Ultra-Orthodox/Haredi Education

Part of the International Handbooks of Religion and Education book series (IHRE, volume 5)


Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism developed in the modern era as an isolationist reaction against the ways in which the freedoms of modernity pushed Jews away from strict observance of Jewish law. Haredi Jews view Torah study as particularly central, even as the very purpose of creation. Therefore, the Haredi educational system for men discourages general education and is designed to encourage them to gain independence and expertise in the Talmud along with a personal piety that comes with that expertise. Men are expected to be involved in full-time Torah study well into adulthood. For women, the educational system inculcates the value of feminine domesticity and sexual modesty, while downplaying abstract text-knowledge. Women are to grow into mothers, wives, and (paradoxically) often breadwinners in order to support their husbands’ Torah study. While the Haredi community has enjoyed a period of significant growth in the past decades, its educational system currently suffers from a severe financial crisis and from a perceived increase in drop-outs and defectors.


Vocational Training General Education Military Service Jewish Community Torah Study 
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Haredi Judaism in Context

Modernity brought enormous freedoms and opportunities to Western Jewry. For the most part, modern Jews happily integrated themselves into the cultures of the countries in which they lived. And, for the most part, Jews saw these developments as positive, cherishing their newfound freedoms. In the process, the nature of Jewish religious identities changed dramatically. Some Jews abandoned their Jewish commitments, and others modified them into new Jewish movements, ideologies, and identities that matched their intellectual proclivities and social aspirations.

Beginning in Hungary in the middle of the nineteenth century, and then spreading to Eastern Europe and later throughout the globe, a small minority of Jews focused less on the opportunities and more on the spiritual and religious dangers that they associated with increased freedoms. They became worried, with more than a little justification, that modernity would lead to neglect or alteration of what they took to be the immutable word of God. Torah, they claimed, was self-sufficient, and becoming “like the gentiles” would do incurable harm to Jews who adopted such a strategy. Instead, Jews should isolate themselves from others and maintain allegiance purely to the traditions of the past. These Jews became known as Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox.

Haredi Judaism presents itself as self-contained and as the simple continuation of what Judaism had always been and always should be. Hadash asur min haTorah (novelty is prohibited by the Torah) became a kind of rallying cry, a slogan penned by a founding leader of Haredi Judaism, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762–1839): continue to study Torah, to keep mitzvot, to dress as one’s predecessors dressed, and to maintain allegiance exclusively to Torah—just as, it is claimed, Jews have always done—rather than to the new-fangled modernistic values that have tempted some away from God’s truth (for a basic introduction to Haredi Judaism, see Friedman & Heilman, 1991).

Historians have questioned this Haredi self-understanding of a seamless continuation of the tradition from the past. Instead, historians argue that much of Haredi Judaism’s reactions to modernity have, ironically, made it quite modern (Silber, 1992). Still, Haredi Judaism has continued, in different times and places and in slightly different forms, to define itself through sharp contrast with the cultures that surround it. It is, broadly speaking, rejectionist, isolationist, and counter-cultural. Haredi Jews attempt to create an enclave culture, one in which Jews can surround themselves in Orthodox Jewish culture and values, and where they can be protected from the dangerous and destructive values of the outside world (Sivan, 1995).

Obviously, the attempt to create and maintain an enclave culture under the relatively open conditions of modernity requires a network of social and educational institutions to construct and reinforce collective values (Rosenak, 1993). Schools—along with families, synagogues, mutual aid organizations, and the like—do much of the work in Haredi attempts to construct individual and collective identities. Indeed, one of the dramatic changes that Haredi society has undergone over the centuries is the increased emphasis on formal education for all members of society. If, in the Jewish past, higher formal education was a privilege of a minority of men, in Haredi society every member of society, both male and female, acquires higher formal education in order to provide children and young adults with the knowledge and acculturation that they need to be protected from the lures of non-Haredi culture.

This chapter attempts to familiarize the reader with basic issues in Haredi formal education, focusing on educational institutions for members of the Haredi community. I cannot deal with several central issues here, as important as they may be: informal education, parenting (Finkelman, 2007 and Finkelman, 2009), teacher training, special education (Glaubman & Lifshitz, 2001), and institutions designed for outreach to non-Haredim (Caplan, 2001; Danzger, 1989; Safer, 2003). Furthermore, I will limit the discussion by focusing on the two largest and most influential Haredi communities, those of Israel and North America, and pay scant attention to smaller Haredi communities in Europe and South America. In addition, I will mention Sephardic Haredim (those deriving from Jewish communities originating in Muslim countries) only in passing (Ravitzky, 2006 and Caplan, 2003, pp. 264–269).

