From Application to Graduation: Mainstreaming Haredi Students in Regular Campus Studies
As an Ultra-Orthodox girl educated in a Jerusalem seminary, Ester Tayar was taught at an early age that challenging the teacher was not only frowned upon, it was indicative of a “problem child.“ “Since third grade I learned that I had to suppress my desire to understand, to know why,” explains Ester. Now, the 31 year-old wife and mother of two small children is a second-year law student at TAU’s Buchmann Faculty of Law. For the first time in her life not only is asking questions encouraged, it is expected. “Our professors told us in our first semester to be critical thinkers, that everything you are told must be questioned. Never accept anything at face value. I was amazed,” she says.
Ester is one of 50 fulltime Haredi students currently studying at TAU under a new framework called Trailblazers: The Program for Integrating the Ultra-Orthodox into Tel Aviv University. The program is unique in its threefold approach to mainstreaming Haredim into regular study programs: First, men and women learn together in non-segregated classrooms alongside secular students. Second, acceptance criteria are adapted to meet individual educational backgrounds. Third, academic and other support services are centralized into a “one-stop-shop” of holistic assistance: Students receive tailored help from the moment they apply until their graduation and job placement.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis educated in yeshivot and seminaries face greater challenges than their secular counterparts applying to universities. They have not been taught many of the core subjects needed to both successfully matriculate and to pass the university entrance exams, specifically English and mathematics. Moreover, because strictly observant boys and girls are never educated in a mixed classroom environment, families and communities are not readily disposed to the idea.
First-year law student Yechiel Vaknin, a 34-year old father of four, acknowledges that the gender integration poses challenges at times. “It is not easy,” he says, “but it’s part of everyday life, whether here on campus or anywhere else. I try my best to stay focused on my work.”
Financial pressures are another obstacle which makes higher education a dream for many Haredim wishing to pursue careers in fields such as engineering, medicine or law. The Council for Higher Education in Israel has been supportive of Trailblazers, providing partial funding. Various organizations in Israel and abroad donate additional funds for student aid.
A national imperative
The Israeli government has made integrating Ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the workforce a national priority. Although more Haredim are entering the workforce, the jobs tend to be lower paying, which keeps them trapped in a cycle of poverty. As the Israel Democracy Institute notes in its 2016 report, A Master Plan for Ultra-Orthodox Employment in Israel, “Despite the impressive success in getting the ultra-Orthodox to enter the labor market and increasing employment rates among ultra-Orthodox men and women in recent years, current policies have not been able to extricate the sector from its deep poverty. The salaries of ultra-Orthodox workers remain low and do not provide real economic and social security.”
The objective is to get them into the higher-paying jobs, which, as the report concludes, “…would benefit the ultra-Orthodox community, Israel's economy, and Israeli society as a whole.”
The TAU leadership views Trailblazers as answering a societal need while also advancing TAU’s policy of being an all-inclusive academic institution. Prof. Tova Most, Dean of Students at the Ruth and Allen Ziegler Student Services Division, says: “We want the best students studying here; Jews, Arabs, secular, religious and international students are all welcome.” The obstacles faced by Ultra-Orthodox students are unique and daunting but, as Prof. Most explains, the University has been proactive in providing all the resources necessary for them to succeed. The University will begin a new marketing campaign to the Haredi community with the goal of attracting even more candidates to the Program.
To help cope with the stresses of adapting to university life, Program Director Galia Givoly is the one-stop, centralized address for Haredi students. Givoly conceptualized the Trailblazers program, led its inception, and has been the driving force behind it ever since. With great devotion she organizers tutors, arranges psychological or career counseling, organizes mentoring programs, holds numerous social events and helps with finding financing.
For Yechiel, between his full-time studies, a full-time job, volunteer work as a paramedic for Magen David Adom and raising his children, including a 5-year old autistic son, juggling all the demands is perhaps the greatest test. “I like the challenge,” he says. “My goal is to learn more, to have a profession. I hope to succeed.”
Trailblazers has evolved over 3 years from a pilot project with two students studying law to one with students in many fields, including law, medicine, dentistry, engineering, business, sociology and public policy. “TAU sees itself as a microcosm of the wider Israeli society, so it is important for the University to have all sectors of Israeli society represented.” says Galia. “Haredim should also have access to the best education possible.”
Ester says, “When I returned to Tel Aviv University for my second semester, I walked in with a big smile on my face. I knew I was lucky to be here and I felt good here, but I didn’t know much it had become a part of me. I felt at home.”