School Requires Students to Pray with Ashkenazi Accent

Keep out signThe radio reported yesterday morning that a Beit Yaakov high school in Jerusalem was requiring future students to sign a form confirming that they will pray with an Ashkenazi accent. Walla has a report on the story. Here are a few of the questions and conditions listed:

  1. Preference is given to girls whose fathers are “graduates of holy yeshivas” and whose mothers are Beit Yaakov graduates.
  2. “Prayer in our school must be with an ashkenazi accent (havara). Registration to our school requires the girl to pray with an ashkenazi accent.” Walla point out that the pronunciation and accent of words is completely different for sephardi girls, and some sephardi rabbis maintain that the prayer is invalid unless it’s said in a particular manner. (MiI: Whether or not you agree with this approach, it poses a dilemma for these  young girls.)
  3. The family must have behaved and continue to behave according to the instructions of the school system’s committee, in every area.  Walla points out that the committee consists of only ashkenazic rabbis.
  4. Girls may not participate in extracurricular activities or camps that are not under the auspices of the school, unless they get permission in writing.
  5. They may not borrow books from any library outside of the school’s library.
  6. A student may not become friends with students who don’t study in the “chinuch atzmai” (haredi) school system. Walla points out that this excludes girls who attend Shas, which is a separate school system catering to sephardic girls.
  7. The form also asked parents to list the parents’ country of origin, the mother’s family name before marriage, and the father’s place of prayer. The education ministry has ruled against these kinds of questions. (There are stories of people changing their family names, so they can get accepted to better schools and yeshivot.)

When I posted about this on the Facebook page, readers were confused about the issue. So here is a short lesson in Jewish history, ethnicity and inter-ethnic tensions in Israel. Jewish law is based on the written Torah, or Pentateuch. But most of what we practice today comes from the Oral Law, a large body of commentary first written down with the codification of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in approximately 220 C.E.  He did so in order to preserve it in light of the tremendous upheaval after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. The Jewish sages, centered in Israel and Babylonia, continued to issue rulings.

Ultimately this discussion of the Mishnah formed the large body of Jewish law, the Talmud, which is studied to this day. The Babylonian Talmud was “closed” around 450 C.E. (some say as late as 700 C.E.). But the development of Jewish law didn’t stop there. As Jews spread out from the Middle East to throughout the former Roman Empire, communication became  difficult. Jewish law became less centralized as communities relied on local rabbinic leadership. The largest divide, beginning around 1000 C.E., has been between northern and eastern Europe on the one hand, and everywhere else on the other: North Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and Yemen constitute the largest groupings.  The first group are known as Ashkenazim, from “Ashkenaz”, the Hebrew term for Germany, and the second group are mostly known as Sepharadim, from “Sepharad”, Hebrew for Spain, or as “Edot ha-Mizrach”, Eastern communities.

Sepharadim generally lived in Moslem countries, and Ashkenazim in Christian ones. Cultural and economic realities greatly influenced the development of Jewish law and customs, which remain a significant part of Jewish practice. Ashkenazi Jews say the early morning selihot  (penitential) prayers for up to ten days before Rosh Hashanah, while Sepharadim begin a full month before. Sephardic Jews eat rice and legumes on Passover, Ashkenazim don’t. There are hundreds of such examples relating to Sabbath observance, wedding customs, kashrut, and virtually every area of Jewish practice. In Israel, where the Jewish population is roughly half Ashkenazi and half Sepharadi, the cultural and religious differences cause clashes. There is a natural tendency to stay with your own kind and look down on others. It works both ways, but because the State’s founding fathers were mostly Ashkenazi, and the Ashkenazim tend to be more educated and wealthier, they generally have more power in society.

