Gender Separation in Religious Schools

mixed-gender-israeli-religious-school-partyThe Shabbat alon Matzav Haruach published an article by Neemanei Torah ve-Avoda. The liberal Orthodox group connected with the religious kibbutz movement wants to return to mixed-gender classes in religious elementary schools. Actually article is not really the correct term, as it was more of a polemic, presenting the other side of the argument in order to knock it down.

The article claimed that separating children by gender handicaps children from understanding each other, leading to problems with dating and marriage. The gender separation also contributes to the “haredization” of the religious Zionist society. The educators quoted in the article continue to favor separation in high schools, although the debate about whether high school youth groups should be mixed-gender is still raging.

A sidebar provided ready (but not convincing) answers for parents against common objections to mixed-gender classes.

What are the issues?

The main reason Israeli religious schools separate by gender is so that the school will be perceived as more religious, and can attract the right kind of parents. It’s a social cue. Locally, the public religious schools compete with the “chardal” (charedi-national-religious) system, which separates boys and girls from first grade and even gan (kindergarten). The modern, local private school also separates from first grade.

According to Neemanei Torah ve-avodah, the main reason given for separate classes is chinuch le-tzniut, or “educating for modesty. ” I gather that the idea is to discourage mixing and familiarity from a young age.  The article maintained that separation works against this “education,” by denying children the opportunity to interact in a mixed environment. Since adults in our community operate mainly in a mixed atmosphere, it’s artificial to separate children from each other. How can one learn to act with modesty around the other gender, when there is no interaction to begin with?

Social issues aside, I have two main concerns about separating children so young. Girls’ education tends to be less serious, particularly in Jewish studies. Girls are just as capable of learning Mishnah as boys, but once apart the girls almost always learn less. The only comfort is that it’s a relief for the girls to avoid the many hours of gemara that the boys learn from as early as third grade, before they have a handle on Tanach and Mishnah. Of course, some would argue that mixed classes mean that the boys won’t learn on a high enough level, since few parents are interested in their daughters learning so much gemara. Another option is to split for only some lessons.

The second concern is budgetary. Schools get a certain number of “weekly teaching hours” based on the number of students. Administrators choose how to distribute these hours.  Schools with students from weak populations, including immigrants, get extra hours so that kids who need it can get more private or small group studies. Administrators who use their hours wisely can divide classes in two for subjects like computers or science. But when the classes are single-sex, there is often at least one more class than strictly required, and those teaching hours are out of the picture.

My experience

My second-grader is in a new class this year with 22 girls. Last year she was with 35 boys and girls. Most Israeli schoolchildren stay with the same group from first grade until sixth, and sometimes beyond. But when her school opened nine years ago, half the parents wanted separate classes and half didn’t. They compromised, splitting the boys and girls starting in third grade. The previous neighborhood school was separate from first grade.

I am pretty sure my daughter will miss having boys around. But one of the first-grade teachers stopped teaching in the middle of last year when her husband was in a severe car accident. That teacher’s class was divided among the remaining four classes. To avoid the large classes of last year, and having to rearrange the classes again in third grade (that would be the third time for children from the class that was split), the school decided to split them now into a whopping six classes.

Parents have opinions about whether or not children learn better in mixed classes, but not strong ones. The only issue raised by one of the parents was that the teachers of boys would have a harder time maintaining order. Most parents were in favor—not because they care so much about separation but because they didn’t want to split classes a third time. I voted to keep them together for another year or two despite the large class.

The school is growing, though, and this arrangement will allow new students to come in without having to rearrange classes in the future.

Ironically, my gentle, introverted 4th grader breathed a sigh of relief last year when he moved into a boys-only class. He doesn’t want anything to do with girls.

So what do you think? Is it time to push for mixed-gender classes in our elementary schools? Or is there value in keeping them apart from an early age?

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  1. This is very interesting. As a teacher, I’d tend to favor mixing in elementary schools.

  2. Our school separates from 1st grade starting about 9 yrs ago, thanks to the local garin torani that arrived in town and demanded the change. (Previously they had separated from 4th grade). Ironically those same families won’t send their kids to the school anyway since its not frum enough for them… except a few family that send their girls (but not, chas v’shalom their precious boys).

    We were not happy, in the least, about this change since we have boys and not girls. and a class of 30+ boys sounded like a disciplinary nightmare.

    In the end it has turned out ok, in general, in terms of our boys being happy. But we aren’t completely at peace with this as we see the social isolation – they really won’t play with girls, etc. And bnei akiva here is separate for the kids – maybe the madrihim have some mixed activities but all the kids groups are separate. (My older son in the end doesn’t like it anyway so i’m not complaining).

    I personally thing the separation is unnecessary. And probably yes, even unhealthy. And i agree its part of the chardal invasion – our local garin torani has separate sex hugim for the kids in gan (which even the haredim in town don’t do, i think).