I will begin with a description of the centrality of Torah education within a Haredi context and then move to an explanation of some key dividing lines that separate different subgroups of Haredim from one another. Then, I will trace the educational experiences of Haredi males and females through their separate educational institutions from childhood through adulthood, examining the institutions of study, the function of those institutions, the religious education that they provide, and the access that they give students to general education and vocational training.

The Centrality of Torah Study in Haredi Education

Haredi Jewish education differs from that of other segments of the Jewish community, and it is impossible to understand the Haredi community and its educational system without reference to that difference. To put it simply, Torah education is more central in the cultural economy of Haredi communities than it is in that of other Jewish communities.

To begin with, the Haredi birthrate is higher than that of the general population. Children, therefore, are ubiquitous in the community, and institutions for their education take up a particularly central place. But the birthrate is only one aspect of the centrality of education in Haredi communities. While the discourse of Jewish education in non-Haredi communities (pardon the generalization) often focuses on education as a means of intellectual and spiritual enrichment, as a way of encouraging Jewish continuity, and as a method of enabling participation in Jewish practice, for the Haredi community, education, at least for men, is valued as an end in and of itself and is taken to be a lifelong endeavor.

For Mitnagdic streams (more on this group below) in Haredi theology, Torah study is the be-all-and-end-all of Jewish experience, the very purpose of creation. But even in non-Mitnagdic communities, male Torah study is absolutely central, and Torah education does not end with a degree, job qualification, or certificate of completion. Even if a student receives rabbinic ordination, this is not a sign to stop formal education. Furthermore, decades-long immersion in Haredi educational institutions also reinforces the community’s isolationism by surrounding young people and adults for as long as possible in institutions in which Haredi values and culture hold sway. And, by not providing extensive general education or vocational training for men, these institutions limit their social and economic independence, thereby making individuals dependent on the communal infrastructure.

Hence, Haredi men in Israel are expected to continue their studies into their 30 s and 40 s, and even in North America men commonly study full time at least until their mid-20 s, either without or in addition to some vocational training. Some men continue full-time study for their entire lives. In Israel and parts of North America this has resulted in a historically unprecedented expansion of what the sociologist Menachem Friedman has called the “society of learners”: a Haredi community in which full-time Torah study is the primary vocation of adult men (Friedman, 1991, pp. 80–87). North American Haredi men are more likely than their counterparts in Israel to take part in the workforce, but even in that context, full-time Torah study well into adulthood is a norm to strive for. If, for pre-modern traditional Jewish society, Torah study at an adult level was the inheritance of a small minority of the male intellectual, spiritual, and often economic elite, in today’s Haredi community it is a mass phenomenon (much as adult formal education has become a norm throughout the developed West).

As a result, there are quantitatively more institutions of Torah study in Haredi neighborhoods than in other Jewish neighborhoods,1 and Torah scholarship is a central linchpin in defining leadership, social status, and rank within the communal hierarchy. Indeed, one of the central planks in Haredi ideology is that of da’at Torah, a doctrine according to which great rabbis and Torah scholars have exclusive authority over virtually all aspects of individual and communal life (Brown, 2005; Kaplan, 1992). In short, Torah education is more central within Haredi communities than in other Jewish communities.

Some Basic Dividing Lines

Despite an oft-heard stereotype, Haredi Judaism is not monolithic. It is divided by a crisscrossing network of separations between groups and subgroups. It is not possible in this context to trace the nuances of every distinction between different subgroups. But three must occupy us. First, the distinction between Hasidim and Mitnagdim; second, the distinction between Israel and North America; and third, the distinction between men and women.

Hasidim and Mitnagdim

The Hasidic movement developed in the eighteenth century, founded by Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760) and his students, and it quickly became influential throughout Eastern Europe. In its early years, before the Haredi community had taken firm shape, the movement tended to downplay Torah scholarship as a marker of religious success. Instead, it emphasized certain kinds of mystical experiences for the elite, and an emotional attachment to God as well as service through daily activities of life for the masses (Lamm, 1999). The rabbinic elite, the Mitnagdim, opposed the Hasidic movement, because they continued to see Torah study as the central pillar of religious success and were upset both by Hasidic devaluation of scholarship and by hints of antinomianism in theology and practice. While the Hasidic rabbis and their institutions appealed to the masses, even to ignorant laborers, the Mitnagdim established yeshivas, elite institutions for long-term Torah study, in order to raise the next generation of (exclusively male) talmidei hakhamim (Torah scholars) (Nadler, 1999).

