Twice a week for the last four years, 28 year old Gila Naftalin put her four children with her sisters in law, left her home in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem in order to attend law classes on the Ultra Orthodox campus of the Kiryat Ono Academic College.
Naftalin is a scion of a well-known rabbinical dynasty. Her brother Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites. She is a graduate of the Beit Yaakov seminar but instead of pursuing the traditional role of housewife or seminar teacher she decided to surprise: She is one of 30 graduates of the first college program for ultra orthodox lawyers.
Is it appropriate for an ultra orthodox woman to be a lawyer? What about modesty?
“I understand those who say that it is not appropriate for an ultra orthodox woman to become an attorney, but I don’t agree. I am not saying that tomorrow morning I intend to tell all my girlfriends to study law. I understand the opposition of the ultra orthodox public but it is my choice. There is no modesty problem. During my internship I appeared in the courts and there was no problem.”
Naftalin went to the graduation ceremony with her husband Shaul who not only shared her enthusiasm but also received his own law diploma after completing the course with her. Shaul realized there is no money in the world of Torah and he wants to be able to raise his children with honor. There is no alternative. One has to find a job.
“The reality is that, as the saying goes, without bread there is no Torah,” Gila said. “My husband has not abandoned the world of Torah study but there were few options. I admire my girlfriends who enable their husbands to study but there is a limit to how much you can do.”
These ultra orthodox lawyers represent a quiet revolution-taking place in that community in recent years. They are going out to work. Among the 40 new lawyers are the children of religious regional council officials and rabbinical scholars. 140 additional attorneys in training are currently doing their internships.
Oy Gevalt! A tank top
The campus looks like a shtetl. Standards of modesty are strictly adhered to. The men and women study on separate days. Lecturers are asked to apply self-censorship in their communications with students and to dress modestly. A lecturer who arrived in a tank top was asked by the students to wear more modest attire.
The course began in 2002 and 1,500 have already enrolled in the law faculty, business administration, computers and accounting. There is a preparatory course in which students improve their skills in math, English, Hebrew etc. The course is offered to married people only. In order to ensure the men do not abandon Torah studies, acceptance to the school requires the permission of the head of the Kollel religious seminary with which the potential student is affiliated.
38 year old Yehezkel Rosenblum, Director of an ultra orthodox community center in Jerusalem decided to study law so that he could represent members of the community. “I have finished my internship in the district court and I saw how judges make rulings based on their conscience.”
Isn’t it possible that people like you will become role models for ultra orthodox youth instead of the yeshiva rabbis and will leave the kollel to study law or business?
“There is a problem but no one enrolls without the express permission of his rabbi. The rabbi looks at his student and thinks: ‘So he’ll never be the head of a yeshiva. Let him go become an attorney.’ It’s not so bad. The number of students may reach two percent of the Torah learning public, maximum.”
We don’t have horns
Two days before graduation, the new lawyers visited the Supreme Court. They entered the various courtrooms and imagined the time when they would be litigating. The last time they visited the Supreme Court was six years ago in a demonstration of the ultra orthodox community against the court. Now there are on the other side of the barricade, but it appears that their legal studies have not changed their attitude towards the Supreme Court.
Yonni Faloch, whose mother is the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Ultra Orthodox community, said that the Supreme Court doesn’t understand the needs of his community. “Their rulings do not stem from an anti religious bias: whoever thinks so is misguided. I believe that at some point ultra orthodox judges will sit on the Supreme Court bench and that will minimize the polarization in the society. We will have a presence in courtrooms and people will get to know us. They will understand that the ultra orthodox do not have horns – just beards and moustaches.”
Meanwhile, the new lawyers are dealing with problems their secular counterparts do not have. They cannot submit a claim to court that is not based on Torah. Gila Naftalin for example will represent defendants but will not prosecute.
Another problem is potential clients who do not observe kashrut or shabbat.
Would you represent McDonalds in a case of owed city taxes?
Rosenblum: “If the fee was high enough, I’d take it on.”