    We do have our kids in hugim that are not through the dati schools, etc so they interact with girls there but not that much due to interests meaning there are not as many girls around (my son’s biking club is 90% boys, for example).

  3. I’m not in Israel, but the trend here seems to be more separation, not less. While modesty concerns mean that the vast majority of high schools are separated, I think girls would have more challenging classes in subjects like physics and calculus if mixed classes were available. But most religious people don’t seem to be thinking about academics, either for boys or girls.

  4. As one who studied in mixed schools all the way up to 12th grade (including Gemara chevrutot with boys in high school), I am all for gender separation for several reasons:

    1. Kids can focus on schoolwork and not on each other.
    2. Mixed gender classrooms complicate already difficult social interactions.
    3. Segregation prevents abuse (I’ve seen boys as young as 5-6 grade express their interest in girls in ways that are not particularly wholesome).
    4. Scientifically-proven differences in male/female thinking patterns require different types of instruction.

    As is clear from the group’s name, Neemanei Tora VeAvoda have a very focused agenda of preserving the historical religious standards of Bnei Akiva, while the rest of the DL community has taken a sharp turn to the right. What they fail to realize is that the leadership of BA (namely Rav Neriya) went along with these standards as a bediavad, while Neemanei see it as a lechatchila.

    I don’t remember the exact wording, but when Rav Neriya consulted Lubavitcher Rebbe about holding mixed activities, the Rebbe told him that it is shmad, but it is meant to save the youth from an even greater shmad. Unfortunately, this is completely lost on the Neemanei group.

    • Thanks, Leah, for weighing in. Responding one by one, to give the other side and I do not feel strongly either way.

      1. That is generally true, but from what age?
      2. Complicated isn’t necessarily bad. Part of school is learning how to deal with complex interactions.
      3. There is plenty of bullying and abuse among single-sex closerooms, whether male or female. Some have argued that a mixed class is a calmer and less violent environment.
      4. I used to agree with that, but what about the exceptions? A girl can get stuck learning like a girl when she learns better the way boys do. This thinking limits children. And as yet, teachers are not trained this way.

      • 1. Regarding age, I came across a case kindergarten.

        2. Painful social interactions leave long-term scars of low self-esteem and adjustment issues. I wouldn’t want to complicate this any further.

        3. Bullying yes, sexual abuse no. I am not even talking about heavy-duty abuse, just any type of inappropriate one-sided interaction.

        4. Back to square of one of majority vs. individual. No simple answers here.

    • To clarify my post as i realized i forgot to note – I’m supportive of gender separate options from 5th or 6th grade upwards. Though I think there should be mixed religious options as well even at those grades for those who might prefer it.

      What I think is unnecessary is the gender separation as early as first grade – including classroom and activities. They don’t let girls and boys attend the same afterschool hugim, for example – so girls couldn’t take karate or basketball through the school and boys couldn’t take art that was offered. To me, that is not reasonable for 6 and 7 year olds


    • Do you mean that you know of cases where kindergarteners can’t learn b/c they are distracted by the opposite gender? Those kids have bigger problems than mixed classes, in my opinion.
      When teenage boys are so isolated from girls, and warned so heavily to stay away from them, they start to think of them as objects. When they have been with them in the younger years, they are more aware of them as individuals. I do think this is a serious issue.

  5. Very timely topic as we just moved and the local school is Torani and separates by gender from Grade 4.

    Interestingly, my dd in Grade 1 is in a girls only class. Turns out that the male enrollment was so low that dividing the boys among three classes would result in only a few boys in each class, so they concentrated the boys in two classes and made one girls class only. I actually don’t care either way as the gender separation only becomes more important to me later on.

    My girls prefer separate classes and youth groups. They find the boys distruptive and immature.

  6. Mrs Belogski says

    I was educated in a (non-Jewish) girls only school from the age of 7. We were very much encouraged into maths and science, although i did an arts degree and was quite intimidated when i had to interact academically with boys. In the UK the perceived secular wisdom is that it is better for girls to be educated separately because they don’t feel intimidated and for boys to be in mixed classes because it calms everything down. My girls have mostly been in all girls schools, boys and 1 girl in mixed nursery and then parallel but separate classes through primary school. They all seem to interact fine with opposite sex – we’re not up to shidduchim yet, b”H!!

  7. Nurse Yachne says

    My kids went to gender-separate schools from first grade on. My husband and I both thought that separate classes were a good idea from 5th-6th grade on, but we decided to go with the flow and keep an open mind about separation in the younger grades.

    The strongest impression I got was a few years later, when I was a school nurse at a school with mixed classes and schools wth separate ones. The boys are much more moderate and less wild in mixed classes, much less screaming and jumping and “Lord of the Flies”. The girls seem to benefit from the more civilized atmosphere in the separate classrooms.

    We had instances of bullying and ostracization with both our boys and our girls, though they were never the targets.

    The girls at my daughters’ ulpanot were far more gutsy, assertive, and uninhibited than I remember being in public high school.

