Beliba Homa (A Wall in Its Midst) is a student-centric project launched aimed at overcoming stigmas and instead building bridges between haredi and non-haredi students through a program of academic support.
Founded in 2012, the project matches haredi students with a range of religious and secular students who meet on a weekly basis. The equal and high-quality encounter provides a symbiotic kind of program: on one hand, the non-haredi student provides academic assistance to the haredi student in various academic fields, including English, math and science. On the other hand, the haredi student give a Jewish text study session.
Shayke Shtauber, a married father of two in his 30s, spent 14 years of his adult life in two of the flagship haredi yeshivot: Mir and Ponovitch. At some point of his life, he decided to step into the academic world and went to the Hebrew University to study physics. What could be in itself a difficult task for anyone was an almost impossible mission for Shtauber, who had not only the burden of a family on his shoulders but also lacked the most basic prerequisite knowledge expected of an average student.
At the preparatory class provided by the HU, Shtauber was directed to Beliba Homa and met Yonatan Nurielyan, a 25-year-old math student at the same institution. Nurielyan, his non-haredi hevruta (study partner), was an undergrad student in mathematics when they met. It was the first time he experienced such a close encounter with a haredi.
“I wasn’t prejudiced against the haredi society, but I was totally ignorant about it. It was enlightening to get to know them through the project and the weekly meetings with Shtauber,” he recalls.
Nurielyan was surprised to discover how similar both sides are – with similar aspirations and needs – and he realized how important it was for him to learn more about Jewish history and the customs of the haredi society.
“I am totally secular, but with a strong Jewish identity. These hevruta encounters taught me so many things about his society – weddings, studying and so on. Eventually, it taught me something also about myself.”
YOSSI GELB, a 29-year-old third-year law student at the Hebrew University, experienced something approaching a revelation. After the ordinary upbringing of a haredi boy – which included the heder and 10 years in the high yeshivas (Kol Tora) Gelb decided to leave the yeshiva and join the university.
“People outside the haredi sector just don’t understand how difficult it is. We were two youths from the same background, yet I had to start learning to cope with basic addition and subtraction! And then we got to algebra, and when faced with a simple equation, I was just broken and decided to quit. But on the following morning I showed up in class, and with the help of my Beliba Homa partner, I eventually bridged this huge gap.” Geld adds that what he discovered was not only the mysteries of algebra, but also some basic facts about the Israeli society he never knew about before.
“Today, I see the person and not only the garments that define them. We were told at the yeshiva that what mattered to the seculars was only to take us out of religion. So the first time I interacted with the partner who helped me, I was sure that it was going to happen to me. Well it didn’t and today here I am – still haredi, yet I study and will soon graduate.” Beliba Homa CEO Itzhak Pashkuss, himself haredi, says that the urgency of this project is due to the fact that the drop-out rate of haredi students during the preparatory and the first academic year stands at 60%, and hence required an immediate and adequate remedy.
“We are striving to reduce that drop-out rate to 10%. That can be achieved only through such a program, which gives support to and brings together young adults, removing many prejudices and much ignorance between each other,” explains Pashkuss.
Interestingly, the non-haredi students who provide the accompaniment are happy to spend a part of their time with haredi students studying Talmudic texts together, and thus know each other better, says Pashkuss, building the basis for a future society in which such prejudices will slowly disappear.
Beliba Homa’s activity is based on and depends on private donations (a fact that makes things more difficult in these pandemic days with a significant drop in donations) but it is recognized by the academic institutions in the city, which help with establishing the contact between the two parties. Gender separation is observed, but the non-haredi side of the project includes participants from all the diverse streams and identities: secular, traditional and religious.