Educationally, Hasidim invested less in traditional Torah scholarship than did their Mitnagdic peers. Yet, Hasidism adopted a fear and rejection of secular education and science, which translated into bitter opposition to the Haskalah, the modern Jewish Enlightenment movement that called for educational reform and increased openness to general culture (the animosity was mutual). Instead, the Hasidic movement tried to preserve a simple-faith attitude among followers. The cerebral Mitnagdic movement was, for the most part, more open to general education, but Mitnagdim worked to keep their followers segregated in yeshivas for many years.

Gradually, from the late nineteenth century and particularly in the years after the Holocaust, the two communities grew closer together, discovering that what they have in common, particularly the fear of non-Haredi society and culture, is more important than what they have disagreed about in the past. Hasidim, over the years, have come to put more emphasis on the study of Torah, and have even developed networks of yeshivas (Stampfer, 1998, and Breuer, 2003, pp. 55–57). At the same time, Mitnagdic Haredi Judaism has expanded from a small elite minority into a mass culture, a “society of learners” (Friedman, 1991), thereby finding more room for laypeople (or, put differently, converting the plurality of the community’s men into members of the elite).

North America and Israel

On the whole, the North American Haredi community is a great deal more acculturated than its counterpart in Israel. American Haredim, particularly among the Mitnagdim, are more likely than their Israeli counterparts to have a high school, college, and even graduate school education. Many work in non-Haredi workplaces; they may follow sports or popular music; and they are more likely to read “secular” books (Caplan, 2006). Israeli Haredim, while also integrated to a certain degree into contemporary Israeli culture (Caplan & Sivan, 2003), tend toward greater isolationism. They acquire very little general education, and remain more confined to their own enclave communities.

The nature of Israel as a Jewish State pushes Israeli Haredim in more isolationist directions. The general culture and government in North America are gentile, while those in Israel are Jewish, and constructed by secular Jews at that. Hence, American Haredim can more easily view the surrounding culture as neutral, while contemporary Israeli Haredim will view the surrounding culture as heretical Judiasm, making it more threatening. Furthermore, the relationship with the Israeli government and its funding, in conjunction with the thorny issue of military service, constructs a more isolated Israeli Haredi experience. In Israel, yeshiva students earn a postponement and often exemption from otherwise mandatory military service, and Haredi culture views military service as the high-road to abandonment of a Haredi life (though small numbers of Haredim do join the army—see Hakak, 2003; Stadler, 2009). This pushes young adult Haredim into yeshiva, and limits their options to leave.

Limited government funding of Haredi education in North America, compared with the larger Israeli government funding of Haredi education, helps construct the educational differences between the two Haredi communities. With the passing of Israel’s mandatory education law in 1949 and the national education law of 1953, the State established the Hinukh ‘Atzmai (Independent Education) stream, in which Haredi schools receive State funds, but remain largely independent in terms of curriculum and educational programming (Schiffer, 1998; Sebba & Schiffer, 1998, 28–33).2 Hence, Haredi schools had reliable and consistent official funding, which allowed them to grow rapidly (Friedman, 1991, 56).3 Furthermore, the government also provides stipends for advanced study in yeshivas, in addition to child allowances and other social-welfare payments. Hence, while the Haredi sector remains one of the most impoverished segments of Israeli society, Haredi society can still afford to encourage all males to study Torah full time well into adulthood because of access to funding provided by other segments of society (Berman, 2000; Gottlieb, 2007; Schiffer, 1998).

In contrast, the US government provides very little support for private schools, which almost all Haredi children attend, and Haredi society does not gain government funding beyond the welfare state’s provisions for the poor.4 Some Haredi elementary and high schools in North America are organized under the loose umbrella of the Torah U’Mesorah organization, which provides a small measure of centralization and oversight, but the organization provides little or no funding (Kramer, 1984). Hence, the burden of tuition payment falls on the shoulders of parents, which pressures them to enter the workplace and earn a living.5 Further, there is no threat of military service in North America. Hence, leaving yeshiva for the workplace and acquiring the general education that allows for such a thing are more accepted among North American Haredim than among Israeli ones.

Even with these generalizations about the more open American community and the more isolationist Israeli one, it can be more helpful to think about all Haredi communities as existing on a continuum between more isolationist and less isolationist. Some communities, in both North America and Israel, speak Yiddish primarily, dress in ways that are less influenced by contemporary fashion, are less open to general education, and more thoroughly oppose any emergence, even temporary, from the boundaries of the enclave (Schneller, 1980). Other communities speak the vernacular, dress in ways that are more influenced by contemporary fashion, are more open to general education, and are more willing to allow or encourage temporary leaving of the enclave, at least for a good reason. While Israeli Haredim tend, on the whole, toward greater isolationism, this is not a hard and fast rule, with both Israeli and American Haredim appearing at every and any spot on the continuum between isolation and acculturation, ranging from Jerusalem’s Edah Haredit at the most isolationist, to yeshivas like Baltimore’s Ner Yisrael on the less isolationist side.

