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The Human Spirit: Kosher limhadrin graduation

July 3, 2008. Jerusalem Post: Barbara Sofer

On the very week that Jerusalemites were seething over teenagers being coerced to dance in cloaks at the opening of the city's new decorative bridge, a small but significant graduation ceremony gave me hope that with goodwill and creativity we might yet bridge religious sensibilities and address some of the serious challenges of our city.

Picture the graduates: 28 young, very religious women with mortar boards fitted snugly over head scarves and wigs, marching to the stage of the Hadassah College Jerusalem auditorium on Rehov Hanevi'im to receive their bachelor of science degrees. A stunning delegation of government representatives - the National Infrastructures minister who is also Deputy Prime Minister, the Religious Affairs minister, the chairman of the Knesset Education Committee - as well as prominent rabbis - sat in the front row to applaud the graduates. Supportive families filled the back rows, sitting in separate men's and women's sections. Baby carriages lined the aisles. Delicious refreshments - one of the trademarks of a college that has also trained most of the city's top chefs - were kosher limhadrin.

The young women were actually graduating simultaneously from two schools, the Haredi College and Hadassah College Jerusalem, and their B.S. was awarded in laboratory science - approved of course by the stringent Council for Higher Education that monitors the awarding of academic degrees in Israel. This rigorous three-year course provides both theoretical background and high-level professional skills in lab work, particularly where biological and medical research is taking place. The faculty members are academics from the fields of natural sciences and scientists from Hadassah-University Medical Center with considerable teaching experience.

Medical laboratory graduates used to work mainly in medical labs and hospitals, but today they are quickly recruited for the country's burgeoning basic and applied research programs. The curriculum includes molecular genetics, microbiology, bioinformation, medical fields like pathology, hematology and pharmacology - in short, not a course load you should elect if you don't have a natural scientific bent. But the women are all whizzes in science. A third of them came from abroad with matriculation certificates; the others filled in what was missing in a one-year preparatory program. More good news: Job offers are aplenty for these breadwinners of growing families. Pharmaceutical companies, academic research departments and biotech startups are waiting for savvy new lab workers who can play a part in developing new medicines and treatment modalities.

FOR VERY religious young women, an exciting career in research and technology was unthinkable just a short time ago. Graduates of strictly religious, gender-segregated elementary schools and high schools rejected regular university and college campuses as far too secular. The women could opt to attend religious seminaries and become teachers - a worthy if underpaid profession - but there were already so many teachers and not everyone wants to become a classroom teacher.

Then in 2001, educator Adina Bar-Shalom established the Haredi College in Jerusalem. The oldest child of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Bar-Shalom grew up within a very religious world. She was determined to preserve the sheltered environment that was prized in the haredi world while providing higher education that wasn't watered down in any way. She came up with the idea of partnering with existing accredited schools of higher education, cobbling together relationships that would somehow benefit both sides. She believes that no relationship works unless both sides benefit.

By networking, she met Hadassah College president Nava Ben-Zvi . Ben-Zvi, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and is an international expert on science education, has a well-known passion for encouraging other women to enter the sciences. The women's organization Hadassah, the college's sponsor, was also eager to encourage female scholars. The very building her college occupies was the site, in 1918, of the first higher education for women in pre-state Israel, Hadassah's nursing school.

But although Bar-Shalom's proposed class full of bright women science students was nearly irresistible to Ben-Zvi, the downtown Jerusalem college prided itself on the amiable mix of students, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, men and women who were comfortable in non-segregated classes. How would segregated classes fit in?

Looking backward, the technical solution to the conundrum looks simple: Professors would lecture to segregated classes at the Haredi College and lab work would be concentrated in the summers when the college's usual mix of men and women students would be absent. But it also required abundant goodwill - lecturers to dress and speak modestly (no cloaks necessary, but no mini-skirts either) and diligence on the part of the students who had to study through hot summers when schools are closed.

Department head Dr. Oded Khaner said he had to adjust for the first time in his career to the sound of babies cooing or crying in class. Until the child-care center was organized, mothers routinely brought newborns to class with them. The students consulted their rabbi when evolution, a previously avoided subject, appeared on the curriculum. The class material wasn't altered, but he filled in the religious approach to the origins of species.

Four hundred and fifty women and 150 men are now studying in Haredi College academic programs. Another group of women has graduated with degrees in social work together with Bar-Ilan University.

According to Bar-Shalom, the hardest part of making the programs work was convincing the pragmatic potential students that the degree program wouldn't fizzle when some new hurdle arose, and they would have invested time and energy for nothing. But with the graduation of the first class, there's no more doubt that the program can work. Other students are studying communication disorders, while Bar-Shalom is moving ahead with psychology and possibly pharmacy collaborations.

The valedictorian spoke for the class: "We have all the professional skills we need, but how we behave will show if we have absorbed the spiritual input of the two institutions from which we graduated."

I like to think that at least some of the engineers who contributed to Israel's successful evasion of the supposedly fool-proof Russian radar protecting the nuclear facility in Syria hailed from the former Soviet immigrants. The restrictions on practicing Judaism in the old Soviet Union propelled engineers and scientists towards Israel. The ingathering of brains and talent is essential for the face-paced development of the Jewish state.

No less brilliant are the minds of these religious women - already committed to practicing Judaism - who can now, with a little flexibility, become the next group to contribute to national economic and scientific growth.

Now that's the sort of bridge we need in this town.

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