In the first episode of our newest season of DataPoint – What we’ve learned – host Maya Dolgin speaks with Haredi educator and activist Adina Bar Shalom about higher education. In the second episode, she talks with educational consultant and former principal Michael Ben Shitrit about his personal transformation from a 25-year-old with only 9 years of education to a college lecturer and educational consultant. Each episode provides a glimpse into the challenges facing Israel’s education system, and explores how the system can help different segments of society adapt to a constantly changing reality. The series is recorded in Hebrew.
What we’ve learned: The woman bringing Haredim to academia
Adina Bar Shalom is an educator and public figure, the founder of the first college for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students in Jerusalem, and recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State.
As Adina explains, she sees the difficulties of integrating Haredim in Israel into institutions of higher education as being two-sided. “In my opinion there are two challenges. One, that the Haredi society needs to understand what it’s giving up by disregarding academia and, two, that academia needs to understand that it’s a shame to give up on this population group,” she says. “They need to meet somewhere in the middle. It will make our society as a whole better.”
When Adina first opened her college, it was only for Haredi women. However, in time, the institution also opened its doors to Haredi men at the request, says Adina, of her father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and long-time spiritual leader of the Shas political party.
As Adina explains, the challenges of pursuing higher education are quite different for Haredi women and men. Among women, an outsized percentage receive degrees in education, yet it is very difficult to get a teaching job as the number of women who want to teach way outweighs the positions available.
“They divide one position into four parts, but what do they tell a young woman who just finished her training and wants to work in education? Get a foot in the door, work only two hours a week…slowly you’ll get more and more hours and become part of the staff.” But, as Adina points out, this isn’t enough to for the woman to make ends meet and allow her to fulfill her obligations. “How can she support a family with only two hours a week of teaching work?” Adina asks.
Taub Center researcher Hadas Fuchs adds some perspective about the macro picture of Haredi women’s employment: “On the one hand, their employment rates are very high. On the other hand, many work part-time and 50% are employed in the field of education.”
The challenges among Haredi men are quite different. There is a high dropout rate among the men who do choose to pursue academia, because their primary and secondary schools do not teach key subjects like math, science and English, and it is hard to make up this knowledge at a later age. “Our boys don’t learn core-curriculum subjects, they don’t know the meaning of the word ‘equation’ in math or the letters of the ABC!” Adina describes.
And, as Hadas explains, employment rates and quality employment are not growing very fast in the sector: “The employment rate of Haredi men is low and not increasing at the rate we would hope.” Haredi men’s employment rate of about 50% falls short of the target set a decade ago by the government for 2020 (63%). “Even those who are employed are not working in the most lucrative jobs,” Hadas adds.
Adina’s journey hasn’t been easy. There is still a lot of opposition to academia in Haredi society. “Do you know how much I suffered in founding the college? But I couldn’t let it go, I felt it was my destiny. I started it and continued and continued,” she says. “And I will keep on continuing.”
What we’ve learned: The high school principal who almost didn’t finish high school
“The thing is, I’ve realized my highest dreams” Michael tells us. “And that’s something we need to remember when we talk about people who start at the bottom. We don’t even have the courage to dream about reaching the average. We discredit ourselves because of the environment and circumstances we come from.”
Michael Ben Shitrit’s personal story is as inspiring as it is exceptional. At age 25, Michael was a truckdriver with 9 years of education, after dropping out of high school early. One day, he stopped his truck outside of an academic college, signed up for courses to complete his GED, and changed the whole trajectory of his life.
“I already knew that I would work with at-risk youth – I didn’t know then to call it ‘at-risk youth,’ I didn’t know the professional terminology – but I knew I wanted to work with kids like me who need opportunities I was never given.”
Michael went on to become a self-proclaimed “education-man,” a college lecturer, and a high school principal. “The choice to work in high school is the choice to go back exactly to the place where the system failed me. That is the place I want to return to, give to others, and make sure that they aren’t pushed out. And not just that they aren’t pushed out. I’ll make sure they have a different opportunity than I did.”
In Israel, gaps in student achievements are quite large. Nachum Blass, Education Policy Program Chair at the Taub Center, explains that there have been improvements in Israeli achievements on international exams, but Israel’s scores are still lower than the average in other developed countries. And, perhaps more alarming, the gap between Israel’s highest- and lowest-achieving students is among the largest in the developed world.
One attempt by the Ministry of Education to close these gaps has been in promoting vocational and technological education. Indeed more students are studying in technological tracks than in the past and, even more encouragingly, most of this growth has been in the technological tracks with the highest student achievements.
As Michael puts it: “it is our responsibility as educators to create a system that does what is called today ‘reducing gaps.’ I believe we need to prevent these gaps from happening in the first place and not just reduce them.”
He believes that it is most important for schools to teach students life skills. “A kid needs to learn that in order to reach 5-units (the highest level) in mathematics or to become an engineer or to reach any other goal, he needs to look far and break it down into small pieces. Because even the biggest challenge, climbing the greatest peak, happens step by step.”
And, says Michael, the very best thing to do for students is to help them believe that they can go far and succeed. “My successes made me want more, and not the other way around. Each success made me believe more in my abilities and made me set a higher bar for myself and want more,” he says. For a kid who comes from a difficult background “it is the responsibility of educators to let this kid dream big and to allow him to believe that there is no question that when it comes to his abilities, he can make it.”
More on the Taub Center podcast
In the Taub Center’s podcast, DataPoint, we zoom in from Israel’s bigger socioeconomic trends and focus on real stories. Who are the people – the millions of data points – who stand behind the numbers? How do their individual journeys embody or complicate the trends we see at the macro level?
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