This large socio-economic component is aggravated by the fact that in the 1950’s and 1960’s the largely secular Ashkenazi establishment in Israel absorbed several hundred thousand immigrants from Moslem countries into a small and undeveloped country. For the most part they did not respect their culture or religious beliefs, and in some cases entrenched them in a lower socio-economic status. The religious Zionist rabbinical establishment also tended to be dismissive of Sepharadi religious practice in the early years. In the non-Zionist haredi communities, which are predominantly Ashkenazi, this is especially pronounced.  Ashkenazi schools are seen as more desirable (but not in all cases). A Sepharadi, or “mizrahi” (easterner) as many prefer to be called, told my relative that he doesn’t send his children to a school that has more than 30% mizrahi’im among its students.

Every year, there are reports of the number of girls who have not been accepted to any Beit Yaakov seminar (high school) because they are of  Sepharadi descent. The government now intervenes to make sure these girls find places. Yoav Lalum, the attorney who helped the parents in Emanuel, sent the registration form to the education ministry. The ministry instructed the school to omit the paragraphs about the Ashkenazi accent and the questions designed to determine the ethnic background of the parents. The ministry noted that 50% of the school’s students are of Sepharadi descent. In the discussion on the Facebook page, reader Bracha explained the reasoning behind the school’s rules:

There are plenty of Sephardic girls at Beit Yaakov (BY) schools because the level of studies, the level of frumkeit (religiosity) is at a very high level. Try as they might, the sephardic community has not been able to establish a school with these levels. When Sepharadim came to Israel, the government did all it could to strip Sepharadim from their Torah and minhagim (customs). Sadly they have succeeded in many cases. The sephardic orthodox community has not yet regained all that has been taken from them by the state. They don’t have the ability to establish a school like BY for sephardim. So the Sepharadi girls who are looking for a certain standard, go to BY.

She goes on to explain that the school is trying to maintain its customs, it has the right to impose Ashkenazi standards on the Sephardi girls. Whether the school’s goal was to deter mizrahi/sepharadi girls from applying, or to assure a uniform cultural and educational atmosphere, we don’t know. The Beit Yaakov in Emanuel used a similar tactic to group ashkenazi girls in a separate class. The court ruled that it was illegal, at least in a publicly funded school. What do you think? A short glossary of some relevant concepts:

  • edah, or ethnicity. Edot hamizrach, or the Eastern communities, also known as sepharadi (lit. “Spanish”) includes Jews and their descendants from most middle eastern, North African, and southern European countries. Ashkenazi Jews are European Jews and their descendants. Jews from certain countries such as Italy, Yemen, and Ethiopia may not fit neatly into either category.
  • nusach, This refers to the wording of the various prayers. The main ones are
    • Nusach Ashkenaz, used in Germany.
    • Nusach Sepharad, used by Hasidic Jews in Europe, who took some elements from the Sepharadi tradition (hence the confusing name). Nusach HaAri is a close relative.
    • Nusach Edot Hamizrach, used by most of the  Edot hamizrach (but not Yemenites, who have their own customs).
  • havarah, accent or pronunciation. This refers to the different ways that ashkenazim and sepharadim pronounce Hebrew. Interestingly enough, modern Hebrew adopted a mostly Sepharadi pronunciation. The main elements of Ashkenazi pronunciation include:
    • the letter tav in the middle or end of a word is usually pronounced s instead of t (Nesanel vs. Netanel, Shabbos vs. Shabbat)
    • the accent is (incorrectly according to Hebrew grammar) usually on the first syllable
    • certain vowels are pronounced differently, with further differences between Ashkenazi groups. The kamatz is pronounced oh or oo in ashekanazis and ah in sepharadit. The holam is pronounced oy instead of oh. This last one makes many people cringe, but preferring one accent over another is at best cultural insensitivity, and ethnic discrimination at worst.

Thanks to Hadassah Levy of i-Point for helping me out with the post. Any inaccuracies are mine.
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image: bradleygee


  1. So I guess number six automatically includes BTs since they have actual family members who aren’t part of the CA system. It’s all revolting to the core, but unfortunately not surprising.

