Just before Yom Kippur, The Sisterhood linked to this article in Haaretz profiling the life and work of Adina Bar-Shalom, founder of the Haredi College of Jerusalem. She is the eldest daughter of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and her valiant work is bringing higher education to both men and women in the rapidly expanding and increasingly impoverished Haredi population in Israel, so that they can better support their families.
By chance, while collapsed in my post-break-the-fast food coma, I switched on the television and there was Bar-Shalom, the focus of a segment in a three-part documentary on Haredi life called “Haredim.”
The activities of the petite bespectacled woman were accurately described in the Haaretz piece. But the article failed to convey, as the film did, just how daunting — and exhausting — her mission is, and the courage strength of personality she must possess in order to accomplish it.
In the academic world, where, as a non-scholar she must appeal to professors and deans to accredit her college and at the same time beg them for a measure of sensitivity to the population she is working to educate. Then, to legitimize each and every decision, she must go submissively to her father, the politically powerful rabbi and get his blessing, asking for access to the powerful man from her rabbi-brothers who are his gatekeepers.
The documentary follows her into her father’s study, where his followers are lined up in the hallway for a precious few minutes of his time.
She quickly pleads her case, “Father, in order to grant a psychology degree to our women, in addition to academic studies, the university requires that they undergo psychological treatment with a therapist themselves, which you know will be difficult for them. It has been very hard for me to agree to this, but they were unyielding in this requirement. The only concession I was able to get was that the women will all be working with women therapists.”
Her father responded with a mumbled blessing that she can rely on her own wisdom and judgment in this matter. Could a Haredi woman who was not his eldest daughter win such faith from such a figure? It seems doubtful.
Running her institution, she must grapple with issues that other college administrators generally do not have to bother with — from the limited exposure most of her students had in their early education to secular studies, to their complicated family situations.
“We can’t be seen as interfering with women’s first duty as a mothers,” she explains. The college, therefore, has a day-care room next to each classroom of women, since nearly all of her female students are mothers of young children — a benefit that mothers in conventional academia can certainly eye with envy.
And to ensure the rabbinic stamp of rabbinical approval, there are unusual lessons that accompany the academic training for female Haredi students, preparing them for the workplace. The women listen carefully as they are instructed to keep their greetings and interactions polite but impersonal, not to laugh loudly or raise their voice in the office, and not to fetch coffee for their male co-workers — not for feminist reasons but “because it creates an inappropriate atmosphere of closeness.” Compliments to the opposite sex are a no-no — not even “Good job!”
Bar Shalom herself seemed much more friendly and accessible than her students are instructed to be. In the film, she is extremely open about her life and its frustrations that led her to found her college.
At age 14, her mother literally locked her in a room to prevent her from taking a test that would allow her to continue her studies. Her mother, later in life, apologized and said she deeply regretted her actions. Bar Shalom married at age 17 to a man who would later become a rabbinic judge. He forbade her to pursue university studies in psychology because of the problematic combination of the subject matter and the atmosphere. (Presumably, participating in a mixed-gender class discussion of Freud would be a problem.) So she learned to sew and operated a bridal shop. But then later in life, she found the strength to push against the limitations of two uncompromising worlds to create an institution that is sufficiently rigorous for academia, and sufficiently “kosher” for the strict Haredi rabbis.
It is an accomplishment that defines her as a truly unique creature: She has managed to become a cultural revolutionary while remaining an obedient rabbi’s daughter. She told Haaretz, “If my father orders me to do so, I’ll close the college immediately.”