New Generation of ultra-Orthodox Men Going From Religious to Nursing Studies

35 Haredi men have come to Jerusalem’s Lev Academic Center to study subjects including anatomy, genetics, statistics and biochemistry, in a groundbreaking program that will prepare them to be nurses.

Tali Meyer

Shaul, 35, was born in the United States to an ultra-Orthodox family. After completing yeshiva high school there, he immigrated to Israel, where he continued his yeshiva studies and received rabbinical ordination. Ever since childhood, however, he had an attraction to medical studies. In the absence of a better opportunity, he began volunteering with the Magen David Adom rescue service.

Yossi Cohen

Several months ago, Shaul heard about a new academic program that is nearly revolutionary from the perspective of the options currently available to young Israeli Haredi men: a male nursing program at the Jerusalem College of Technology’s Lev Academic Center. “When I heard about it, I jumped at it,” Shaul says, smiling. “It gives me the chance not only to provide support for my family in a dignified manner, but also to work in the medical field that speaks to me to such a great extent. I think it’s good both for me and in general, and it’s proof I can perform daily [religious acts of] charity and good deeds, and also support my family.”

Shaul is one of 35 students in the first class of the center’s nursing program for men. Half the class is ultra-Orthodox men who, after four years of study, will have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. In light of the priority in the Haredi community in Israel for male adults to engage indefinitely in full-time religious study, even though in many cases it relegates them and their families to poverty status, such a scenario would have been nearly unimaginable just a few years ago.

Academic study beyond the yeshiva may be a seemingly natural part of the increasing trend that is seeing ultra-Orthodox males enter the labor force, but it’s far from simple. The ultra-Orthodox ethos still places highest priority on religious study. Many ultra-Orthodox boys stop studying English and math at a very young age, and if they take the matriculation exam that is a prerequisite to higher education, they are frequently nearly ignorant in basic secular subjects.

In addition, there are the requirements of halakha (Jewish religious law). These are hard to ignore with respect to difficulties that might arise when male nurses are required to care for women, sometimes involving rather personal circumstances. In reality, the staff at the center doesn’t see this as an insurmountable hurdle – and certainly not one that would scuttle the integration of Haredim into the profession.

“Everyone understands that they will have to get clinical experience and care for women, but there is backing for this among interpreters of halakha and rabbis,” says Haya Greenberger, dean of the school’s life and health science department. “Some of our students have already delivered babies in the past – for example, as volunteers for Magen David Adom.”

Women preceded the men in the training: the program has been operating since 2007 for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women, with great success up to now. “We started with women with the intention of training them only in the required academic settings,” says Dr. Shoshana Riba, head of the Health Ministry’s nursing administration. “We came to an arrangement with the Council for Higher Education that because of [the ultra-Orthodox women’s] cultural limitations, they would study on a separate campus in Bnei Brak that meets their needs. But they are affiliated with a recognized academic institution and get the full academic program, without any discounts.

“We went to great lengths to get ultra-Orthodox women into the program, to enable them to acquire a profession and then to help improve the standard of living of the Haredi population. We encourage them to go to baby-care clinics, to neighborhood clinics. They are the best emissaries for the health-care system when it comes to promoting health among the population in which they live, because they understand the needs, the community and are greatly admired. Of course, they don’t have to work in [their] community, but can work anywhere in the health-care system.”

Academic study as red flag

The positive experience of the women in the program, in addition to demand in the health-care system and from ultra-Orthodox society for men in the nursing field, led the Health Ministry and Council for Higher Education to open the separate program exclusively for men. “The public and hospitals are hungry for men in nursing positions,” says Lev Academic Center president Chaim Sukenik. “It’s a profession that requires female elements, but also male ones.”

For ultra-Orthodox males, however, the academic challenges are immense. Unlike many Haredi women, the men generally lack a high school matriculation certificate, let alone the college entrance psychometric exam. Bringing them up to scratch for higher education requires a year of intensive study just to fill in the gaps.

“While ultra-Orthodox girls graduate with 12 years of education, and some even have a matriculation certificate, the males come to us for preparatory study without a background in secular studies, without math, without even knowing how to read basic English,” says Vardit Markovich, who heads the pre-academic programs. “At first they do a pre-preparatory class, where they study English and math from the basics to the level [usually achieved at the] end of eighth grade. Then they continue to the preparatory course, at the end of which, after a year, they start their studies,” she explains.

Nonetheless, she notes, the students enroll in the program by choice, and work hard. “They may not have studied math and English, but they come from a society with very strong study habits. You need to remember that it’s very difficult, and only 50% of the students who start the preparatory program finish the first year of the degree program,” Markovich says. “It’s even harder because the classes here are in the late afternoon and evening. In the morning, many of the ultra-Orthodox students study at a kollel,” she adds, referring to a yeshiva for married men. “Imagine the desire required from a 28-year-old man who is married with three or more children, starting from scratch to get a degree in software engineering, or a nursing degree. But even those who drop out generally integrate one way or another into the labor market.”

Matan Notzky, 29, from Beit Shemesh, is married with three children and immigrated from the United States at age 11. He also studied at yeshivas. His story is similar to that of a number of students in the medical field, including secular ones. His father’s an anesthesiologist and his mother’s a nurse. Ironically, however, even though the parents got an academic education in the United States, they would prefer to see their son studying in a kollel, although they have been supportive of his decision.

“I’ve always wanted to go in the direction of making a living,” says Notzky. I took matriculation exams and completed the psychometric exam on my own, and since I was 19 I have been volunteering in all kinds of first-aid settings. I’ve always wanted to study nursing or something in the medical profession, but it wasn’t accessible to me. When this program opened, immediately it was right for me.”

Notzky was the only student interviewed by Haaretz who was willing to be photographed and identified by his full name. Although those who know the other students are aware they are in the program, sources at the Lev Center say the issue is still a sensitive one.

Staff at the center believe academic study is slowly becoming more accepted, though, even among more conservative circles in the Haredi community. “It depends on the neighborhood, the family, but there is a change. If at one time it was only dropouts from yeshivas who attended, now there is also interest among the mainstream of ultra-Orthodox society,” says Sukenik. “People want a career and an income.”

And what do the rabbis say? “We are, absolutely, not unrealistic in this regard, but we do get backing from halakhic scholars,” says Sukenik. “The consensus is that each case needs to be judged on its own merits. There is no rabbi who makes a sweeping generalization that yeshiva students are allowed to go into academic study, but experience teaches that if there is an individual request, they get rabbinical approval one by one.”

The Lev Center is trying to promote a sense in the ultra-Orthodox community that they can have it both ways – studying secular subjects and still engaging in religious study. The center recently released a video that quickly went viral in the Haredi community, showing a young ultra-Orthodox man bursting into his rabbi’s waiting room begging to get his blessing for an arranged marriage. When the sexton in the office asks what the young man is studying, he replies with details about the tractates of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, before adding, “And physics.” The sexton shoots back, “Quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity?” After some discussion, the rabbi suggests that the young man marry his own daughter.