Brak about a month ago told the story of the contemporary ultra-Orthodox woman of valor. In about an hour, this classroom would fill with the voices of women who have four or five or more children. They work during the day and in the evening they study graphics, marketing, architectural design and accounting. During the next academic year the Center will open, for the first time, a B.A. track for women in social work under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University. Of the 200 women who applied to the ultra-Orthodox Center, 30 were accepted.

According to Labor Ministry figures, in 2002 about 1,500 women attended professional training courses. The vast majority of young women in the ultra-Orthodox sector still flock to the teachers' seminaries, but at the same time apparently the hunger for new professional possibilities is greater among women than among men.

A few months ago Mishpaha surveyed the phenomenon of masses of ultra-Orthodox, particularly women, falling into the trap of places that offer training in ephemeral fields, mostly alternative medicine but also computers.

B., who comes from the Lithuanian sector, is in her 50s, the mother of 12 children and studying law at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kirya Akademit. She describes the urge among her classmates: "Not everyone who is studying is planing to open a law office or be a lawyer. There are first-rate women here, women who already have a career and feel a need to fulfill themselves professionally."

Yehudit Pines, who is studying for a degree in social work at the Haredi College, also describes varying motivations: "There are those who want an academic education or economic security, and there are women who have gone as far as they can as teachers and secretaries who are looking for a change of profession." The long path taken by Pines, a 29-year-old woman who chose to become observant and defines herself as ultra-Orthodox, is typical of many ultra-Orthodox women who have headed step-by-step toward study and professionalization, as far as their environment allows.

Among the women who are studying law there are, for example, some who have worked for years as toanot rabbaniot (pleaders in rabbinical courts). Pines herself did volunteer work at a prison and at a mental hospital, and a few years ago she began to study social work at Neveh Yerushalaiyim. After she had to stop for personal reasons, the program closed down. This year she picked up her studies again at the Haredi College.

Adina Bar-Shalom, the founder of the Haredi College, is the main developer and proponent of the academization of women in the ultra-Orthodox public. Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, does not conceal her head-on conflict with the Ashkenazi rabbis. In April of this year she was attacked with the usual ultra-Orthodox arsenal when wall posters against her were pasted up in the streets of Jerusalem.

The struggle against the Haredi College reflects the ambivalent attitude of the ultra-Orthodox establishment toward the new trends that are symbolized by academization. From the outset the rabbis intended that these trends would be under supervision and that the study centers would be open only to married women or men over the age of 27. However, the college - a branch of Bar-Ilan University - also accepts younger women. Bar-Shalom can allow herself to stand up to the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment as Rabbi Ovadiah and the Shas Council of Sages are standing behind her (Margalit Yosef, the daughter of Rabbi David Yosef, is in her early 20s and studying at the college). In every other respect, the college tries to conform to the rabbis' instructions.

Like the Haredi center, and as opposed to the Kirya Akademit, the college operates under the supervision of a spiritual board, with a plenitude of religious studies and modesty regulations. The college regulations, which hang at the entrance, list particulars of permitted hairstyles, sleeve lengths and restrictions on make-up, nail polish and jewelry. Head coverings for married women are obligatory - but not for lecturers.

The college, where there are women from different communities, including the more strictly Orthodox sector of the national religious community, is located - like the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Kiryat Ono College - in an industrial area. The atmosphere is warm, the students are happy there, but conditions are hard. The college suffers from a chronic shortage of space: there are not enough students for the Council for Higher Education to approve its expansion. The college charges hardly any tuition fees. Most of the students are on scholarship (partial or full) or receive financial aid from donors.

About a month ago, at a meeting of the Council for Higher Education, the people from the college announced that they were expecting approximately 700 bachelor's degree students within four years. Bar-Shalom is convinced that the rumors of a retreat or slow-down in the area of academic education are programmatic. She is also announcing the opening of a new track next year, for men.

When asked whether she is leading a revolution, Bar-Shalom replies modestly: "I don't know if this is a revolution. But it is possible to talk about a significant change in the attitude of ultra-Orthodox society toward education. The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community realize that it is impossible to sit on the fence if they don't want the community to wallow in poverty all its life. I entered this field in order to open a door to masses of girls. This is my aim."

Ability gap

What will happen to the ultra-Orthodox women in their encounter with higher education and he study of the law?

Nicole Dahan of the Hebrew University School of Social Work devoted her doctoral research to this question. It will be presented at a conference on ultra-Orthodox education in March.

Dahan followed the segregated program in social work at Neveh Yerushalaiyim, which operated from 1997 to 1999.

The report, which was written in conjunction with Prof. Uri Aviram, her supervisor, indicates that parallel to the process of professionalization that took place, among the ultra-Orthodox women who were students in the program, most of whom came from English-speaking countries and were newly observant, their exclusive concern with ultra-Orthodox issues disappeared and a focus on professional contents emerged.

In the study, one of the ultra-Orthodox students talks about her conversation with a rabbi's wife, in which she spoke frankly about the possibility of abortion for young girls in distress.

"There was a kind of silence. Really absolute silence ... as if I had said something wrong in the wrong place ... I feel that I am opening myself more and more, and the ultra-Orthodox world is not entirely going along with me."

The attempt to check with the group of law students whether they want to change something among the women in their community meets with vehement opposition. "I'm not a feminist," says one of them defensively. However, the question as to whether it is women who have the power to change is one of the recurring questions that occupy researchers of ultra-Orthodox society. Are they the ones who are pushing for economic comfort and for their husbands to go out to work?

Prof. Menachem Friedman, a researcher of ultra-Orthodox society, says that over the years there has, in fact, been a contrary catalyst: They have perpetuated and preserved the ultra-Orthodox mechanism in that they have encouraged the men to sit and learn Torah. In recent years, he says, there has been great tension between husbands and wives. "The processes of professional training and academization stress even more the ability gaps between men and women. As long as the man sat in a yeshiva, they did not know this. Now, when he enters life, it turns out that the woman is smarter. This leads to great tension and to an increase in the number of divorces among the ultra-Orthodox."

Until now women apparently used their status as sole breadwinners to push for subterranean changes within the family. While in the past they submissively bore the burden of the family, now more and more kollel learners are seen at the health clinics and the schools with their children. On the surface, the concept of the woman of valor has not yet changed. It is important to the ultra-Orthodox women students to present themselves as balabustehs, women who are in control in their homes. However, according to Dr. Kimi Kaplan of Bar-Ilan University, the whole argument of "the woman of valor" has recently begun to change. "The ultra-Orthodox realize that the woman of valor is a problem. Therefore there are books of guidance and advice on the subject of relations between husbands and wives, along the lines of `it is necessary to understand the woman.' Although the aim of these books seems to be to relieve pressure and preserve the status quo, the hidden message is that she is both bearing the burden and better than you."

"An improvement in the economic situation of ultra-Orthodox women will inevitably lead to significant change, especially in the birth rate," says a (male) ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur in the field of professional training:

"Ten years from now not only will these women change, they will also influence the education and the upbringing of their children. The next generation will grow up differently."

Law student Hadassah Zwebner, who lives in Modi'in Illit, has already seen to it that her two older daughters are attending a Bais Yaakov school where they can earn matriculation certificates. As for the boys, she cannot say whether the change will ever trickle into their yeshivas. "Perhaps," she laughs, "this is why Hashem (God) has not blessed me with sons."