Women in Israel seem to be breaking barriers on nearly every front. A female head of the Supreme Court (MK Dorit Beinisch), a female head of the opposition (MK Tzippi Livni), a female Major General (Maj Gen Orna Barbivay), two female heads of major banks (Shari Arison and Galia Maor), are a few of women's striking accomplishments. Nonetheless, when it comes to education, Israeli girls still lag behind boys. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum's international gender index, Israel ranks 52nd in the world in terms of gender equity, and 68th in terms of girls' education, despite the fact that there is complete gender equality in elementary school enrolment. In other words, Israeli girls are going to school, but they are not necessarily being educated well.
Dr. Beverly Gribetz is trying to change that. Founding principal of the Tehilla Religious Girls' High School in Jerusalem, Beverly (as she is known throughout the city), sees herself as fighting for the right of every girl to gain equal access to the highest quality education available. She does this by advocating for each student with all her energy and passion.
"Everyone can succeed," she said on a recent uncharacteristically rainy afternoon in Jerusalem. "We have proven that you can have a school in which everyone is accepted – no entrance exams, no criteria for acceptance beyond being a religious girl – and still everyone can get exactly what they need and reach their potential."
The Tehilla School -- soon to be the Tehilla-Evelina school – , founded in 2006 after years of bureaucratic turbulence, has an ethnic and socio-economic mix of 165 students in grades 9-12, who represent the panoply of religious Jerusalem life. The school comprises a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi girls with seven different native languages spoken at home, 30% of the students receive significant financial aid, and 12 families are on public assistance and don't pay tuition at all. Yet, with all that diversity, 96% of the students graduate with a matriculation (bagrut) certificate – an astounding figure considering that the national average is 56%. Moreover, some 50% of the girls have elected science as their specialty, and many also choose Gemara, difficult subjects that are also often dominated by boys.
"People told us this couldn't be done", Gribetz- known city-wide simply as "Beverly" said . A native New Yorker who originally moved to Israel in the 1970s, and returned for a period of time to New York where she worked as headmistress at Ramaz, was not daunted. "I believe that this is how all schools should be. It's not heterogeneity by default; it's heterogeneity as an ideal."
In fact, when Gribetz was asked by Mayor Nir Barkat, for example, if she would be willing to take in a remedial class, she immediately said yes – and the mayor was astonished. He said that hers was the only religious school that did not resist the request. "I told him that this is what the parents want," she explained. "They seek out the diversity". The Ministry of Education was so impressed that it granted the school status as an experimental school, offering funding for the next six years in order to prove how this model works. Why did you take this line out? It's so important.
The Israeli educational system is one of the few public educational systems in the Western world that offers a state-backed religious public school system Separation of religion and state does not exist in Israel in general, and certainly not in the educational system. As such, religious families have the ability to receive a religious education at the cost of public education – with all the diversity that public education comes with. But in recent years, groups of religious parents have gotten together and opened up semi-private religious schools that are religiously and ethnically selective. This trend, known as "gray education" in that it is neither entirely public nor entirely private, has become increasingly popular in Israel, especially in the religious sector, where classic debates between educational "excellence versus equality" conflate with debates over religious excellence versus openness. Certain elite religious girls' schools like Pelech offer an outstanding, feminist religious education, and have very tight entrance policies in order to maintain standards. Such is also the case with the Midrashiya, the Hartman High School for Girls founded in 2007. All readers thought you need to add another couple of sentences on the two schools. The Pelech School, which was the first feminist religious high school established in Israel by Prof Alice Shalvi in 1975, offers what is considered a very high level education for girls – arguably the highest in the country for religious girls. At the same time, it is often criticized for being overly Ashkenazi, Anglo and exclusive. The Hartman School, which is still in its infancy but has already been through several principals, is potential competition for Pelech, though the character of the school is still being formed. The school is slated to move into its permanent home in the German Colony, and then it will likely take its place in the landscape of Jerusalem religious girls' education.
Gribetz has introduced a new paradigm into these discussions about education, arguing that a school does not need strict selection in order to have high standards – that is, it's not "either excellence or equality" but both excellence and equality simultaneously. Ironically, Tehilla is one of the most heterogeneous religious schools in the city – but is currently a completely private school. But unlike other private schools, Tehilla has neither academic nor socio-economic selection criteria. In effect, everyone who wants to register can, and everyone who is there wants to be there.
Shlomo Swirski, author of Politics and Education in Israel: Comparisons with the United States, argues that religious groups have been at the forefront of trends towards ethnic and socio-economic segregation out of a rationale of "stricter adherence". Perhaps the most well-known example of the way in which semi-private schools use the reasoning of "stricter adherence" to promote ethnic segregation is in the community of Emanuel, where a state-funded religious school refused entry to Sephardic students, even after the Supreme Court ruled on enforced integration. The Emanuel story highlights the troubling connection between academic, ethnic, and religious segregation and selectivity within the religious educational system. In the religious world, academic selectivity is increasingly conflated with religious selectivity.
