Next year about 250 men and women will graduate from the Haredi College of Jerusalem. The men will have studied economics and logistics, social work, educational consulting, computer sciences and communications, and political science. About one-third of them completed civil or military service during their studies. They will be joining the 350 Haredi women who already have graduated from the college, and have full university degrees in psychology, educational consulting, social sciences, communications therapy or medical laboratory sciences, and are already employed.
The woman responsible for that is Adina Bar Shalom, whose life story could be subject matter for a Hebrew literature department (not that the college has one ). She is the eldest daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Her parents took her out of school at age 14 and sent her to learn sewing. To deal with her frustration, she read and studied on her own.
She married, had three children, worked as a seamstress and ran a bridal salon. She wanted to study psychology at the university. But her husband, a rabbinic court judge in Tel Aviv (and now on the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem ) objected, and her father supported him. As a compromise she studied design and fashion at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design - also a kind of sewing lessons.
In the mid-1990s her search for knowledge and education brought her to lectures at Tel Aviv University, where she heard the highly regarded economist Dan Ben David predict how in 2020 the Israeli economy would fall on hard times because Haredim don't work.
His words hit home. The increasingly biting public discourse against Haredim during the following years continued to preoccupy her. Living in Tel Aviv, she sensed the growing secular anger against her community, including the cries of "Anything but Shas" in Rabin Square after Ehud Barak's victory in May 1999.
Bar Shalom was also keenly aware of the profound, abject poverty spreading in the Haredi community. "A large percentage of the rabbis are not aware of the depth of poverty in their society," she says sadly. "People can't feed their children."
Iluim are one thing: others should work
The obvious solution is that men who aren't iluim (Talmud prodigies) should work. But without an academic education, how would they to find decent jobs?
"I wanted them to have not only money from Haredi charitable organizations and Passover food baskets, but a salary that would let them earn a living year round," she says.
Helped by donations from foreign Jews, the Avi Chai Foundation, the Glencore Foundation and the Kemach Foundation, and with the blessing of her father and other rabbis, she began setting up the college.
Bar Shalom set a high and unequivocal threshold: the acceptance conditions had to be identical to those at universities; there would be no compromises. The Haredim would work hard in order to meet all the acceptance requirements of the academic world. In return they would receive a full academic degree, just like non-Haredi graduates, and would be able to find well-paid work.
In order to prepare the Haredim for a new kind of studies, the college's four-year program includes preparatory courses, which within 15 months bring minds sharpened by Talmudic disputes - but lacking knowledge of English or mathematics - to mastering four matriculation-level credits in these subjects and two credits in Hebrew, in addition to preparing them for the psychometric exam.
One of four candidates is accepted, and at the end the graduates receive a diploma with accreditation from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, the Open University or Hadassah College.
She does all this on a voluntary basis, "If I were to take a salary, it would be at the expense of scholarships. Thank God, we live well, thanks to my husband," she says.
During the college's first year Bar Shalom encountered many difficulties, mainly due to opposition from Ashkenazi rabbis. She faced great pressure, and threatening protest posters, but her father came every month to show his support.
Even today she says her father is her most enthusiastic supporter, and says he was her model for inspiration.
"My father, who supported me from the beginning, is an inspiring figure. He had a very hard time, but he stuck to his path, in spite of the fact that his halakhic decisions (regarding religious law ) were not in the consensus. I'm doing the same thing. I wouldn't have founded the college without receiving his approval. To this day he visits three times a year and teaches the girls."
If her plans work out, five years from now there will be 1,000 graduates a year. The college is already preparing to receive certification from the Council for Higher Education and to receive independent standing.
In spite of her long road, Bar Shalom still follows the path of Torah.
"If my father orders me to do so, I'll close the college immediately," she says, adding that her greatest fear is that one of the girls will abandon religion as a result of the studies. Therefore, the girls receive religious lessons alongside the studies.
"Two hundred years ago anyone who went to study in a university became assimilated. That's why the Haredi fear higher learning. Thanks to the college I have ended the fear of academe," she says.