Men and Women

Certainly, the single most important distinction for understanding Haredi life in general, and education in particular, involves gender. According to the Haredi cultural ideal, there are essentialist differences between men and women, which are reflected in radically different social and communal roles (El-Or, 1994). Ideally, men should become pious Torah scholars. In contrast, a woman should be characterized by her tzniut, modesty in both dress and demeanor, and her normative cultural role centers on domesticity and child rearing. Men should participate in, and control, the community’s religious public sphere of worship, politics, and decision making; women should find fulfillment in the privacy of their roles as mothers and wives (though they are often expected to leave their homes to work in order to support their husbands’ study). Further, Haredim allow little mingling of the sexes and disallow public representation of sexuality, in conscious opposition to the eroticization of much of contemporary general popular culture. Much of the responsibility for public modesty lies with women, who are expected to dress in clothing that covers the body and does not invite the “male gaze.” Under these circumstances, communal worship and almost all public events are gender separate.

As we shall see below, different social and religious roles for males and females require different kinds of education and different kinds of schools. Haredi schools are segregated by gender from the youngest ages, and the separate male and female educational institutions provide dramatically different experiences and curricula, which launch members of the different genders “into entirely different orbits” from their earliest childhood (Bilu, 2003, p. 173).

In particular, Torah study ranks at the top of the Haredi axiological hierarchy, and women are exempt from much of that study. Indeed, they are prohibited from studying the Talmud, the most important text of Haredi study. Hence, while men are encouraged and expected to study Torah and Talmud full time from a young age until early adulthood, and part time for their entire lives, women are expected to end their formal education in their early 20 s at the latest, and their schooling provides a truncated religious curriculum (El-Or, 1994; Shaffir, 2004). Furthermore, despite the emphasis on female domesticity, women often work outside the home in order to help support their families and their husbands’ full-time Torah study. Hence, young women are encouraged to gain the vocational training and/or college education they will need to do so effectively, even in sub-communities where such training is frowned upon for Haredi men (Caplan, 2003; Friedman, 1995).

The Educational Pathways of a Haredi Jew

Haredi education, like all education, does more than just impart information. It is central in the work of cultural transmission, in socializing young people into the ways and norms of a particular community. Haredi Jews, both male and female, learn a great deal more in their schools than Bible, Jewish law, Talmud, or Jewish history. They learn also a complete worldview: what makes for valuable and important information; what one can do with valuable information; and how to use that in ways that the Haredi community considers worthwhile (Krakowski, 2008a). Schools teach Haredim how to behave in acceptable ways, how to navigate the community and the outside world, and what roles they should play as either Haredi males or females. Formal and informal educational institutions help construct their pupils’ identities.

In the coming sections, I will trace the separate educational experiences of males and females as they enter the school system until they emerge decades later. I will focus particularly on the structures of the various school systems, their roles in constructing identity, and the kinds of general education that they make available.

Male Education

The Yeshiva

The cornerstone of Haredi male education is the yeshiva (Breuer, 2003; Helmreich, 1982; Stampfer, 2005).6 It is worth dwelling on this institution for adults even before discussing elementary and secondary education, largely because the yeshiva’s uniqueness exemplifies the value of men’s Torah education from a Haredi perspective. The ideal Haredi male is the talmid hakham, the pious scholar, whose lack of physical prowess derives from a dedication to and expertise in the “sea of the Talmud” and in Jewish law, which in turn engenders a soft-spoken personal piety. While Haredim can be attracted to other more aggressive images of masculinity, such as athletic or military (Stadler, 2009), the yeshiva remains the institution that does the most to inculcate the mastery of the Talmud and the personal piety that is seen as the hegemonic male norm (on Haredi masculinity, see Aran, 2003).

Generally, the yeshiva day is divided into three units, or sedarim, one each in the morning (approximately 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.), afternoon (approximately 3:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.), and evening (approximately 8:00 p.m.–the end of the student’s energies, but sometimes as late as midnight or beyond). For the most part, the students focus on Talmud for at least most of each of these three periods, though they might schedule some time for the study of Jewish law, Bible, mussar (religious ethics and self-development), or other disciplines of Torah study. In Hasidic institutions, students may dedicate significant time to studying the ideological and theological works of the particular Hasidic community. Advanced students, particularly those who are preparing for rabbinic certification, might dedicate a great deal of time and energy to systematic study of Jewish law, but students could not ignore Talmud entirely in their daily schedules.