  8. Leah – I’ve heard of cases of sexual abuse in same-sex situations – both among boys-only and among girls-only groups. Don’t delude yourself that segregation prevents it.

    I went to a mixed high school and while I might have wasted more time and effort on dating and mixing than I should have, I am also really glad that I made friends with some of the boys I was friends with.

    Our ‘chevra’ was a mixed group, several boys and several girls, and they were an incredible group. The dynamic never would have worked without the boys, and it was a great dynamic that led to incredible learning way beyond the classroom. (Among other things, we learned mishnayot on our own)…

  9. I’m a big believer in “everything in moderation” and I think the orthodox world just keeps moving further and further to “everything to the extreme”. I find it interesting that the ulpanas want their girls married at 18 or 19, but don’t want them being anywhere near the other gender until then.

  10. Whoa! As with anything else in education, the quality is really the most important. Really good education is not about gender separating or not. Separating by gender will not guarantee tzniut, midot or prevent improper thoughts or behavior any more than mixed classes guarantees equality in any other measurable or immeasurable way. In fact studies have shown that separate schools for girls (in high school) allow girls to excel in subjects like math and science because they don’t have the same pressure not to excel in an ‘unfeminine’ way.
    What irks me is that separate is not equal. It’s not even close. In the chardal world the girls get a message which to my sensitivities is negative. I am not happy with a school that makes a beautiful siyyum for all the boys (who have learned either mishnayot or gemarot – or in first grade parashot) with a whole ceremony on stage in the auditorium but makes nothing for the girls. Not even a party just with the mothers. Nothing. Not necessary and besides we don’t want to encourage them to show off. Great? But this is what the parents want. I think they could be doing a lot better for the girls. Too bad they didn’t ask me. (end of savta’s rant)

  11. Our five kids, between them all, have had almost every variation of mixed, quasi and separate. Luckily they were spare the latest super separate with different “recess” breaks to make sure they don’t “mix.”
    You can get good or bad education in all cases. We’ve had more dating/marriage between local kids since separation became stricter…

  12. When our oldest hit the first grade on our “urban” yishuv she entered the local national religious elementary school and went into a mixed class of 14 kids. When #2, only one year after her started the first grade she would have started in a class of 38, a major issue with all the parents in the class. The school then decided that in order to get a teken for smaller classes (where the maximum was 42), they would separate the sexes, thereby ensuring that each class would have a smaller number of children. The parents of the girls were thrilled, the parents of the boys less so.

    My girls (I only have girls) have benefited from being separated from the boys. This, by no means, meant that their education suffered. My girls went on to learn in an all-girls high school in Jerusalem where they completed a full bagrut, including gemara and high level math. They also don’t have any issues interacting with the opposite sex, and find that boys are nice to hang out with, as long as you don’t have to get stuck with them in the same class. 😉

  13. Matzav Haruach is such a lame alon. They have an agenda against anyone who is more religious than them, and they are fanatic about that agenda. Too bad they don’t have the same tolerance to those more machmir than them as to those who are less so.

  14. Besides the reasons mentioned by Leah, for separating by gender, there is another one which applies from the first day of school – almost all teachers treat the boys and girls differently. In most cases, the benefit goes to the boys, but often enough it’s the other way. It’s a huge problem.

    In some cases the differences remain, but they are less hurtful because the children aren’t having this shoved in their faces on a daily basis (eg teachers who assume that boys are better at math than girls are probably going to think that way no matter what, but they aren’t going to seeing the boys preferred in math class and assignments because they are only going to be comparing their treatment with other girls.)

  15. my son is in a boys-only school for various reasons, but i hope we’ll be able to put my daughter in co-ed. i’m bothered greatly by educational disparity.(although the truth is that here many would say that in many schools, especially the RW schools, girls get the better secular education and a more well-rounded limude kodesh education). i also don’t like the hashkafic educational baggage (implicit and explicit) that girls in most of the girls-only schools come away with.

    the claim that girls learn differently may be true, but i don’t see what this has to do separate gender schools since (at least as far as i know) jewish girls schools don’t teach the material in a more “female friendly” manner. they may dumb down the curriculum in general because girls are mentally challenged, but there is no attempt actually to address any gender differences with progressive pedagogy.

    my wife wishes that there were girls in my son’s class if for no other reason than because she thinks they are calming influence in the classroom (the boys are animals). although i was always in a co-ed school, gemara was always separate and some limude kodesh were also separate for 9th-10th grades. looking back we were more wild in those boys-only classes and the teachers we tore to shreds were always in the boys-only classes.

  16. Aviva-Hadas says

    I don’t have a strong opinion either way, I only wish that the boys were expected to have the same respect for secular studies as religious & to have the same respect for the teachers of the secular studies.

  17. sure mixed schools are more healthy for kids, i studied in single-sex religious school and i remember lots of lesbian love stories among girls in age 13-14. it is not normal.


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