  2. I love Sefardim! They are (usually) so much more sincere than Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim have lots of nonsense, like seeing who is more religious and who can keep more “chumras” (a chumra is not a chumra if it leads to transgressing something else; it is prohibited) than their neighbors. Sefardim do what needs to be done, keep what needs to be kept, and forget about everything else. They daven properly, they go to mikva every morning, they are hard workers, and honest Jews.
    Ashkenazi society is so riddled with self-hatred and stupid chumrot that it is disgusting. Ashkenazim have lots of “gedolei hador” who make psaks that they are not allowed to make. Sefardim all follow the Beis Yosef, and that is that. They have normal rabbanim, not “gedolei hador”.

    It is very sad that some Sefardim feel a need to become chareidi and Ashkenazify themselves.

    (I am Ashkenazi; call me self-hating, I don’t care. My husband is Ashkenazi, too, but I didn’t choose him for that, and he also loves Sefardim. His only issue is how the Beis Yosef paskens on Even Haezer.)

  3. Maybe the Sephardic girls should just thank their lucky stars that they have been excluded and go to a normal school where they can be friends with whoever they want and go to whichever camp they like?

  4. Ms. Krieger says

    ack. It may not be bigotry, but the mindset that leads to requirements like this is a mindset that divides and weakens Israel.

    I know this is anathema to many people on this list, but requiring all publicly funded schools to have the same, nationalized curriculum and accept all students (Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Arab, Christian, Jewish secular and Muslim and Druze) would go a long way towards strengthening the country. Let people enforce religiosity and community standards in the home, with private money.

  5. Well, I agree with you on curriculum, but I would not want my children learning in the same school as Muslims, whose parents may or may not send their child to school with liquid explosives.

    Also, I think that there is a certain religious structure that parents want their children’s schools to have, and so each religion will want their own schools. There are private Catholic schools all over the world.

    In addition, think of it this way: How many days of school do you think we’ll have if each school has to take off school for holidays of four different religions?

    Regarding religious vs. secular schools, I would agree more – except that there is the issue of which teachers to hire. Teachers are role models for their students, and the parents would never come to an agreement. On the other hand, there are state religious schools, and I think these should be what the religious community, collectively, uses, instead of dividing it up into different types of state-religious or independent schools.

  6. Thanks for posting this, Hannah. I’m still disgusted by the practice. I became frum via chareidi channels and finally realized the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy after my daughter was born. Stories like this are a huge chillul Hashem and serve to further cement my conviction that chareidi Judaism is moving further and further away from authentic Judaism.

  7. To me, the most important detail is that the school is state-funded. It’s one thing to argue about preserving culture vs. ethnic discrimination, but this is ethnic discrimination with state money.

  8. MII, thanks for laying out the issues in such a clear way. You’ve really explained the history of the discrimination which makes it clear that this latest requirement is not merely a benign attempt to preserve customs. Thanks.

  9. Some of these questions are pretty standard for American yeshiva High Schools, even Modern Orthodox ones. They all want to know what shul you daven in and what the parents’ community affiliations are. Some ask for grandparents’ names and addresses. I always thought that was so they could solicit from them, but I’ve never heard of them actually sending them fundraising literature. Some ask what schools the siblings are attending. They also ask if the child is a ‘legacy” applicant, meaning if the parent or grandparent attended that school. I know I’ve answered questions about where my husband and I went to high school, but I can’t now remember which school that was for.

    • The difference is that American Jewish schools are not state funded. They can choose to accept on whatever basis they want.

      • Having worked as a development director at a US day school, I can tell you that we did use the grandparents’ info to solicit them for gifts. The info wasn’t on the application but was part of the forms at the beginning of the school year. First we invited them to grandparents’ day; then to our events–and if there was someone with the capacity to make a large gift, we tried to get to know them. So this wasn’t about vetting and admissions, but was about fundraising.
        The school also asked the other info Shoshana mentions. Now that you ask, I’m not sure what we did with that info. The school where I worked was a community school and this information was not used as part of admissions info.

  10. there are too many s sounds for ashkenazim.I agree with the religious Zionist that changed the soft tav to be a t. sound like the sefardim. also the Oy sound of the aschenaiz O is borrowed from Russian usage. It is not the real Oh sound.