Most of this study occurs not in the classroom, but in the beit midrash, the study hall. A beit midrash is typically a large, book-lined room in which tens if not hundreds of teens and adults study in pairs, or havrutot (sing. havruta). Each havruta prepares a passage in the Talmud with its traditional commentaries, often spending hours if not days on a single page of the Talmud. The less-advanced students attend a class, or shiur, each day, often occupying about one hour of each seder, in which a teacher will review, expand on, and deepen the material they were to have covered on their own. As students become more advanced, shiur attendance will diminish, and they will be freer to simply study on their own (On yeshivot as educational institutions, though without particular reference to Haredi Judaism, see Halbertal and Hartman-Halbertal, 1998).

Generally, after a few years in yeshiva a student will be considered of marriageable age. Upon finding a suitable spouse, the young man will begin his studies in kollel, a yeshiva for married men. While largely identical to yeshivas in terms of pedagogic style and curriculum, a kollel student receives a stipend to help support his family, and he is more likely to study for rabbinical ordination in order to enable him to work as a teacher or religious functionary in the future.

Success as a yeshiva student helps the student climb the ladder of the Haredi social and cultural hierarchy and reach the status of the talmid hakham. An illuy (young and diligently studious genius) earns the respect of his peers and community, is more likely to find a prestigious teaching job in a yeshiva, and makes for a more desirable spouse and son-in-law, thus giving the young man better opportunities to marry into a respected and/or well-to-do family.

In North America, many advanced yeshivot allow if not encourage their students, after a year or two, to gain some kind of general education and/or vocational training. Students may attend undergraduate or graduate degree programs, more often than not in a field of study such as accounting that can translate directly into a job and income and which does not require in-depth study of the humanities or social sciences, fields that are deemed problematic from an ideological or theological perspective. Many yeshivas maintain arrangements with local universities or institutions of higher learning in which students attend night school and receive at least some college credit for their yeshiva studies.

For Haredi communities where college attendance remains completely taboo—a phenomenon that dominates the Haredi scene in Israel—the community may supply alternative vocational programs to provide training in computer programming, web design, or similar professions that would allow a young Haredi man to make a living without too much exposure to general education. Such programs exist in the United States (Heilman, 2006,  Chapter 5) and are developing in Israel as well (Hakak, 2004; Lupo, 2003).

The Path to Yeshiva

While the research has not systematically examined early-childhood education for Haredi males (but see Heilman, 1992,  Chapter 12), by way of generalization it is fair to say that kindergartens for Haredi boys are similar in structure to those of the general population, only they are same sex and impart knowledge related to Biblical stories, religious holidays, Jewish law and custom, and Haredi worldview. Actual text study can begin for boys as early as 3 years of age, often before the children can themselves read (Bilu, 2003). Further, Yoram Bilu has pointed to various rituals associated with male early childhood education—the child’s first day in school and his first haircut, for example—which help to socialize Haredi Jewry’s youngest boys into proper images of Haredi masculinity, particularly regarding the central role that text study is to play in their lives (Bilu, 2000; Bilu, 2003).

Elementary schools teach young Haredi students basic material in Bible, Jewish law, and other areas of religious study. In early years, the curriculum focuses more on Bible and ritual practice, but beginning generally in the fourth of fifth grades, male students begin to study Mishnah and later Talmud as well. Gradually, over the course of the coming years, Talmud will take up more and more of the schedule to the point that by the end of yeshiva ketanah/high school, it dominates the curriculum.

In the more isolationist groups, elementary age children attend a heder or talmud Torah type of school, dedicated almost exclusively to sacred studies, sometimes teaching only the most basic arithmetic and vernacular literacy. Among the less isolationist groups, elementary schools are modeled after a conventional elementary school, only with a dual curriculum. More often than not, a separate teacher, often a male rebbe, teaches sacred studies, usually in the morning, on the theory that students will concentrate better on the more important religious studies early in the day. In the afternoon, students will learn general studies, perhaps with a female or even non-observant teacher (Krakowski, 2008b). The curriculum downplays general education, often including only what is absolutely necessary to meet government requirements and/or provide students with enough background to function in the workaday world (Shaffir, 2004). The general education “is conceptually isolated and restricted in content, [and its] purpose is limited to the acquisition of basic skills necessary to function in daily life,” rather than being seen as inherently valuable (Krakowski, 2008a, p. 18, though in some cases, general education can also be drafted into support of the group’s religious worldview, Schweber, 2008).

