Reforming Ultra-Orthodox Education — One Teacher at a Time

January 28, 2016

Source: Jewish Daily Forward


In November of last year, Beit Berl, a teachers college in Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv in Israel, held a graduation for bachelor of education students. The ceremony was unremarkable but for the students it honored: All 63 of them were ultra-Orthodox Jews. They were the first cohort in a new program to educate better teachers in Haredi schools. Because Beit Berl is a secular institution — usually shunned by ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim — these men were pioneers of sorts.

One part of reforming Haredi schools is to train better teachers. That’s where Beit Berl comes in. An academic college founded in the 1970s, Beit Berl specializes in teacher training programs. It is the only teachers college in Israel to offer classes in Arabic, the language taught in Arab schools. Yet despite its commitment to inclusivity, until recently the college had not yet successfully recruited Haredim.

That changed in 2013, when two Haredi men, Ishayau Druk and Elchanan Feder, approached administrators at Beit Berl. The pair represented a group of men who had recently received teaching certificates from a Haredi seminary and wanted to continue their education. Coming from a highly insular background, the men knew that their presence on campus would pose a challenge to Beit Berl. Many of them had studied only Jewish topics, placing them far behind the average Beit Berl student in secular subjects like English. Furthermore, they would enroll only if the school could accommodate their religious lifestyle.

Beit Berl accepted the students, and the challenges that they brought with them. A year later, it opened the Center for Haredi Educators, which offers bachelor of education programs in three disciplines: math education, youth counseling, and both informal and special education. It also offers tutoring in basic subjects like English and math, which many students need. There are currently 200 students in the school — both men and women — and Beit Berl plans to triple enrollment in the next five years.

The center is housed in a white building in a quiet corner of campus, where Haredi students have little interaction with other secular students at the college. Classes are offered at night so that they won’t interfere with yeshiva studies or work. Women and men attend classes on different days of the week in order to observe Jewish modesty codes. The only snacks offered are kosher.

According to Tamar Ariav, Beit Berl’s president, the center is fulfilling Beit Berl’s mission to advance underprivileged groups in Israeli society. While the Haredi community has immense political power in Israel, rank-and-file Haredim live in poverty and lack basic education. Beit Berl’s success with this group depended on its ability to push the members academically while respecting their lifestyle. “We figured out that we need to open our doors to the community and hug them as they are,” Ariav said.

Read more in The Jewish Daily Forward.

Updated: Jun. 01, 2016