New Jerusalem schools push feminism

Beverly Gribetz, principal of Tehilla School in Jerusalem, with her students, Oct. 23, 2007.<br />
  (Brian Hendler)

Beverly Gribetz, principal of Tehilla School in Jerusalem, with her students, Oct. 23, 2007.
(Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Two new cutting-edge schools that opened in Jerusalem this fall are pushing the envelope on modern Orthodox education in the Jewish capital — and challenging rival schools to follow suit.

The Shalom Hartman Institute, a popular pluralistic Orthodox educational institution that already has a junior high and high school for boys, opened a girls school for grades seven through nine, and educator Beverly Gribetz started a girls school called Tehilla for grades nine and 10.

With a decidedly liberal bent that includes allowing girls to study Talmud and lead prayer services, the schools are positioning themselves to challenge the status quo in girls’ religious education in Jerusalem and throughout the Orthodox world.

“Hartman is very clearly flying the feminist flag,” Hartman parent Lori Glashofer said.

Talmud study is absent from the majority of Orthodox girls schools in Israel and girls leading prayer services is virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world. School officials at Hartman and Tehilla also say they will not discourage girls from going to the army, whereas most Orthodox schools in Israel encourage girls to avoid compulsory military duty by exercising the option to do national service instead.

Founded by North American immigrants, Hartman and Tehilla will compete with their Jerusalem rivals for the daughters of Jerusalem’s liberal Orthodox families, many of whom are also originally from North America.

Among Hartman and Tehilla’s competitors are the prestigious Pelech School, the Omaniyot Torah and Arts High School and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah.

The 30-year-old Hartman Institute was founded by Montreal native Rabbi David Hartman. The new girls school, officially called Midrashiat Habanot, is run by his son, institute co-director Rabbi Donniel Hartman, and Chana Kehat, founder of the religious feminist group Kolech.

Kehat describes Hartman’s girls school as “Orthodox but open-minded” — much like the Hartman school for boys, which has been open since 1986.

Students employ a critical approach to the study of Jewish texts, and volunteer work is part of the weekly schedule — elements that have made the boys school a top choice for modern Orthodox families in Jerusalem.

Additionally, a revolutionary new program will bring a sex-education curriculum to both the boys and girls — one of the first ever among religious schools in Israel.

It wasn’t easy to open the two new schools. Aside from finding students, faculty and funds, Hartman and Gribetz had to overcome the objections of the Israeli Educational Ministry.

At first the ministry opposed the opening of both schools, claiming Jerusalem did not require any additional classroom space for Orthodox girls.

Eventually the ministry relented.

“The educational authorities recognized us as a serious voice in the religious community,” Donniel Hartman said. “Here was a group of liberal Orthodox Jews that takes feminism and modern Judaism seriously. Their biggest concern was that the opening of our school wouldn’t come at the expense of other schools.”

The schools’ openings have devastated one school, however — the Evelina de Rothschild girls high school, which until recently was run by Gribetz.

During her stint as principal of Evelina, Gribetz was accused of falsifying hours on her time sheet and suspended from her post for six months. Subsequently she was cleared, but Gribetz left shortly thereafter to start Tehilla in September 2005.

Without the innovative Gribetz, an immigrant from the United States who was a headmistress for several years at the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Evelina’s decline accelerated and it lost a considerable number of students with the openings of Hartman and Tehilla.

Evelina is slated for closure, with the Hartman school designated to become its successor under a deal worked out with the Education Ministry. Hartman already has taken over some of Evelina’s facilities and faculty, and the 148-year-old Jerusalem school likely will be phased out entirely within three years.

Meanwhile, Gribetz, who also has taught at the rival Pelech, has gone on to make waves at Tehilla.

Gribetz first tried to open Tehilla in 2005, but the Education Ministry shut it down because it had no license. After a court ruling from the appeals board of the Education Ministry ruled in Gribetz’s favor, Tehilla reopened this September.

Some parents suggested that the ministry’s objections to Tehilla had to do with ideology.

“Beverly believes girls should get a good education,” Tehilla parent Naomi Stahl said of Gribetz. “Other places believe they should get ‘an appropriate education for girls.’ ”

Gribetz says Tehilla emphasizes a creative approach to learning, bringing in well-known rabbis and professors to teach Talmud, professional musicians to teach music and artists to run art electives. She also says she wants Tehilla to be an “integrated school” with students from an array of religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

For its inaugural year, the school drew students from nearly 25 feeder schools, according to Gribetz.

“When the first family from the Horev school” — a traditional Orthodox institution — “came to interview,” Gribetz said, “we asked, ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place? Your daughter will be learning Talmud in this school.’”

“They said they were willing to try it,” Gribetz said. “We know that half the girls coming to Tehilla wore a tallit at their bat mitzvahs. This coming-together of students is unique in Jerusalem.”

Tehilla student Daniella Slonim says the integration effort hasn’t been very successful so far. Many of her classmates, she notes, are native English speakers from similar backgrounds.

But she had praise for her teachers.

“There were girls who were failing subjects or wouldn’t listen or were not getting good grades in their previous schools. Now they’re getting 90s,” Daniella said. “The teachers all want you to do well.”

Unlike at Hartman, Tehilla has not yet instituted girl-led Torah readings. Gribetz says she’ll let the school’s evolving community decide the controversial issue.

Hartman, which this fall is hosting the popular egalitarian Orthodox Shabbat minyan Shira Hadasha while its regular Jerusalem locale undergoes renovations, has no such qualms.

Asked if Hartman would accept a girl laying tefillin for services, Donniel Hartman said, “Absolutely.”

Hartman student Ayelet Kagan, who has laid tefillin herself and whose mother regularly lays tefillin, says she’s not so sure she wants to do so at her new school.

“Maybe the school would” accept it, Ayelet said, “but the girls would still think it’s over the top.”

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