The Bottom Line / Ultra-Orthodox Girls' Education Downgraded

Paradoxically, the girls in the ultra-Orthodox education system are better off than the boys. The fact that the boys are groomed for lifelong Torah studies, while the girls are left to bear the burden of supporting their families, means the girls' schools are more open and much better than the boys' schools.

The boys study Judaic subjects exclusively. The girls, who will have to find jobs, are also taught secular subjects, and some girls even go on to earn a B.A. at an ultra-Orthodox teachers' seminary, in order to teach in one of the ultra-Orthodox education networks.

This has shifted the balance of power within ultra-Orthodox society. The women have established themselves as breadwinners, and as more educated and independent.

The desire to protect the men and leave them sequestered in the world of Torah has resulted in women's accumulation of power, education and status at the men's expense - perhaps too much power, education and status.

This, at least, is one of the explanations for the revolution the rabbis are pushing to change the status of women in ultra-Orthodox society.

Earlier this year, the rabbinic council for educational matters decided the advancement of women must stop. The rabbis imposed many restrictions on women's studies at the teachers' seminaries. Claiming that they took too many years, and that women were consequently delaying marriage and children, the rabbis declared the bachelor's degree programs must halt. The girls could complete only their teaching certification, and even that with a break - two years of studies, followed by a wedding and only afterward the third year.

The rabbis further decided that only certified teachers would teach at the seminaries - ultra-Orthodox teachers with less education.

Seminary teachers with a master's degree and who have taught classes requiring special expertise (such as special education) would be disqualified from teaching.

Women are the main breadwinners

In one fell swoop, these restrictions cut short any advancement ultra-Orthodox women could hope for. Without a B.A., they cannot advance in the education system - aside from possibly receiving a raise.

Since the women are the main breadwinners, the restrictions imposed by the rabbis essentially stymied the potential of ultra-Orthodox society's only wage earners. Thus, with eyes wide open, ultra-Orthodox society chose to damage its economic circumstances - and all in the name of religious zeal.

One thing that made this process easier was, of course, the Education Ministry's submission to the rabbis' dictates.

The ministry finances the teachers' seminaries and also helps pay teachers' wages, which are set in part by the women's level of education.

Secular teachers view a B.A. as a ticket to higher wages. Until now, ultra-Orthodox teachers could also benefit from this, by studying at the seminaries. But now, with the rabbis' intervention, a B.A. has be come a far-off dream - but the salary increase has not necessarily followed suit.

Even though ultra-Orthodox teachers will no longer have bachelor's degrees, the Education Ministry this month agreed not to pay them any less than public school teachers with bachelor's degrees.

The ultra-Orthodox teachers will now be lacking a year of education, the education they do have will be of a poorer quality, and the courses offered by the seminaries will be censored by the rabbis - but the teachers' wages will not be affected.

At the same time, the Education Ministry agreed that the male lecturers at the seminaries will also not be university graduates, but rather will acquire the knowledge they need to teach by attending special courses, supervised by the rabbis, of course.

The rabbis have therefore truncated the ultra-Orthodox woman's education and employment options, and the state - via the Education Ministry - allowed them to do this. Ministry budgets will continue to be allocated to pay the ultra-Orthodox women teachers' wages as before, even though their education, qualifications and ability to find work outside the ultra-Orthodox education system have been greatly reduced.

Thus ultra-Orthodox society tightens the economic noose around its own neck, with financing from the Education Ministry.

Next in the series: How many inspectors does the Education Ministry send to supervise ultra-Orthodox schools?