For Cloistered Jews, a Lesson in Social Work

New York Times, July 3, 1999
By Deborah Sontag

BNEI BRAK, Israel -- In a nondescript building, up a flight of stairs and behind unmarked doors, a dozen ultra-Orthodox men sat hunched over desks, furiously coloring away.

With their black hats by their sides and a pile of crayons at their feet, they sketched rainy skies, fruit trees and apartment buildings topped with solar collectors -- whatever it took to express themselves.

Zvi Mayevsky, who is 49, proudly displayed his artwork, a maritime scene with a roiling blue sea, a boat and a life raft. After a brief, almost Talmudic discussion about whether his colors were intentional or just a result of the crayons that befell him, Mayevsky analyzed his creation.

"I'm at sea, in trouble," he said, pointing to a figure in the water. "The life raft, adrift, is where my family and I used to be. Now I'm splashing about in the wisdom of my professor's teaching. I'm trying to enter his world, to climb up on the big boat. I have a fear of sinking."

They are painstakingly revealing words, and pretty touchy-feely stuff for a roomful of Torah scholars. But Mayevsky and his fellow students are engaged in a quiet, almost secret revolution: They are getting a secular education.

With the laboriously negotiated permission of the rabbis, they are stepping out of their cloistered religious universe to train in a three-year social work program at one of Israel's two largest universities, Bar-Ilan. This is almost unheard of in Israel, for ultra-Orthodox men to seek the tools -- and degrees -- offered by a secular Israeli university in order to take them back into their own world.

"I, Berger, am making history," said Rabbi Reuven Berger, 50, a Hasidic Jew and one of the students. "People ask me, 'Why? At your age?' But I don't like to read history. I like to make it."

This social work program is one of a growing number of recent signals that the ultra-Orthodox, or as they are known here, the haredim -- literally, those who tremble before God -- are starting to negotiate a new relationship between their own society and larger Israel.

It also reflects the ultra-Orthodox leaders' increasing willingness to acknowledge that their community has social problems that require professional help.

The so-called world apart has always been a little more integrated into Israeli society than secularists acknowledge -- there have long been mixed neighborhoods and participation in the system by haredi political leaders.

Many haredi women, who are often the breadwinners, hold jobs in secular Israel.

Still, until recently haredi men have largely stayed away from three key worlds: higher education, the army and the secular workforce. Now, that wall is starting to crumble. Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak signed a groundbreaking agreement with religious leaders this week, in fact, that will bring more haredim into the army and thousands more into the economic mainstream.

In addition to breaching the iron gate between the haredi world and the universities, the social work program will create a professional cadre of ultra-Orthodox social workers, who can better understand the cultural and religious norms of the haredi world. There are a few ultra-Orthodox women who are social workers, but, in a society rigidly divided by sex, there was an especially great need for male professionals.

Under a special deal with the university, the students -- 18 men, ranging in age from 25 to 56 -- attend class in rented space in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city and one of the poorest places in Israel. They rarely set foot on the Bar-Ilan campus in the neighboring, affluent community of Ramat Gan, where they would have to mix with what they consider immodestly dressed women. And their professors, in a field dominated by women, are all men.

Despite Some Qualms, Study of Freud Remains

The program grew out of extraordinary negotiations between Bar-Ilan and the rabbis, involving compromises on both sides. Despite the rabbis' qualms about the teachings of Freud, for instance, he -- and Carl Jung -- remain in the curriculum, although there are no budding Freudians in the class.

"Everyone knows that without sex, the world doesn't exist," Mayevsky said. "But to boil down the rich and complex essence of humanity to just this -- well, I think it's exaggerated. And, yes, I was startled by my initial confrontation with such thinking."

In Israel -- as opposed to the United States, where many haredim attend universities and receive professional training -- the community has been officially devoted to the study of Torah. Originally, this was intended to keep alive a dying tradition. But as the ultra-Orthodox community has burgeoned, many within it have questioned, at the very least, the economic practicality of having most working-age men remain outside the workforce.

The military draft further complicated the issue. In order to defer conscription, haredi men had to swear that they were studying Torah full time until they reached the age of 35 (or 41, depending on how many children they had). The agreement that Barak initialed this week would lower that age to 24, ushering thousands of young men into the workforce.

It is clear that, if this happens, vocational institutes will have to spring up quickly to train men who do not have high school degrees. Some self-run training centers have opened within the haredi world in the last few years, and Technion University has helped run a computer technology training program in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

But this is the first university degree program tailored to haredi men, and Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan, thinks it will open the way for an influx of haredim into the university.