    • The hardening of every Tav is simply wrong, as even a reading of the Radak (a Sepharadi) would show. What exactly the two sounds of the Tav should be are debatable. That there should be two is not.

      • Yes, but that is not sufficient grounds for telling someone that they are not good enough for your school.

        • Of course not. I just wanted to go on record as correcting the idea that the Sepharadim have a superior pronunciation of Hebrew. Zur makes it seem as if the religious Zionists are to be praised for abandoning the soft Thav (Sav) sound.

          For the nitpickers: Aspects of Sepharadi pronunciation is probably closer to the original. Certain aspects are not.

          • Note for the nitpicker nitpickers: “is” should be “are”.


          • I ‘m enjoying the nitpicky grammar comments.

          • Ms. Krieger says

            Isn’t is supposed to be a distinct sound altogether? The way that Arabic has a hard ‘T’ and a softer (I think of it as thicker) ‘t’ sound?

          • @Ms. Krieger:

            Distinct from what? 6 letters in Hebrew are supposed to be sounded differently (hard and soft) under various grammatical situations. Ashkenazim typically differentiate 4 of them. Modern Israelis only 3. Yemenites and true Sepharadim (not modern Israelis) have different traditions.

            Bet – Vet
            Gimel – ???
            Daled – ??? (Some try for a Th sound for the soft Daled.)
            Chaf – Kaf
            Pey – Phey
            Tav – Thav/Sav

          • Okay, with this I agree.

  11. We always say you can tell how religious a school is by how many spaces it leaves for siblings! I’ve just filled in an application form for a Torah im Derech Eretz school in the UK ( that probably means that in Israel it wouldn’t be considered frum at all:) ) It’s linked to a particular shul, so it asks where you are a member and where you attend most, who your main rabbi is and if/how you participate in shul activites eg chesed, shiurim, davenning etc. It’s partially state funded, so is constrained by the laws here, but it asked us to confirm we are orthodox Jews and that we subscribe to the school’s ethos. That’s it. Only sibling info is for those attending the school now. Our daughter has pointed out that she saw a sem application form ( not a BY sem) with 10 spaces for siblings!

  12. teeninamerica says

    This is just pure racism, and I am thoroughly disgusted with it.

  13. I want to defend my position. I suggest that the hard tav can be pronounced strongly and the tav with no dot can be pronounced softly. I think this can take care of the problem of the need for two distinct sounds

  14. The Ashkenzy/Sfaradi segregation debate is pointless. It has ALWAYS been like that, and will not change. And publications such as WALL, YNET, & co. will exploit it to vilify frum institutions.

  15. Avraham – What is “always”? And even if you are right, does that justify such a thing?
    “. . . will exploit it to vilify frum institutions.” Really? Or maybe you mean “chareidi institutions”? I have yet to see an MO, Chabad, or Religious Zionist school show such racism. Maybe the chareidi world needs to change a few things? This is not the only problem that they (we?) seem to be having, by far. [edit proofs]

  16. Stories such as this one make my blood boil. I am so proud to say I’ve been raised in a home which gave zero importance to ethnicity. We valued our culture but didn’t consider ourselves “better” than anyone. I assumed everyone were the same… after all, we’re not in the 60’s anymore, right?

    Then I married my Sephardi husband, and became aware of some bitter truths. I don’t think the Sephardi are in as bad a position as Shas for example would have us believe (that party perpetuates the myth of the poor downtrodden Sephardi, which is a problem in itself). But it’s true that the Sephardi culture/minhagim are less respected. We live in a yishuv where mostly all Sephardim pray like Ashkenazim; my husband pretty much the only one who sticks to the customs of his parents. It’s interesting to note, though, that Yemenites usually adhere much more to their customs.

  17. A group of parents and rabbanim should fix these bigots and stick their attitude where it belongs by setting up a top-quality Sefardi school for girls and naming it for Baba Sali’s rabbanit, who was the mother of Baba Meir.

    The name of such a school would be…drumroll…Beit Freha!