For Gribetz, academic excellence amid socio-economic integration is an ideal interwoven with a vision of integration in religious identity as well. "I want the school to include the entire range of religiousness in one place, from traditional to Chabad," she said. "I don't believe in hashkafic niches. Everyone can live in the same school without one claiming to be more religious than the other." This approach flies in the face of trends in the Orthodox communities in Israel, in which there are many educational streams within the religious stream, and every group of parents that considers the local school to be less than satisfactorily 'frum' pressures the government and municipality to open a new school.
Perhaps Gribetz's greatest triumph, then, is that Tehilla was rated the number one school in the city in the parameter of "social atmosphere" in a recent parent satisfaction survey commissioned by the municipality. In fact, Tehilla was close to the top on nearly every parameter of satisfaction. "The students here are truly happy in school," she said proudly, "because we are not coercive. I do not want to be alienating. I'm less interested in whether a girl puts on lights on Shabbat and more concerned that her spiritual experience at school is a positive one. I want her to love religion." For this attitude, she takes a lot of flak from critics who see her as not religious enough. But Gribetz is nonplussed. "That's the advantage of being an independent school," she explained. "Anyone who doesn't want to be here doesn't have to be."
Gribetz paid a high price for this independence. She first became the principal of the Evelina de Rothschild girls' high school, a state religious school, in 1998, but after several years she became embroiled in a very public bureaucratic battle which left her without a school and without a job. Parents eventually came to her rescue, protesting at City Hall to bring her back as principal. Mayor Barkat, who was then opposition leader, came out to find out what the brouhaha was about, and was astounded. "He had never heard of a group of parents protesting because they love their children's principal," Gribetz said. "From his hi-tech background, he understood that the clients were expressing their satisfaction." She was not able to return to Evelina, but instead opened up Tehilla in 2006 as a private school. Today, Barkat is one of the principal's greatest allies, and is leading the process of merging Tehilla with Evelina. Gribetz feels vindicated, like she is coming full circle.
Now the school is ready to transition from private back to public, which may make Gribetz'svision easier to implement. Up to this point, the school's growth belied its private status. Indeed, the numbers of girls who chose Tehilla surprised everyone – the municipality, the Ministry of Education, and not least of all, Gribetz. They had been prepared for 30-40 girls in the first year with a slow rate of 10-20% growth each year. The first year they had 60 girls, and five years later the school has nearly tripled in size. The school currently has almost no public funding at all, one third of a the girls are on heavy scholarships, and tuition is competitive with all the semi-private schools in the city :thus the school currently relies on fundraising to supplement itsbudget. But as soon as the merge with Evelina planned for September 2012 goes into effect, the school will be able to rely more on public funds to achieve its goals.
Meanwhile, perhaps one of the greatest challenges within this approach of "empowerment of the masses" is the way it conflicts with religious feminism. Although Gribetz is in favor of women's ritual participation – and in fact when the school holds Shabbat seminars, girls are given the option for reading from the Torah in parallel services – she does not enforce that approach, and during the regular weekday school-wide prayers, there is no Torah reading for girls. "It's not about men and what I want" she explained. "The way I see it, the girls all come from different shuls, so to speak. They all have different customs. The school has to be able to bring them all together and reflect that diversity without making one particular custom its own, making it dominant. We try on different customs, from all the different 'edot', and they are all equally valid. If we make one custom our own, like women's Torah reading, we are forcing one version over the other, and that's a mistake". In other words, ethnic diversity trumps religious feminism.
In the Hartman girls' school, by contrast, which took over the Evelina campus after Beverly left (and will be moving to a new campus in the German Colony in September), girls' Torah reading is mandatory; girls who express disapproval of women's Torah reading are not accepted to the school. "This puts a lot of Sephardic girls in a very difficult position", Beverly explained, because women's Torah reading remains a predominantly Ashkenazi practice.
Beverly Gribetz who was already fighting the feminist fight in Israel in the 1970's and was the first woman to teach Gemara in a religious school in Jerusalem is thus confronting the religious world with a dilemma around diversity versus Orthodox feminism. To be accepting of all girls, she feels that she has to put aside the goal of ritualistic equality for women.
"We have a much bigger agenda here," she said. "We are changing the world."
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is a writer, researcher and consultant on Jewish education, gender issues, and Jewish organizational life. Her doctorate, from the Hebrew University, examines gender and ethnicity in the education of adolescent religious girls. She writes a regular column on gender issues at the Forward Sisterhood.