And Then the Bubble Burst

A large notice was hung on the bulletin board at the ultra-Orthodox campus of Kiryat Ono College. "Dear students," said the poster. "You have chosen to study at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the academic complex out of desire to be in a campus that suits - to the extent possible - the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle."

Some three weeks ago, a large notice was hung on the bulletin board at the ultra-Orthodox campus of Kiryat Ono College. "Dear students," said the poster that detailed the new campus code. "You have chosen to study at the ultra-Orthodox campus of the academic complex out of desire to be in a campus that suits - to the extent possible - the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle."

Veteran students, who have difficulty "living" with the new code, as the notice stated, are respectfully asked to relocate to the general campus in Kiryat Ono. Signed - Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel.

The attempt to heighten the ultra-Orthodox character of the campus is the first public administrative step taken by Rabbi Fogel following his surprising move several weeks ago to the Academic Complex. It seems that the publicizing of the notice hints at the displeasure of the man associated with the "ultra-Orthodox enlightenment movement" and who ran the Haredi Center, the first institution that provided professional training for the ultra-Orthodox with rabbinic approval - with the undefined and non-binding nature of the new institution he heads.

However, the hopes for a detailed dress code - as is common practice in ultra-Orthodox institutions - were dashed. There are several halfway requirements: to cover the hair and have a respectable appearance; and to make a declaration confirming that one adheres to an ultra-Orthodox or religious lifestyle.

Undoubtedly, the new code comes in reaction to the appearance of an increasing number of knitted skullcap-wearing (modern Orthodox) students at the ultra-Orthodox campus during the last two years. One ultra-Orthodox law student related that his class has more national-religious students than ultra-Orthodox students.

He feels they are streaming to the ultra-Orthodox campus for practical reasons: the half-tuition scholarship that students there receive. According to other students, upon taking the job, Rabbi Fogel did not view favorably this revolution that the ultra-Orthodox campus was undergoing, with encouragement from the Academic College.

One way or another, the interesting question is: does this revolution indicate there is a problem filling the ultra-Orthodox campus? And has the potential number of ultra-Orthodox students interested in an academic education reached its limit?

According to Rabbi Fogel, the trend is the reverse. The number of national-religious students at the campus is still lower in comparison to ultra-Orthodox, he says. Only in the business administration program does the balance shift in favor of the religious, due to the requirements for proficiency in mathematics and English.

In any case, the impression is that Rabbi Fogel no longer objects to the change. Now he talks of an ultra Orthodox-religious campus and of "expanding the ranks."

This is the first interview with Rabbi Yehezkel Fogel, who was a partner in and witness to one of the most fascinating and important processes in ultra-Orthodox society: breaking the ultra-Orthodox taboo on professional training, higher education and above all - getting a job. Up to now, Rabbi Fogel declined to be interviewed due to rabbis' hesitations about publicity for the activities of the Haredi Center.

A man of the world

Rabbi Fogel, 60-ish, ultra-Orthodox in his life style and outlook, radiates the openness of a man of the world. He studied at the Hebron Yeshiva and after receiving his rabbinic ordination became a community rabbi in the United States and a chaplain. When asked why he is involved in the professional training process, his answer, like every ultra-Orthodox person's, is that it's from Heaven.

But when you look into the family background of the man who was once referred to by an ultra-Orthodox spokesman as the "savior of the ultra-Orthodox," and the way he was educated and his views - several other answers emerge. Rabbi Fogel was born in Romania, on the Hungarian side. His father was a workingman, who believed in Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh's approach of Torah and earning a livelihood.

In 1959, Rabbi Fogel's parents immigrated to Israel and opened a business in Tel Aviv selling canned goods. "My parents always worked hard for their livelihood," Rabbi Fogel relates. "In my childhood, I was taught not to waste time and that's also how I raised my children. And that's what brought me to the filed of professional training and academic education for the ultra-Orthodox.

"I saw many people who went to learn Torah and ended up being idle. I feel that one must first fully exhaust Torah study opportunities, but if it does not succeed, then one must go out to work, instead of being idle."

Rabbi Fogel has four sons and a daughter - his two youngest sons are learning in a kollel (a yeshiva for married men) and the two older ones left the kollel and went to work. One of them is an accountant and the other is in high-tech.

As a youth, Rabbi Fogel went to yeshiva high school and afterward, like many religious young people at the time, "was strengthened" and switched to the Hebron Yeshiva. There he adopted the ultra-Orthodox ideology of "Torah study is his livelihood." As a young rabbi in the U.S., he was exposed to the life style of the ultra-Orthodox community in Philadelphia and his eyes were opened.

"In the U.S., I saw for the first time people who were ultra-Orthodox in every sense, filling up the beit midrash (study houses) to capacity, even during the famous lunch hour and then rushing to their jobs. In New York and Philadelphia, I saw ultra-Orthodox doctors and lawyers. It made a huge impression on me. I didn't know that such an option existed." Years later, when he was asked to help set up the Haredi Center, there was no one more committed to it than him.

