Israel: Rabbinical panel bars ultra-Orthodox women from continuing education programs

A committee of rabbis formulating the education policy in the ultra-Orthodox community has prohibited women's continuing education programs and severely restricted other study courses, blocking the advancement and development of haredi women's careers.
This is a devastating economic and professional blow to thousands of women teachers, who are the primary breadwinners in the ultra-Orthodox community. It is also a drastic regression in haredi women's ongoing process of moving ahead in their studies and career and in improving their economic situation.
The repercussions on the teachers and the ultra-Orthodox education system are tantamount to an earthquake, as the haredi newspaper Yated Neeman called it. The issues at the heart of the ultra-Orthodox society are at stake - the limits of education, the norm requiring women to be the breadwinners while their husbands study and, above all, the authority of the rabbis and functionaries to foist restrictions on the increasingly frustrated public.

"The collective and humiliating announcement about closing down the courses and shrinking them struck me like a thunderbolt," a 46-year-old teacher wrote to the rabbi committee anonymously.

"You don't allow the yeshiva students to work for a living, every new initiative is immediately cut down ... everyone says the women must be the breadwinners, fine ... but let me make a decent living for my family," she wrote in a letter evoking responses on a haredi Web site.

Since the beginning of the year, all the teaching instructors and women in continuing education programs stayed home, waiting for the decision of the rabbi education panel, which only came in December. The decision banned women's studies for academic degrees and imposed severe restrictions on other women's studies.

For years, haredi women high-school graduates have continued their studies in teachers' seminaries. In two years, they receive a certificate enabling them to teach in the haredi schools. Then they continue to study for a third year for a degree equivalent to B.A. and take continuing education programs specializing in certain subjects. This enables them to obtain higher teaching positions and, in turn, receive higher wages.

The new directives completely cancel the programs equivalent to B.A. studies, as well as the programs for education consultants and didactic diagnosticians, who trace learning impairments. Graduates of teacher seminaries will be able to apply for teaching certificates only after a hiatus of at least one year - to enable them to get married.

The education revolution in the ultra-Orthodox community has gathered enormous momentum in the past decade. Academic institutions and centers for professional training have opened in many fields, for both men and women. At first, the revolution was approved by the rabbis, headed by haredi leader Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman. But Steinman revoked his approval when the conservative groups expressed outrage at this development.

In recent years, the reforms in the continuing education programs have not pleased the rabbis, who object to women's "academic" studies. The conservatives warned of women's "career ambitions," fearing they would now be able to break out of the "teaching ghetto" and find other jobs than teaching. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was quoted in Yated Neeman objecting to teachers' enrolling in "all kinds of other education programs without any supervision of rabbis on every detail".

He warned that without close supervision and determining the content, "all manner of heresy can creep into those programs."

The rabbis were mostly infuriated by the psychological subjects in the teaching programs. Freud and Western psychology had always been a red rag to them.

The absence of ultra-Orthodox lecturers with academic degrees in diagnostics and consulting required bringing in lecturers from "outside" the community. Yated Neeman's women's supplement, Bayit Neeman, blasted the trend of bringing in lecturers from the "Sephardi faction" and even "completely secular" ones, warning of the women students' defilement.

Haredi spokesmen say that what has outraged the rabbis were the new demands by the Education Ministry, which included expanding the studies and requiring lecturers with a second degree for some of the programs.

The new decrees issued by the rabbis are most injurious to women teachers and seminar students, who have spent years studying and have invested thousands of shekels to obtain the equivalent of a B.A. Those who have graduated already have not only wasted their efforts, they may even be harmed by their education. Elyashiv has ordered not to give them priority in high school positions, where there is already a surplus of teachers. The decrees have also put several lecturers in the training centers out of a job.

By Yair Ettinger and Tamar Rotem, 2 January 2007