In Jerusalem, a School for ultra-Orthodox Who Don’t Quite Fit In

Rabbi Dov Rozman runs a revolutionary school for young men who can’t adapt to the world of yeshiva learning. Quietly, and avoiding controversy, he tailors his program to devote more hours to math and technology than to religious study.

Olivia Pitusi

Every morning, on his way to his publishing house on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, Rabbi Dov Rozman would run into a group of Haredi youths sitting idly on the railings along the street. Over time, Rozman started talking with the young men, who had dropped out of the yeshiva world and had not found another educational framework.

“In my talks with them I discovered they had a problem with their feelings about themselves, with their egos,” says Rozman, reminiscing about the days when he was drawn into the young men’s lives.

“They had been thrown out of their educational institutions and they had nowhere to go to advance. I reasoned that if they were given something that would provide them with a little bit of self-esteem, it would be possible to help them.”

At the time, Rozman employed 10 older, married yeshiva students in his publishing house for Jewish religious works. They worked to produce the correct versions of the works of commentators and Halakhic decisors from centuries ago.

Without any experience or training in education, Rozman decided that his institute would adopt a few of the young dropouts. He encouraged each of his older yeshiva students - none of whom had any secular education to speak of either - to take one boy under his wing and dedicate a few a hours a week to him. They put the youths to work in typesetting or layout, all of whom were happy to do it.

Opportunity for change

Rozman quickly realized that he was on to something, that he could change young people’s lives and direct them toward a more promising future. That recognition changed Rozman’s professional life, too, directing him into education.

“I tried to promote the establishment of an educational institution for Haredi dropouts,” he recalls. “I approached yeshivas to offer them content that would be appropriate for them, but it didn’t take hold.”

But he then connected with the Amal school network, which agreed to establish appropriate educational institutions for Haredim. Together they established a school in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, where many conflicts between the religious and the nonreligious are being played out.

There, behind the nonreligious Amal high school, the Amalenu school opened, the product of Rozman’s vision.

The school is a pioneer in Haredi education in Israel, giving these young men the secular education and the tools that will enable them to join the workforce. Some 90% of them complete a full vocational matriculation certificate (bagrut) and 30% receive an academic matriculation certificate.

The sign that welcomes visitors to the school may say it is a “yeshiva framework” of Amal, but it is not a traditional ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, in which the students spend day and night in religious studies and prayer. Students at Amalenu - the name translates to “our effort” - spend most of their time on math, vocational and technological studies.

In the Haredi world, the school is indeed revolutionary. The vast majority of Haredi parents and community leaders believe in separating themselves from the outside world and dedicate themselves almost wholly to Torah, even if it comes at the price of many young people dropping out because they can’t succeed.

Tools to integrate

Rozman’s school is one of the first signs that Israel’s Haredi leadership is prepared to countenance an institution that provides the tools to integrate into the nonreligious working world.

Eleven a.m. marks the end of three hours of religious studies and the beginning of nonreligious subjects, which last until 5 p.m.

The teachers, all of whom are Haredi yeshiva graduates with black kipot and white shirts, rush the 150 students to get to class. Since Amalenu is a government school and the teachers are Education Ministry employees, they had to go through regular academic educational training programs.

To serve as principal, Rozman completed a master’s degree in education. Today, he is careful that all the teaching staff are Haredim. “I choose the teachers myself,” he says. “All are Haredim, except for the math teacher, who is national religious.”

Which raises the question: Why doesn’t the school bring in non-religious teachers?

“We tried. It didn’t work,” Rozman says.

“It is hard for someone from the outside to understand why. There are differences in language between the two populations. The subjects under discussion don’t match either. A nonreligious teacher can talk to them about content from television or about girls, but I have to preserve the students’ religious framework and keep to their social codes. They are still young and can become confused. They need a religious Haredi umbrella.”

Breakthrough, not revolution

Rozman, 47 and a resident of the Haredi neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem, is married with nine children. He is an ordained rabbi and a dayan, a rabbinical-court judge.

But while the educational framework he built is a major breakthrough, he does not want to be described as a “new Haredi” or a “revolutionary,” for fear of reaction from extremists. His lifestyle is Haredi and three of his children study at the yeshiva in Moshav Tifrach in the south, which is known as strict and especially observant.

“If they are already learning Torah, then they should learn it to the end,” he says. “I don’t like being in the middle.”

Once a week he sits on the religious court for monetary matters. He recently published a book on religious-court proceedings, which helps the courts set rules for court procedures.

In an interview with TheMarker, Rozman sometimes chooses not to answer questions and is careful not to criticize the actions of the Haredi leadership. He needs the approval of the rabbis to continue his life project.

“This is a high school of dropouts or at-risk youth; it is not a world parallel to the yeshiva world,” he hurries to make clear.

Amalenu is also not similar to the yeshiva high schools, set up in recent years, that offer the so-called “new Haredim” a combination of high-level yeshiva studies with a full matriculation certificate, he emphasizes. “This is an ex-post-facto framework for those who are unable to study Torah,” he explains.

Until only a few years ago Haredi rabbis were unwilling to accept the idea that some young people could not fit into yeshiva life, says Rozman.

“Today there’s much greater awareness that there are students who are not appropriate for yeshivas,” he says. “There are also Haredi higher yeshivas that openly state that they learn only two hours a day, and the rest of the time they work or learn a profession.”

A challenging task

Teaching at Amalenu is not an easy task.

“Some of the students arrive here without knowing the multiplication tables,” says Rozman. “In the schools where they studied, there was not awareness of learning difficulties, and the parents did not have the budgetary ability to pay for private lessons. The youths wandered around all day and in practice never learned.” To overcome the gaps, the school divides classes by levels and provides a lot of individual help.

Most of Amalenu’s students have a goal of enlisting for a full three-year service in the Israel Defense Forces. The school tries to steer them into the Nahal Haredi infantry battalion or other programs that provide higher standards of kashrut and service without women, such as technology positions within the Air Force.

Representatives of the Givati infantry brigade recently visited the school and wanted to interest Rozman and the students in a new Haredi framework they are establishing.

“There are individuals who continue on to yeshivas,” Rozman says with pride.

Amalenu has paved the way for other frameworks for the weaker segments of the Haredi population, within the Amal school system and the ORT system. A few are intended for Haredi girls who dropped out.

Rozman is blazing trails as he attempts to bring Haredi youths into the workforce.

Other such efforts in recent years have been less successful. Former Education Minister Shay Piron established a state Haredi school system, but it was strongly opposed by the Haredim themselves. High-school institutions, which combine religious and secular studies, are harshly attacked by the rabbis and others in the Haredi world.

Rozman tries to navigate his way while gaining approval for the pace of the changes.

But as more and more young Haredim are demanding deep and rapid change, including the inclusion of the core curriculum studies and matriculation certificates, their voice is still not really being heard.