In 1997, the atmosphere was suitable for opening the job market to the ultra-Orthodox. "Haredi ideology did not change," it is important for Rabbi Fogel to clarify. "The rabbis understood it was a necessity of the times. Haredi society was growing and the economic situation was worsening. Pressure accumulated that obligated action."

Prof. Zvi Weinberger, then the chairman of Machon Lev - the Jerusalem College of Technology was behind the first initiative to open the Haredi Center. He brought along his friend, Avraham Fuss, of New York. Fuss, a religious man whose children had become ultra-Orthodox and were studying in a kollel, had $50,000 at his disposal from the charity fund of his father-in-law, a modern Orthodox philanthropist named Hochstein. "Fuss' idea initially was to teach the ultra-Orthodox to be craftsmen, electricians and so on," says Fogel.

"He didn't understand the mentality of yeshiva boys who were educated on elitism. There was no chance they would get their hands dirty. I saw the cure as being in high-tech actually."

Extremists emerge

Rabbi Fogel was able to insert the premise that learning Gemara uses the same intellectual skills as computer programming. The idea that Gemara students could be easily integrated into the high-tech industry was marketed to both the ultra-Orthodox and to employers.

The high-tech bubble was at its peak and the ultra-Orthodox interested in professional training for one and only one reason, the livelihood it provided, started to get excited. Even the rabbis understood the employment potential. But, according to Rabbi Fogel, it was harder to sell the idea to the general public than it was to convince the rabbis.

Researchers of ultra-Orthodox society as well as ultra-Orthodox spokesmen like to say that the trend of professional training and higher education started only after Rabbi Shach, who was known for his vehement opposition to academic studies, departed from the scene. But Rabbi Fogel presents a different picture. According to him, a member of the committee setting up the Haredi Center, Yerahmiel Boyar, asked Rabbi Shach whether he could be active in the field of professional training. He was told, "it's a good thing."

"Rabbi Shach said that he could not decide on his own and that he should go ask the heads of yeshivas. He did so and all of them supported him." At the same time, Rabbi Fogel relates that Rabbi Shach asked Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to take care of the matter. He handed the matter over to Rabbi Yosef Yisraelson, his son-in-law, and Rabbi Yisraelson, who lives one floor above Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, went to consult with him. That is how this hot potato went from hand to hand until eventually Rabbi Shteinman backed the process.

Rabbi Fogel saw it as part of his task to place his students in jobs. For a while, he was successful in doing so. But when the high-tech bubble burst and the recession struck, the great hopes for integrating the ultra-Orthodox in jobs were disappointed. The extremists raised their heads and the rabbis withdrew their support. In late 2002, Rabbi Fogel looked like a man who had lost his stocks overnight.

For a long time now, publication of a book he wrote on Jewish philosophy's perception of work has been delayed. Rabbi Fogel received the rabbis' approval, but then it was signaled to him that he should not publish the book at the present time, that it was inappropriate.

Rabbi Fogel moved to the Academic Campus following differences of opinion with the members of the organization that runs the Haredi Center over its management. His departure was accompanied, as in any incident in the ultra-Orthodox sector, by rumors and speculation. Upon hearing the rumors circulating regarding financial irregularities and failure to uphold obligations to students, Rabbi Fogel's always calm countenance clouds over.

He explains that in recent years, due to the downturn in high-tech and the difficulty in finding work, the number of students registering for courses at the Haredi Center has dropped substantially in recent years. This situation led, he says, to financial problems and in the last months prior to his departure, even employees' salaries were not paid. There are some among the ultra-Orthodox who feel that Rabbi Fogel was associated too much with an era of openness to professional training and that the leaders of the Haredi Center preferred a different figure to represent it before the rabbis.

"Rabbi Fogel acted as an avant garde in ultra-Orthodox society," agrees Dr. Yaakov Lupo of the Florsheimer Institute. "Rabbi Fogel always was several steps ahead of the society's norms." Lupo, who studied the academic education and professional training trend in the ultra-Orthodox sector, says that Rabbi Fogel promoted openness among the ultra-Orthodox out of concern.

"His modernity was always a thorn in the eyes of the extremists." Fogel today seems like one who has had a heavy burden lifted from his shoulders. He is convinced that a new era has begun. "The Haredis are starting to understand that academic education and not professional training is the key to getting a job. Soon we will see ultra-Orthodox students working on a master's degree," he says. The more approval is given for greater professionalism in areas that the ultra-Orthodox communities needs, says Rabbi Fogel, such as para-medical professions - pharmacology, occupational therapy, clinical communications, social work - the flow of applicants will increase. "Even the primary concern of the society has proved unrealistic. I haven't heard of people who went to study and then let themselves go."