Israeli Education Panel Faults Instruction at Trailblazing ultra-Orthodox Law School

Among the problems: Women can't teach men, class time is insufficient and English studies.

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Students at the Ono Academic College.
Students at the Ono Academic College.Credit: Dan Keinan

The Council for Higher Education has found numerous flaws in Ono Academic College’s law school for ultra-Orthodox Jews, including a lack of elective courses, insufficient English instruction and the fact that female instructors are prohibited from teaching men.

The council’s Evaluation Committee assessed the program back in 2015, but its findings were published only recently. In November, the CHE adopted most of the committee’s recommendations for fixing the problems.

Ono’s law program for Haredim was Israel’s first such program and is still among the most successful. Its model — with its flaws — has since been adopted by many other colleges.

Ono launched its law program for men at its Or Yehuda campus in 2000. A track for women was added two years later and in 2010 the program expanded to the school’s Jerusalem campus. Together, the two campuses accept about 300 ultra-Orthodox freshmen per year.

The committee’s report began by criticizing Ono’s management for its conduct during the evaluation, saying this conduct was characterized by “noticeable distrust of the committee. The institution’s management apparently though the committee was prejudiced against the institution in general or its ultra-Orthodox campus in particular.”

The distrust was especially evident in the “offensive and inappropriate” remarks made by Ono’s rector at a meeting with committee members, it added.

The rector, Prof. Dudi Schwartz, is now a candidate to serve on the CHE during its next term, which begins in March. Schwartz declined Haaretz’s request for comment.

On a more substantive level, the committee criticized Ono’s large class sizes, “which don’t enable personal attention or an emphasis on writing, and certainly don’t enable individual attention to students at different levels.”

It also said the college needed to add more hours of English and general literacy instruction, since most Haredi high school students don’t study the regular Israeli curriculum and are therefore weak in these areas. The extra classes should be given for at least the first three semesters, in addition to the law classes, it said.

The CHE requires classes to be held three times a week. But despite “repeated requests,” the committee never received a detailed class schedule, so it can’t be sure this requirement was being met, the report said. “Our impression is that generally, classes are held only twice a week,” it added.

Moreover, the semester is only 10 weeks long, instead of 13.

The program includes almost no electives, which the report deemed “a significant flaw” that “must be corrected.”

In addition, instead of weekly seminars, Ono offers “independent studies,” in which students research a topic of their choice and meet with an adviser a few times during the semester. The committee deemed this problematic, both because the students have no experience writing academic papers and because only five lecturers advise about 150 students.

The committee also found a wide range of student aptitude within each class varies widely, “apparently due to low admission requirements.” This makes teaching and learning very difficult, and the result is that many students simply skip class, since attendance isn’t mandatory. “By the third year, only about 20 percent of students attend” class, the report said.

The committee was very perturbed by the fact that female lecturers aren’t allowed to teach male students, though men can teach women. This raises fears that women applying for teaching jobs would face discrimination, since the college might prefer to hire men, “who aren’t restricted in the classes they can teach,” the report said. The panel evidently wasn’t convinced by the dean of the faculty’s assurance that women face no such discrimination.

Moreover, the report said, the lack of women teachers means male students lack opportunities for “intercultural encounters.” It therefore suggested that the college at least have women as guest lecturers in the men’s program and invite female judges and lawyers to speak there. Non-Jews should also be invited as guest speakers, it added.

In a statement, the college said it was proud to have Israel’s largest Haredi program, with over 3,500 graduates who have joined the labor market “with great success,” and to serve as a model for many similar programs. But the college’s success rests on its respect for ultra-Orthodox mores, the statement added. In particular, without same-sex classes, Haredim “would shun academia.”

In an apparent reference to the committee’s complaint about management’s attitude toward it, the spokesman added that “professional exchanges of opinion are the life breath of academia,” and Ono “works regularly with the CHE and carries out its instructions.”

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