Bar-Ilan University has long co-existed uneasily with its ultra-Orthodox neighbors in Bnei Brak, because Bar-Ilan is a liberal, modern Orthodox institution, with a majority of secular students. From each direction, there has been mistrust.

Many ultra-Orthodox look down on the modern Orthodox, who maintain they can integrate religion into modern life, as compromised, or halfway, Jews. The modern Orthodox, in turn, often using very paternalistic language, have tended to see the haredim as backwards and ghettoized.

"This program is a real breakthrough, believe me," Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan, said. "Behind the scenes when I met all these rabbis, they hesitated very much. They're afraid. They want to isolate their people. To let them participate is to take a chance. I don't even like talking about it, because they might say, 'Oy vey, look what we have done. Tomorrow we will not have students in the yeshiva and everyone will join the modern world.' "

David Ribner, a modern Orthodox Jew who directs the social work program at Bar-Ilan, said the haredi community's readiness to recognize its own problems -- from child abuse and neglect to domestic violence -- was crucial.

"Now, they are ready to present an image to the world that doesn't have to be holier than the Pope," Ribner said.

Most of the students are already involved in charity or social work in their community, although they have no formal training. They are a very open, gregarious bunch. Although even an interview with this newspaper had to be negotiated with the rabbis -- via a liaison in New York -- the men themselves were completely comfortable talking and burst with pride in their pioneering venture.

"It's dangerous and risky, this exposure," Rabbi Berger said. "But it's part of the process of the haredi community becoming part of the Israeli reality."

As part of the screening of applicants, Professor Ribner said, men were asked to imagine the feelings of a religious woman who had given birth to a baby with severe defects. If the applicants could not consider the possibility that the woman might be angry at God, they were not accepted because it was believed that their dogma would get in the way.

Mayevsky said he feels comfortable navigating between two worlds, because he grew up as a religious Zionist and served in the army before he "went black," in his words. After finishing his yeshiva studies, he studied Torah for 12 years in a kollel, an advanced Torah studies institute for married students who get by on a state stipend and the earnings of their wives.

Mayevsky said he has always been concerned about the number of wayward haredi youths whose problems, like those of sexual offenders, were being "swept under the carpet." Often, haredi families are unwilling to acknowledge mental illness, for instance, because it is considered to taint their daughters and make them undesirable marriage partners.

A Degree Is Needed to Fulfill a Dream

Mayevsky helped start a residential school in Rosh Haayin for teen-agers with problems.

"That was when I first realized that I was handicapped without a degree," he said. "The Labor and Welfare Ministry officials said, 'Who are you? You're not trained.' They felt we would be opening up a lower-level facility."

The school hired a few professionals, either haredi women who had trained abroad or modern-Orthodox men. Mayevsky said he was upset that he himself was relegated to administration.

"It was the dream of my life to work with this population," he said. "I was born to help. Still, when I started this program, it was mostly to get the degree so I had the official sanction of government authorities. Then, slowly, I realized that I had something to learn."

Mayevsky said his life has turned upside down, emotionally, as the course work has demanded that he explore his feelings for the first time in his life.

"I have conflicts in my head that go back 30 years," he said. "Now I'm struggling through all this confronting. If I had done this earlier, I probably would have conducted my own life very differently." Mayevsky and Rabbi Berger said the fact that their community distrusts social workers from the outside world makes it harder for problems to be addressed and resolved. An outsider might bring with him value judgments about community norms, seeing certain traditions -- like arranged marriages -- as pathologies.

A Community Solution When the Police Fail

The men said they would obey the law and report criminal behavior in their community to the police. But, Rabbi Berger said, the police often do far less than the community would.

For instance, he said, a haredi man "known for starting up with young male children" was recently reported to the police, who conducted a halfhearted investigation and dropped the matter. A group of rabbis then paid him "a friendly visit," Rabbi Berger said, and told him that if he didn't seek help, "we would publicize his situation."

According to Rabbi Berger, this worked.

In his fieldwork at a psychiatric hospital, Rabbi Berger, who exudes calm and compassion, took on a suicidal patient whom none of the credentialed professionals could reach. The patient, a homeless ultra-Orthodox man, had set a specific time and way to kill himself.

"I believe -- I know -- that my presence in this case as a haredi man gave this person the faith to work on," Rabbi Berger said. "The problem came after many months, when he was much better. I was forced to separate from him, because that is the dictate of my new profession. He was very hurt and angry, and I felt guilt."

Asked what had been the biggest hurdle as the haredim breached the wall between their community and the outside world, Mayevsky and Rabbi Berger conferred, stroking their beards. The rabbi spoke for them.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.