For communities with less focus on general education, students advance from elementary heder to a yeshiva ketanah. This institution, often including a dormitory, introduces pre-teens and teens into the learning environment of a beit midrash, with less focus on formal classes, grades, and homework, and more focus on the study of Talmud in a hevruta format during seder in the beit midrash. In schools with more focus on general education, Haredi junior-high and high schools look much like a regular school in terms of structure and framework, with students attending departmentalized classes in various topics, again with sacred studies often in the morning and general education in the afternoon. Even here, however, as students advance they are likely to spend more time studying Talmud, and more of their time preparing for their Talmud lectures in a beit midrash. Whether they attend yeshiva ketanah or Haredi high schools, by the time young Haredi men reach their late teens, they enter the most highly valued educational institution, the yeshiva.

Female Education

One opinion in the Talmud (BT, Sotah, 21b) prohibits the teaching of Torah to females, which is part of the reason that, over the centuries, Jewish women generally received little or no formal education (Zolty, 1993). Today, however, the Haredi community most certainly does provide formal Torah education to its female members. However, if Haredi male education focuses on achieving intellectual independence in Talmud, and if the boy’s educational path is designed to lead him to the yeshiva and its beit midrash, such is decidedly not the case for the education of Haredi females.

Formal religious education for Haredi women traces its roots to the growth of the Beth Jacob school system, originally founded by an anonymous young Cracow seamstress, Sara Schneirer, shortly after World War I. As East European Jewish society became less observant, and as the community could be less counted on to acculturate girls and women into observance, formal schooling became necessary for Orthodox females, despite the breach with tradition. While not all of East European Haredi Judaism backed Beth Jacob, and not all Haredi schools for girls associate with the movement (Granot, 2007, 2008), Beth Jacob was the institution which popularized formal schooling for Orthodox girls, spreading from Schneirer’s own one-woman school to a movement of some 35,000 European students at the outbreak of World War II (Weissman, 1995; Zolty, 1993). Gradually, the movement spread to Israel and the United States (Bechhofer, 2004; Weissman, 1993). While there is no official Beth Jacob organization with any kind of office or membership, a great many of today’s schools associate themselves with the informal movement, and are associated with that movement by constituents and outsiders.

Beth Jacob and other Haredi girls’ schools do not educate students to become talmidot hakhamim, female parallels of the male pious scholar. Instead, these schools are designed to provide girls and women with the basic religious literacy necessary to function and thrive in Haredi society, inculcate in them an attachment to certain kinds of spiritual experiences, and acculturate young women into the roles that they are assigned in the Haredi hierarchy. In a paradox that Tamar El-Or refers to as “educated and ignorant,” Haredi women learn about the religious practices they are expected to do and about their roles in the family and community, but remain ignorant about the theory and larger textual tradition that construct their roles. Haredi women should take interest in formal study primarily to the extent that it enables them to fulfill their domestic tasks and earn a living to support their families and their husbands’ Torah study (El-Or, 1994). From the youngest ages, Haredi girls are trained in domesticity and in Haredi notions of modesty (Yafeh, 2007; Yafeh, 2009; Zalcberg, 2009), and are prevented from achieving expertise in the fields of traditional Torah scholarship that would inevitably cast them into public roles that are deemed inappropriate (but, see El-Or, 2009, on female Haredi leadership).

In the absence of an image of female scholarship, and with Talmud study entirely unacceptable, Haredi female educational institutions, from kindergarten and onward, are structured much more like conventional schools than like the yeshivas and batei midrash. In this “school-like model,” students attend compartmentalized classes on particular topics, do homework, take tests, receive formal report cards, and graduate on to higher classes. This pattern continues from elementary school, through high school, and on to post-high school seminaries. These school-like institutions are less likely than a beit midrash to encourage intellectual independence and expertise in primary sources, since the learning is mediated more thoroughly by the teacher. Furthermore, the curriculum focuses more on Bible, practical law, religious ideology, and the development of a pious personality, rather than the Talmud that dominates the boys’ and men’s curricula (though there remains significant variation and dispute among Haredi schools from different subgroups regarding how much Torah women should study and why, Granot, 2007, 2008).

