Photo Credit:
Machon Lev Vice President Stuart Hershkowitz

Israel’s “charedi problem” is well-known. Charedim by and large oppose secular education, oppose serving in the IDF, and oppose integrating into mainstream Israeli society. Combine these facts with an average of seven children per charedi family and you get a poverty rate of over 50 percent.

Are correctives necessary? Some say no. Indeed, some argue that outside attempts to “fix” charedi society are insulting, even totalitarian in nature. Others counter that as long as charedim accept government welfare, calls for reform are perfectly in order.

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In the meantime, the Jerusalem College of Technology – informally known as a Machon Lev – is quietly going about its own efforts to relieve tensions in charedi society. Founded in 1969, Machon Lev offers degrees solely in non-ideological disciplines like engineering and computers, which enable its graduates to attain well-paying jobs upon graduation. To learn more, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Stuart Hershkowitz, vice president of Machon Lev.

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Hershkowitz: I grew up in Long Island and moved to Israel in 1974. I went to Israel after high school for my gap year and stayed. I studied at Bar-Ilan Law and have been involved in banking for some 30-odd years now. I’ve also been on the board of Jerusalem College of Technology for the last 25 years and became vice president of the college six years ago.

Are all the students at Machon Lev Orthodox?

The school was started 50 years ago by Professor Ze’ev Lev who wanted to give people a place to continue learning Torah while also studying engineering. We’ve continued that model. About two-thirds of our 5,000 students are religious Zionist and about a third are charedi.

Why do so many charedi men at Machon Lev only enter the institution at age 26?

The law in Israel, if you’re a man, is that when you’re 18 years old, you either go into the army or learn in yeshiva. You can’t leave yeshiva and not be drafted until you’re about 26. So while a religious Zionist who served in the army can start at Machon Lev at 21 or 22, a charedi man can only start much later. And by that time, he’s usually married with a couple of kids, so the financial aspect is very hard – even with scholarships covering most of the tuition.

The other issue is that they’ve never learned any secular subjects whatsoever in their lives. That’s a very big problem. Coming to a top engineering program and not knowing a word of English, math, or science is very challenging. So we have a prep year in which we try to get them to college level proficiency in these disciplines – starting from zero – but it’s very intense and the dropout rate is 50 percent.

Do any charedi rabbanim support your institution?

We know for a fact that many charedi rabbanim have given their tacit or oral approval on a one-on-one basis, but publicly no charedi rabbis will support us.

In America, many yeshivish rabbanim will allow their students to take night classes at a college or study at Touro…

It’s not the same in Israel. Academia is still a real flashpoint with charedim. And particularly in regards to women. The charedi leadership is [adamant] that under no circumstance should women go to college.

Machon Lev seems ideally suited for charedim since it only teaches ideologically harmless subjects like math, engineering, and computers. Disciplines like philosophy, psychology, and literature can be hashkafically problematic, but you don’t offer them.

Correct. Professor Lev did not allow any liberal arts to be taught here. This is tachlis. If you’re studying computers, you’re studying computers, period. Machon Lev is also the only [college] campus in Israel that is gender-separate. There is a men’s campus and a women’s campus. We also have a very big beis medrash with about 600 guys, and our cafeteria is glatt, so it’s a very charedi-friendly place.

Have you ever approached any charedi rabbanim and laid out these facts?

Absolutely. I spoke recently with a charedi Knesset member – I don’t want to mention his name – and he said to me, “Look, I understand, but when I talk about academia, I can’t make exceptions.” That said, the children of several charedi Knesset members have studied here.

At Machon Lev, students obviously have access to computers and the Internet, which many charedim oppose for understandable reasons. Do Machon Lev’s computers have filters?

Yes, and that is also something that make us very different than other institutions….

I’d like to mention that one of five women studying computers in the state of Israel is studying at Machon Lev. That’s an incredible statistic. Fast forward 10 or 20 years – if this trend continues – and you’re going to have an awful large percentage of computer engineer graduates being religious women.

It’s our understanding, by the way, that our women graduates are sought after [as prospective marriage partners] because they’re able to earn a very respectable living. There’s a big difference between a woman becoming a programmer for 5,000 shekel a month or a computer engineer for 25,000 shekel a month.

Where do your graduates wind up?

We have a placement rate of over 90 percent. But there are definite cultural differences. When we get charedi graduates interviews with a top American company – Cisco or Intel, for example – there are obvious issues we have to train them for. For example, some won’t look an HR person of the opposite sex in the eye. They’re also taught humility and don’t feel comfortable explaining why they would make Intel or Cisco a much better company if they were hired.

They do have a point, though. The Torah opposes boasting. Many people say, “I’m a great worker…,” but isn’t it more appropriate to answer a question about how one could help a company by saying something like, “I have studied x, y, and z, and although I don’t know for sure, I think I might be able to be useful to your company in the following areas…”?

That’s what we teach them. Exactly that. Because we’re not going to change them; we don’t want to change them. So I agree with you completely, and I think it comes off very honest and in a very positive way.

How about looking someone of the opposite gender in the eye? If someone doesn’t wish to do that, is it practical for him or her to work anywhere other than a frum company?

We try to explain to them when they’re here what to expect when they go out into the workplace. But there is a certain percentage – not a large one – that will only work in an environment that is very frum.

 

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Elliot Resnick is chief editor of The Jewish Press and the author and editor of several books including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 2.” Follow him on Facebook.