A trailblazing Israeli institute of higher education aimed at the ultra-Orthodox community has been forced to close at the end of the academic year amid a lack of funds and student body.
The Council for Higher Education announced Wednesday its decision to shutter the Haredi College of Jerusalem which has faced financial problems and a low student intake for the past several years, the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Shabbat reported.
The college was founded in 2001 by Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of the late former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, with the support of her father.
But the institute has run into problems over the past several years, accruing massive debts. In the past year, the school was not able to award a single scholarship and student numbers have fallen drastically, Kikar Shabbat reported.
In 2014 Bar-Shalom won the Israel Prize award in the “lifetime achievement” category for setting up the groundbreaking institution of higher learning. The school is tailored for the ultra-Orthodox population, offering separate classes for men and women and a curriculum adapted to the religious beliefs of the students.
Facing strong opposition in a sector of Israeli society famously opposed to secular education, she was praised by the committee. “Through her conviction, Bar-Shalom led projects through which members of the Haredi community acquire an education alongside their religious studies as a means of social mobility and integration into the workforce,” the announcement read at the time. “She managed to navigate the choppy waters of opposing worldviews and fierce disagreements and offer a significant social contribution.”
Bar-Shalom told Channel 10 that the council’s decision to shutter the college was “a slap in the face for ultra-Orthodox society and for Israeli society. I refuse to accept this decision. To my great sorrow the council is not smart enough to understand the ultra-Orthodox community and is damaging the important process which began with the opening of the college.”
MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union) decried the closure, praising the “trailblazing Israel prize-winner Adina Bar-Shalom” for her tireless work “to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society and the workplace” and “has taken the college to very impressive achievements.”
“It is not clear what considerations led to the decision to close the college,” Yonah said, “but they contradict the logic that the ultra-Orthodox society, if given the opportunity, is able to make a contribution [to Israeli society].”
It’s also unclear what will happen to the students currently enrolled in the institution.
Experts have long warned that Israel faces long-term economic ruin if its fastest growing sector, known as the Haredim, continues to reject the mainstream education system, enjoy sweeping military draft exemptions, raise large families mainly on taxpayer-funded programs and devote themselves almost entirely to their cloistered world of scripture and study.
Many see education reform as the toughest hurdle. Because of their high birth rates, more than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox who study in independent school systems that focus primarily on religion while barely teaching math, science or English.
Graduates grow up to be ill-equipped for the workforce, often shunning it altogether while raising large families in poverty.
AP contributed to this report.