Background and Purpose
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is characterized by strict religious observance and is a relatively self-isolating group. In the last few decades, a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews have begun to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One of these degrees is social work.
Social work is a profession that shares many of the community’s values such as helping those who are in need and offering charity and support. However, social work education is based on liberal humanistic approaches which may conflict with the community’s strict adherence to the Torah/Jewish law (i.e., ‘halacha’). To overcome this obstacle, there are a few social work programs that are designed to teach social work to ultra-Orthodox Jews while serving their unique needs. For example, seminaries collaborate with universities to provide social work education that cater to the need for separate classes for male and female students and for field placements within their community.
Some researchers have explored the experiences of integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews into higher education (Band-Winterstein & Freund, 2013; Baum et al., 2014), but little research has been done on their experiences of studying social work specifically and their reasons for choosing the social work profession (Dehan & Aviram, 2010). This study seeks to bridge this gap.
Twenty-two single-gender master of social work graduates who identified as ultra-Orthodox Jews participated in an online survey about their religiosity based on Friedlander et al.’s (2010) brief measure of cultural and religious identification in American Jewish identity, followed by a 45-minute semi-structured phone interview. A thematic analysis was used to analyze the data.
The majority of the participants were women in their twenties, all of whom self-identified as ultra-Orthodox Jews (for example, they all observed Shabbat, dressed according to the Jewish modesty laws, and attended Jewish religious services at a temple/synagogue).
The participants reported feeling safer studying in a separate-gender classroom as opposed to study in a mixed class using a ‘mechitza’ (a partition used to separate men and women). The women reported feeling safe to discuss their own personal experiences when only women were in the classroom. The participants reported that instructors often held back materials related to diversity, sexuality, and gender identity which made them feel ill-equipped to handle uncomfortable situations during their field work. A few of the participants reported experiencing some conflicts between social work values and the principles of Jewish law, which resulted in them consulting with their rabbi (a spiritual leader). In terms of their field work, the participants were satisfied that their field placements occurred within their community.
The current study invites educators to learn about the experiences of ultra-Orthodox Jews who pursue master of social work degrees in religious, single-gender programs. It is our goal to make the necessary accommodations for this special population; however, this study’s findings raise the question of whether these programs provide students with training all the necessary skills to shape their social work professional identity (e.g., diversity of opinions).