While multiple alternative programs exist for Orthodox boys, girls in the Orthodox world are expected to “make do and manage in the mainstream systems.”
by Frayda Leibtag
On the surface, Rebecca Aminoff had a stable and untroubled adolescence. But despite the great parents, good schools and academic success that she was blessed with, Rebecca was inwardly miserable. “If I had everything going for me but found it hard to navigate the teenage years, how hard must it be for girls grappling with real issues?” wondered Aminoff. This question led her to establish Kol Hadassa, a space for adolescent girls to rebuild their self-esteem, achieve academic success and reestablish relationships with their families and wider communities. The school is geared towards English-speaking girls from a range of backgrounds who are struggling in mainstream high schools due to academic difficulties associated with aliyah to Israel, minor learning disabilities, religious tensions at home and a variety of other issues.
Aminoff came on aliyah to Israel in 2006 with a Bachelor’s degree in Jewish Education and a desire to do something bigger for the Jewish people. With the idea of Kol Hadassa percolating in her mind, Aminoff completed a Master’s degree in Jewish Education and Leadership at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During her two years of study, she focused on the school’s vision and research related to at-risk youth and programs that are most beneficial for them.
Kol Hadassa was launched in 2012 with six students; within the first few months the student body grew to ten. This year, the school is home to 16 students. The program integrates academic and Jewish studies with life skills workshops and also offers electives such as drama, yoga, kickboxing, art and health. Students at Kol Hadassa work with staff members to create an individualized learning plan for the year that will enable them to graduate with a high-school diploma. “Allowing the girls to be in control of their own pace of learning is incredibly empowering for the girls because before they came to Kol Hadassa, they felt very out of control with everyone telling them what to do in every area of their lives,” said Aminoff. “The program breathes,” explained Kol Hadassa teacher Shana Wasosky, “providing for the girls’ academic, social and emotional needs.” For Wasosky, who holds a Masters in Jewish education and has been teaching for 15 years, being on the staff of Kol Hadassa “is a dream job where the goal is meeting the needs of each and every student.”
While the Judaic studies component of the program was designed to be very “back to basics,” the life skills workshops meet in small groups on a weekly basis to work on specific topics such as stress, anger, peer pressure and other challenges that adolescents struggle with. The workshops are led by school social worker Ilana Hiller, who also meets with all of the students on an individual basis.
“In the Orthodox world, anything alternative has a stigma attached to it,” lamented Hiller. “This is unfortunate because many of these girls experienced years of struggling before they came to us and they have achieved many successes in an environment that is right for them,” she said. Wasosky echoed this sentiment, noting that according to Jewish tradition “we must teach each child according to their own way and mainstream systems do not provide for that. People want to put Kol Hadassa into a box and we just don’t fit in a box in any way.”
The stigma associated with alternative programs for Orthodox girls and the lack of options for girls who do not fit into mainstream systems motivated Aminoff to open Kol Hadassa. She noticed that while multiple alternative programs exist for Orthodox boys, girls in the Orthodox world are expected to “make do and manage in the mainstream systems.” Aminoff met with several foundations and funders who told her that they exclusively fund boys programs.
“In the Orthodox world in Israel and abroad, there is a lot more forgiveness for boys who are allowed to experience their ‘wild years’ and then return to a religious life where everything is forgiven. For girls, there is no absolution,” said Aminoff. She noted that these observations are personal and not research-based. Before Kol Hadassa opened, one parent told Aminoff, “Your school would have been perfect for my daughter, but I would never send her there.”
In spite of the stigma and significant financial challenges that face most new educational institutions, the response to Kol Hadassa has been overwhelmingly positive with strong recognition of the need for such a school. Aminoff has succeeded in creating a unique program and says that “the girls feel like the school sets them apart in a positive way.” Hyla Olesky of Denver, Colorado began her second year as a student at Kol Hadassa this fall. “When my mom started telling me about the school program, I was really excited. It was perfect for my learning style. My favorite thing about Kol Hadassa is how the teachers interact with the students – as if they themselves were students. You just trust the teachers in Kol Hadassa so much,” said Olesky.
A Kol Hadassa parent who preferred to speak anonymously shared that she could not find a single school in Israel that was appropriate for and willing to help her daughter, until she heard about Kol Hadassa from a friend. “Due to the lack of options, my daughter spent a very difficult year out of school. Since starting at Kol Hadassa, we have been extremely impressed with how well-run the school is. They know exactly where each girl is holding and where they need to be going, and there is always someone accessible who we can speak to,” she said. “Aside from the work we do with the girls in school, we are also helping families experience less turmoil at home. Parents are happy to see that their daughters’ are happy,” said Hiller.
Kol Hadassa, which literally means “the voice of Hadassa,” was named for Aminoff’s mother who has been a big influence in her life, as well as for Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, whose secret name was Hadassa. The school is helping girls listen to their inner voices and find a home for themselves in their communities and in Israel. “We are not just trying to give these girls an academic education. We’re trying to help them be happier, healthier human beings,” concluded Aminoff.
[Rebecca Aminoff was a participant in the innaugural PresenTense Threshold Fellowship and this summer's Global Laboratory.]