Upon completion of high school, many young Haredi women attend seminary, a post-high school program, sometimes with a full-time program of Torah study and character building, and sometimes with a teacher-training or vocational element as well. In any case, Haredi young women are expected, whether during or after seminary, to learn a trade or vocation so that they can provide financial support for their eventual husbands and families, ideally without undue exposure to the dangers of the outside culture (El-Or, 1994; Friedman, 1995; Shaffir, 2004). Indeed, according to official Haredi doctrine, particularly in Israel, the woman earns an equal share of her husband’s credit for his Torah study if she provides for him and the family on a material and emotional level (Caplan, 2003).

Hence, teaching in religious schools, whether in the Haredi or the non-Haredi sector, is often considered an ideal job for a young Haredi woman, especially in Israel, and much Haredi vocational training for women focuses on preparing them to be teachers. Not only does this leave the young woman within a religious context during work hours, but the academic schedule allows a mother to be home with her (ideally large) family during mother and children’s shared school vacations. In Israel and the more isolationist communities in North America, where college education is prohibited or frowned upon even for women, alternatives might include secretarial work, web design, bookkeeping, a small business run out of the home (cosmeticians, wig sales), or other jobs that do not require higher education (though degree-granting programs have recently opened for Haredi women in Israel in fields such as social work and other helping professions). In America, where college and even graduate school is acceptable or even desirable for some Haredi women, other options such as accounting or helping professions like speech pathology or occupational therapy are viewed by some as good educational options, particularly if workplaces allow for the flexible hours that are helpful for mothers.

Current Challenges

In the aftermath of World War II, few could have imagined the dramatic growth of the Haredi sector that took place over the second half of the twentieth century. At the time, Haredi Jewry (like much of Orthodoxy) was weak and defensive, perceived by many to be grasping at its last breaths before an inevitable demise in the face of the forces of modernization and history. Today, few would speak in such terms, with Orthodoxy in general and Haredi Jewry in particular, thriving in the context of an outside culture perceived to be threatening (Caplan, 2008; Friedman, 2006). But challenges in general, and educational challenges in particular, remain.

Every educational system struggles to transmit information, knowledge, literacy, mastery of subject matter, and values, as well as those character traits that are part of the overt and hidden curriculum of a school. In this sense, Haredi education is no exception. Furthermore, these pedagogic matters are tied up with the perennial educational problems of discipline and classroom order. However, while the particular texts and values differ between Haredi and non-Haredi contexts, Haredi and non-Haredi schools share these classroom-centered pedagogic and disciplinary problems. Two other challenges to Haredi education are currently receiving the most public attention, both in internal Haredi discourse and outside of it: finances and drop-out.

The Haredi community, particularly in Israel, suffers from crippling poverty. The “society of learners”—in which a particularly high percentage of adult males study full time and in which men are barred or discouraged from college education or vocational training—leaves Haredi families without adequate sources of income. In addition, large Haredi families add expenses. In Israel, government subsidies moderate at least some of the poverty and help pay for schooling, but the greater rejection of general education and the ways in which men are confined to yeshiva by threat of military service make financial problems more severe (Berman, 2000; Gottlieb, 2007). North American Haredim often have more general education, vocational skills, and earning power, but the high cost of unsubsidized private education takes an enormous toll on families’ budgets.

In Israel, Haredi parties have been hard at work lobbying for greater subsidies for families and educational projects. In America, the Haredi lobbyists advocate government spending for parochial schools, whether in the form of subsidizing general education or various vouchers and tax credits (to date, this lobbying has not met with much success, and it often irritates the mainstream American Jewish establishment that advocates strict church–state separation, Heilman, 2002, pp. 323–324). However, another more direct educational solution involves increasing earning power by opening Haredi-run and regulated vocational training institutions for both men and women (Heilman, 2006,  Chapter 5; Hakak, 2004; Lupo, 2003). At the margins of Israeli Haredi society, some even advocate limited military service for some Haredi men to give them greater access to the job market (Hakak, 2003). The successes of these endeavors, particularly given the economic challenges currently facing the worldwide economy, can only be measured with hindsight that is not yet available.

The second challenge that currently occupies Haredi educational discourse is the problem of defection, youth who leave a Haredi life. Inevitably, a community that places such emphasis on boundary maintenance and isolation, yet lives as a minority within the larger and attractive culture, is going to find some of its members opting to leave and join the general culture, particularly in the context of a free democracy in which religious belief and practice are essentially voluntary. Indeed, the problem of defection has been one of Orthodoxy’s central fears from its inception during the early parts of the nineteenth century. Obviously, successful educational experiences help maintain the allegiance of youth.

