Fall 2011

Academic Studies for Ultra-Orthodox Students: Three-Fold Increase at Open University

One quiet phenomenon taking place at the Open University is the dramatic growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox students in academic tracks. Side by side with their Talmudic texts are their business, economics and psychology textbooks.

Since 2006 thanks to "Yedidut Toronto" and the Friedberg Foundation, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox students have been able to take advantage of the Open University's academic studies programs. According to Prof. Judith Gal-Ezer, Vice President for Academic Affairs of the Open University, "what has made the Open University so attractive to ultra-Orthodox students are three unique qualities."

One: the University has no pre-requisites. "Anyone can begin academic studies here," Prof. Gal-Ezer explains, "but, this is no guarantee of success." Most of the ultra-Orthodox first undergo a special preparatory program in English and mathematics, because these subjects are generally not taught in the yeshivas, but fully 78% of these students earn average marks better than 80 throughout their undergraduate studies.

Two: distance learning means that students don't necessarily attend classes on campus. Most, if not all, of the learning can be done in the privacy of one's home.

Three: the Open University provides local learning centers "In addition to our Jerusalem campus, we recently opened one in Elad," a religious city in the center of the country "and also have one in Bnei Brak" Prof. Gal-Ezer reports.

Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, President of the Open University, believes the University offers another unique advantage making it an ideal environment for the ultra-Orthodox. "The very flexible nature of the Open University enables us to provide for a diverse population group, even within the ultra-Orthodox community. Some ultra-Orthodox students are interested in learning for learning's sake and will study mathematics or other subjects that may not necessarily guarantee them income. Others view academic studies as a source of knowledge that will provide them with income."

Safed's Honors Student

Benyahu Tabila Benyahu Tabila is one of many ultra-Orthodox students studying at the Open University. Many of these studies have been made possible by a generous grant from the Friedberg Foundation. Mr. Friedberg was recognized for his invaluable service and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Open University.
One ultra-Orthodox student who recently completed his undergraduate program with honors is Benyahu Tabila from Safed.

Benyahu did not learn English, mathematics, general history or Jewish history before enrolling at the University. Nor did he learn Hebrew language or literature. What he did have, however, was an intensive background in Talmud, which he says "develops a high capability of thinking." Benyahu was already married with children when he began his studies at the Open University.

"For me, academic studies at the Open University, were like the fulfillment of a dream, " he recalls. "The University opened its academic gates to me. I came from a closed world, yet the University focused on helping me deepen and enrich my knowledge." He is now studying for his master's degree at Hebrew University, serves as educational director of Safed's At Risk Program for Children and Youth and is interested in continuing onto a doctorate program.

Preferences Run Towards The Practical

"Interesting to note,"remarks Prof. Judith Gal-Ezer, "is the distribution of subjects that ultra-Orthodox students major in." Benyahu was an exception to the general rule -- he majored in the humanities. According to Prof. Gal-Ezer, statistics indicate that students prefer degrees in management and economics, psychology and computer science.

Benyahu's 'experiment' in Israel's academic world was so successful, that he proudly claims "a number of family members followed in my footsteps. One is studying humanities, another economics and a third began studying mathematics and has already found employment in a leading high-tech company."

As Benyahu's success has encouraged family and friends to follow in his footsteps, the University's hundreds of other ultra-Orthodox students are serving as a source of inspiration for their friends and family alike.