The grades of Israeli students on the 2018 international PISA test shocked the country due to the drop in scores, but they also contained a positive surprise: Ultra-Orthodox girls took the test for the first time, and it turned out that their grades are just fine. Some 15 ultra-Orthodox girls’ high schools (ulpanot) participated in the tests, which were adapted for ultra-Orthodox culture but no easier than the tests given to any other Israeli student, and their grades were very close to the average for Jewish Israeli girls as a whole.
In particular, their average reading score was a bit higher than that for girls in the national and national-religious school systems. (Israel has four school systems, three of them in Hebrew and one in Arabic.) Their science grade was a bit below that of the girls in Israel’s two other Jewish school systems, while the math grade was about average.
The ultra-Orthodox girls scored decent grades because they – as opposed to their male counterparts – learn core subjects, because they’re expected to work as adults. The PISA results show they have decent skills, and yet they don’t take Israel’s matriculation exams, but rather an alternative administered by the Szold Institute. The math and English exams are at a rather low three-point level, as opposed to the nationwide matriculation exams, where students have the option of testing from between three points to a much more challenging five points.
This isn’t coincidental. Leaders in the field of ultra-Orthodox education fully admit that high school girls take lower-level tests so that they don’t meet the minimum requirements to enroll in college. Most of the girls have the skills required to enroll in a bachelor’s program, and so that this doesn’t happen, the ultra-Orthodox education system dumbs down the testing level.
Instead, the modest ultra-Orthodox girl is expected to continue her education at a seminary, educational institutions for 18 - 20-year-olds that are run by the ultra-Orthodox community with almost no government oversight. Here, the young women receive their career training. They receive another two years of schooling that includes religious studies. Most seminaries are run by the local communities or even by families.
There are about 40 such seminaries in Israel, some of them very small and very low level. A few of the larger ones, such as those run by the Beit Yaakov educational network, teach at a higher level. They receive only partial funding from the state, so tuition can be very high, up to 20,000 shekels ($5,700) a year – meaning 40,000 shekels to acquire career training.
Some 80% to 90% of girls who graduate from ultra-Orthodox ulpanot continue on to seminaries. There’s no other way – ultra-Orthodox society keeps its unmarried young women locked away within the community. Don’t even mention college or university, or any career training outside the community.
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Furthermore, the young women are expected to find jobs within the community. The seminaries were founded in order to train ultra-Orthodox teachers and preschool teachers, and some 85% of their students are on teaching tracks. But even given the ultra-Orthodox community’s fast population growth, it doesn’t need 85% of all its 20-year-olds to be working as teachers.
And so the community has a severe excess of teachers – apparently some 6,000-8,000 young women are trained to be teachers every year, while there are only 1,500 open jobs. As a result, many ultra-Orthodox women wind up working part time for poor pay; often it’s a matter of connections that determines which women get the decent jobs, and who’s left with the crumbs.
Employment trends among ultra-Orthodox women have changed significantly in the past decade. In 2010, the government stated that its goal was to have 63% of ultra-Orthodox women employed by 2020. As of the first nine months of 2019, some 76.7% of ultra-Orthodox women were employed, an impressive figure given that the average Haredi woman has seven children.
But the large number of women working conceals a problem – most of those women are working part time for poor pay. The pressure on ultra-Orthodox women to stay within the community stymies their employment potential. A 2014 report by Dr. Neri Horowitz from the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs found that 67% of ultra-Orthodox women work within their community, 42% of them in teaching. Some 43% work part time, much higher than the 27% figure for secular Jewish women.
According to the Finance Ministry’s chief economist, the average ultra-Orthodox woman earned 7,500 shekels a month, about 25% less than that for non-Orthodox Jewish women. Per hour, their average pay is similar, but the ultra-Orthodox women work far fewer hours. One of the main reasons for this is that ultra-Orthodox women are being funneled into teaching jobs.
However, due to financial pressure, the seminaries are slowly changing – they’re starting to offer studies in fields aside from teaching. The main push started a decade ago, when the government first introduced engineering and technology studies into the seminars via the Labor and Welfare Ministry’s National Institute for Technology and Science (known by the acronym Mahat in Hebrew).
Now, of the 10,000 seminary girls, nearly 20% are studying toward careers such as architecture, design and programming, and the number of teaching graduates is only 50%. The most popular field is Quality Assurance, a field of programming that has proven particularly popular among ultra-Orthodox women, and quite a few major programming companies have set up offices in ultra-Orthodox cities in order to employ local QA workers.
The Labor Ministry is very proud of how ultra-Orthodox women have been integrated into programming jobs; its statistics indicate that 90% of them earn monthly pay averaging 9,000 shekels a month. Ultra-Orthodox society is less proud. Community sources say that most of the female QA workers are exploited by their employers, and are paid not much more than minimum wage.
The fact that the women received only the most basic training in programming – QA is the very bottom of the programming ladder – and the fact that they look for jobs near their homes in offices adapted to their sensibilities, makes them an easy target for exploitation.
The fact that it’s not acceptable for teenage girls to enroll in colleges or universities, and that seminaries are the only way for them to learn an occupation, means that the community’s smartest young women are trained for careers way below their potential.
“They’ can’t study medicine, computer science, law or science,” notes Prof. Eugene Kandel, formerly head of the National Economic Council and currently CEO of the NGO Start-Up Nation Central. “All of them, even the most elite, go to seminaries. We had 250 of them sit for exams, and a full 40% met the acceptance requirements for a computer science bachelor’s degree at a university. This is amazing human capital that’s being wasted conducting QA for 7,000 shekels a month, instead of earning 17,000 shekels a month as programmers.”
Sources at Mahat agree with Kandel. “These are the community’s elite girls, and as opposed to secular girls, all the elite career choices are closed off to them,” says Tair Ifergan, the head of Mahat.
The gap between the human potential within the seminaries versus the limited opportunities that seminaries have offered until now has paved the way for a boost in the quality of studies – letting them train high-tech programmers, not just QA workers. Israel’s workforce happens to have a severe lack of computer programmers. So maybe the young women can’t be sent to computer science programs at universities, but university-level studies can be brought to the seminaries.