The problem of defection has several aspects, the first of which gets more attention from academic researchers and the second of which receives more attention in internal Haredi discourse. The first is what is referred to as hazarah bashe’elah, those who abandon their Haredi identities and lifestyles, adopting instead a secular or other non-Haredi identity (Barzilai, 2004). The second, referred to in English as Kids-at-Risk and in Hebrew slang as shabab (Arabic for “youth”), involves youth who, despite often maintaining some connection to Haredi society, leave their educational institutions and get involved in delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and petty crime. Some eventually return to the straight and narrow of Haredi culture, while others eventually leave Haredi Judaism entirely. In any case, this has led to significant calls in the Haredi community on both sides of the ocean for increased attention to each student and his or her individuality. Further, concern over these issues has led to the creation of schools and educational programs designed to prevent drop-out or to encourage those who have already dropped out (Danziger, undated; Metropolitan Coordinating Council, 2003).

Conclusion: Is Communication Possible?

Recent years have witnessed a renaissance of academic interest in the Haredi community, particularly in Israel (Caplan & Sivan, 2003; Caplan & Stadler, 2009). Yet, scholars have not focused particular attention on Haredi education (but see Krakowski, 2008a, 2008b). In part this is because much educational research stems from a desire to improve practice. However, the Haredi community is at best ambivalent, if not actively hostile, to the academy and its intellectual methods (Caplan, 2003, 253–260). Hence, the Haredi community as a whole and its educational institutions in particular are not likely to produce a body of methodologically grounded reflective educational research. Research on Haredi education comes from outsiders.

Internal Haredi reflection on religious and educational practice takes a very different form from what university-trained academics find useful, and it is more likely to be couched in the language of traditional religion, ideology, and halakhah, rather than the language of the social sciences or philosophy of education. This colors what the academic community knows and does not know about Haredi education. Scholars tend to focus on topics currently on the agenda of the academic community: the history of institutions such as yeshivas or Beth Jacob schools, construction of gender identity, Haredi relations to the Israeli army and to the workplace, and (at least in Israel) how government budgets are spent in the Haredi sector. But the academic community knows little of the kinds of things that might be most useful for Haredi educators: effective and ineffective pedagogic methods, best practices, level of Haredi schoolchildren’s knowledge of the curriculum, effective teacher training, etc.

This lack of communication stems from the vastly different worldviews and vocabularies of Haredi educators and their counterparts outside the Haredi community. By identifying Torah study as the very meaning of existence and by spending so much cultural capital on boundary maintenance and isolation, Haredi society deliberately sets itself apart from others, even from well-meaning and serious Jewish educators and scholars. Non-Haredi educators and scholars, even those most sympathetic to Haredi Judaism, often treat the Haredi community as an anthropological or historical case study. Critical distance means approaching Haredi Judaism and its education as an Other that needs to be “translated” in order to be understood. Could the Haredi community gain some self-understanding by appreciating what the scholarly community has learned? Could it gain some educational wisdom by applying social–scientific research tools to its own institutions? Could the non-Haredi Jewish world gain something by a less-distanced appreciation of Haredi dedication to Torah study and to a passionate and encompassing Jewish life? Perhaps, but at the moment I suspect that the cultural gaps between Haredi educators and the academic community are too large for widespread cooperation.


  1. 1.

    Furthermore, because Haredi society is divided into numerous groups and subgroups, each subgroup often maintains separate educational institutions for its own population (Friedman, 1991, p. 155, but see p. 159; Schiffer, 1998, pp. 12–15).

  2. 2.

    Some groups, particularly the more radically isolationist Edah Haredit, do not accept government funding for their schools, but they are a small minority even on the Israeli Haredi scene.

  3. 3.

    As of 2007, Haredi education in Israel included 27.0% of the student body in elementary schools and 20.5% of high school age students, meaning approximately 161,000 elementary school students and 57,000 high school age students. See the information from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, available at http://www.cbs.gov.il/reader/shnaton/templ_shnaton.html?num_tab=st08_12&CYear=2008 and http://www.cbs.gov.il/reader/shnaton/templ_shnaton.html?num_tab=st08_10&CYear=2008.

  4. 4.

    Marvin Schick (2005) puts the number of students in Haredi schools in the United States at just over 100,000.

  5. 5.

    Certain Canadian Provinces do provide government funding for parochial schools.

  6. 6.

    In the academic year 2006/2007 there were 44,395 young men registered in yeshivas in Israel, and 67,313 in kollels, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (see http://www.cbs.gov.il/reader/shnaton/templ_shnaton.html?num_tab=st08_10&CYear=2008). Numbers for North America are much more difficult to come by, though yeshiva students certainly number in the tens of thousands. For now out-of-date numbers, see Helmreich (1982, pp. 48–49).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bar Ilan UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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