JERUSALEM, July 9 (JTA) —When the dean of the Haredi Center for Technological Studies first attempted to find jobs for his school’s graduates, he met some reluctance.
The attitude was, “We’ll take one of your students or two as an experiment,” Rabbi Zvi Weinberger recalls of his attempts in 1996 to find jobs for his students, most of whom are fervently Orthodox — or haredi.
The reason was simple: Most workplaces are not used to hiring haredim.
Now, Weinberger says, “We have more demands than we have students to fill.”
The school is a training ground for future contributors to Israel’s high- tech economy. But it’s also something more.
The center’s 300 graduates who have found jobs are also part of an experiment to integrate members of the haredi community — who live segregated lives and do not generally serve in the country’s rite of passage, the army — into mainstream Israeli society.
The debate over whether yeshiva students should serve in the army is currently being debated in the Knesset, which recently gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the students to be exempt from military service until age 23, when they would decide whether to continue their studies or join the military for a shortened tour of service.
Some 50 percent of the school’s male students serve in the army, according to the director general of the center, Rabbi Yeheskel Fogel. Haredi women do not serve in the military.
One scholar who works with the center says it is part of a “national mission.”
The program will “help not just individuals but the whole society by bridging gaps and reducing tensions,” says Rabbi Daniel Hershkovitz of the mathematics faculty at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, which helped to develop the school’s curricula and supervises some courses.
Its students appear to be looking for more tangible benefits.
On a recent afternoon, some 15 to 20 young women studied in a programming class. The class was taught by a male — the women have both male and female teachers, while only male teachers instruct the men. Most, but not all, of both genders’ teachers are Orthodox.
When asked if she was concerned about having to work in the secular world, one student said she was not, but that “some girls are concerned about that and they hope to work in a religious workplace.”
But she echoed the sentiments expressed by several other female students when asked why she was taking the class: “It’s experience for a good- paying job.”
The seed for the center was planted several years ago, when Weinberger, a product of American yeshiva training, observed what he calls a “matriarchy” among Orthodox families in Israel — the need for women to support their families because their husbands study full time in yeshivas.
“Nobody asked how come the Rambam, who was a physician, had to work for a living?” says Weinberger, referring to the medieval scholar who is one of Judaism’s most influential thinkers.
More than half of haredim live below Israel’s poverty line, according to a 1997 study by the Jerusalem Institute for Research, as compared with 24 percent of Israeli Arabs, 14 percent of new immigrants and 13 percent of Sephardim.
When Weinberger headed the Jerusalem College of Technology from 1985 to 1993, he was frustrated by the lack of haredi students there.
“I saw the need. I saw that haredi students could not be accepted” because of a lack of formal high school training “and it aggravated me very much,” says Weinberger, who immigrated to Israel in 1956.
Weinberger established the school with funding from a private donor in New York.
He first went to leading rabbis in the community and received their blessing — “otherwise,” as Fogel puts it, “I’m afraid it could not happen.”
The rabbis even approved Internet use, which has been a controversial issue in the fervently Orthodox community — as long as general browsing was not allowed.
“The Internet is not allowed at home. But at work or at studies, it’s OK,” says Fogel.
The rabbis, several of whom sit on the school’s board, support the school’s mission, but “they’re not interested in emptying out the yeshivot,” says Weinberger.
As a result, men, who make up 60 percent of the student body, study at night after their yeshiva studies are over — and women during the day.
The school has had little problem attracting students.
In its first year, 1996, some 35 students attended the center’s first two branches, in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. This year, some 1,200 men and women — the average student is between 25-40, poor, married and has several children — took courses at one of the school’s five branches.
In addition to preparatory classes, including a high school equivalency program, the center also offers courses in specific subjects, such as programming languages.
Students can also currently enroll in an 18-month program, directed by the Technion, in subjects such as computers, business or office management; and a three-year program in applied engineering supervised by the Israeli Ministry of Labor. Last fall, the center launched its first four-year program, affiliated with Weinberger’s former school, the Jerusalem College of Technology.
The school hopes to eventually become independent and grant its own degrees.
An average of 96% of students passed state-sponsored exams in courses ranging from English to computers in 1998 and 1999, according to the school.
Weinberger attributes this success rate to the seriousness of the students enrolled, who must follow a strict dress code. While single women are accepted into the school, single men are not.
“Anyone coming in through these doors is interested in the matter of study — and that and that alone,” says Weinberger.
The school’s success can also be measured in more symbolic ways, says the principal of the school’s Jerusalem branch.
“When men first came, they hid their faces on the way to school. Now they proudly show their folders that have the name of the school on it,” says Aryeh Charbit.
(Peter Ephross recently visited Russia and Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Society for Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.)