Bramson ORT College this week marks the second anniversary of a collaboration with B’derech, an organisation run by Hasidic lawyer Rachel (Ruchie) Freier through which Haredi men can acquire the skills and knowledge they need to kick start a career.
“The overriding message of [ORT Operations USA Director Dr] Ephraim Buhks has been, ‘how can we help your community?’,” said Mrs Freier, who promptly found Dr Buhks a group of seven youths for the new program.
“We met on Taanis Esther [the fast day preceding Purim]. Two weeks later we had a recruitment evening and more than 50 men showed up. It was then that we realised that there’s a real demand for this,” she said. “Now, baruch Hashem, we are about to have our first graduates and they are very grateful for this chance they’ve been given. ORT makes them feel very wanted unlike some other organisations where they were made to feel they were being given a favour. Our needs are being catered for.”
“The response to this program has been huge,” says Yair Rosenrauch, who coordinates the B’derech program at Bramson ORT. “We get a lot of calls; wives, mothers-in-law often make the initial contact. These men feel an obligation to make a better life for themselves and their families. The women are pushing for them to get a better education. The issue is not that they don’t want to work it is that many of the jobs which members of this community traditionally went for – in electronics or the diamond trade – don’t exist anymore and they don’t have the education needed to adapt to the new reality.”
A demographic study recently published by UJA-Federation of New York showed that the city’s Orthodox Jewish population has grown by 30 per cent since 2002 with the fastest growth in the Hasidic neighbourhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park. However, 59 per cent of Haredim live at or near the poverty line compared with about 25 per cent in other Jewish sectors.
Normally, further education is closed off to these Haredi men because they do not have a high school diploma. So the Bramson ORT students, who range in age between 18 and mid-50s – acquire a General Equivalency Diploma by completing coursework for their degree. Most of the students choose computer programming while others opt for business and accounting or courses to become medical assistants, graphic designers and even computer game designers. Bramson ORT provides male teachers and single-sex classes for those who require it but some of the students are happy to integrate into the general life of the college.
“It’s a massive commitment on their part,” Mr Rosenrauch said. “They aren’t eligible for federal grants until they earn their GED. Until then they only receive state aid and college scholarships which cover less than half the $11,000 annual tuition. Some drop out because they can’t carry that balance.”
This is not the first program Bramson ORT has provided for Haredi students: five years ago it launched a trailblazing collaboration with Chabad which opened up the college to a steady stream of students from the Lubavitch neighbourhood of Crown Heights.
More than half the graduates of that initial program have gone on to pursue further degrees but Mr Rosenrauch thinks that is unlikely to be repeated with participants in the new program – at least to begin with.
“Unlike the Lubavitch, these members of other Haredi communities do not have the advantage of English as their first language. We provide preparatory courses for free to enable them to do the GED and degree courses. In addition, going to college is rare in their communities; their goal is to get a degree and find a job. But some of them are changing their attitudes to secular education so some of them may surprise me. They are not coming to us as a group; they’re all individuals with their own stories.”
Scores of Haredi men are benefiting from the B’derech program but it is clear from the latest statistics that this is a drop in the ocean.
“We could do a lot more: we have the space, we have the facilities, all we need are funds,” said Mr Rosenrauch.
For Mrs Freier, who qualified as a lawyer while raising six young children, collaborating with ORT is an extension of her work with children at risk: she realised that some kids were ending up on the street because the communities’ yeshiva schools were not enabling them to support themselves.
But the very act of working together provides profound spin-offs.
“This is a lesson that we can help each other and work side by side – religious, secular, it’s just irrelevant,” she said. “The way I serve God is my way; the way you serve God is your way. God doesn’t want us to put each other down. This is the beauty of Judaism: it’s bringing us all together and doing good for all of us.”