On Sunday evening, September 8, Rinat Yisrael was privileged to hear Nechumi Yaffe report on both her personal and scholarly journeys. As the first charedi woman from Israel to receive a Ph.D. and postdoctoral degree, she shared her fascinating odyssey. Almost as impressive as her climb to the highest levels of academia was the fact that despite being thrust into a decidedly secular environment, she did not compromise her religious beliefs.
Yaffe spent nearly half her presentation covering the groundbreaking work she had done examining Israel’s charedi community. She explained that in virtually every other society on earth, it is the man who is typically the main breadwinner. Not so with charedim. This gave her a unique opportunity to test whether the tendency for men to value wealth more than women can best be explained by an evolutionary or a social theory. In other societies, the ability of a man to gain wealth provided him a status that made him an attractive choice as a mate. But what if there were a society where attaining wealth was not associated with men, but with women? How would that affect the male/female dynamic? Her research revealed that within the charedi community, being particularly accomplished and devoted religiously replaced the wealth dynamic as the primary driver attracting women to men. She delved into attributes that attracted men to women as well, presenting chart after chart on a host of findings.
So what were the catalysts that transformed a sheltered charedi girl into a successful academic researcher at Princeton? Jaffe was born into a rabbinic family in Haifa. Her father and her uncles were rabbis. This instilled in her a deep appreciation for learning. She had a thirst for it at a very young age. While still in grade school, her parents divorced, rare in charedi circles. She added that it was a “nice” divorce, if such a word could be used in that context.
Yaffe moved with her father to Jerusalem where she attended Bais Yaakov. She noted that she was well accepted socially in the school despite her parents’ divorce. While in seventh grade, she learned that another girl of divorced parents was about to enroll in the large school. Her sister and she stood quietly on the sidelines closely observing the girl’s level of acceptance and interactions. This apparently foreshadowed her later interest in the fields of sociology and social psychology.
Yaffe continued her education at Gateshead in England, known for its academic excellence. She described it as an all-girls charedi school and noted that her father had been concerned because she was constantly reading and was much too smart. She laughed, saying, “He felt this was leading me on a path where I would no longer be shomer Shabbos.” That didn’t happen.
What it did lead to was her conviction that the schools in Israel were missing something. Much time was spent learning Halacha, but the spiritual dimension of Torah was missing. She set out to change that. At the same time, she was also trying to get married, since that’s what 18- and 19-year-old girls did. However, she explained, unlike others who married the first guy they were set up with, she didn’t go that route. She met a number of men but wasn’t interested. She shared that eventually she did meet a man whom she married. He was Modern Orthodox. Over time, he became charedi, then chasidic, which pleased her since he reached that point via his own journey. They now have three children.
Yaffe began teaching history at Bais Yaakov. She felt the curriculum didn’t prepare the girls for the real world. She approached the charedi heads of school with a request to make changes. “Change,” she explained, “was not something they were comfortable doing.” However, she was persistent and they allowed her to write a new textbook and change the teacher’s manual.
Teachers at the school were given one day off in five. She spent hers going to the library in search of materials to help implement her changes. That led to the turning point in her life. Jaffe explained that the largest library was at Hebrew University. Since it was at the far end of the campus, she needed to pass through various halls of classes. Her voice became passionate as she explained, “I saw all the courses being taught and all the powerful lecturers and I was so jealous that I was missing out.” It was then that she made up her mind, saying to herself, “I want to study. I want to learn. It’s really now or never. I’ll change the course materials, write the book, then enroll in the university.” She let her husband know, “I need to do this,” but told few others.
Yaffe enrolled in an interdisciplinary program, thirsting to take courses in psychology, philosophy, politics and other areas. She sounded much like a child who had been let loose in a candy store, exclaiming, “I loved it!” It was a struggle, however. Having been raised in a sheltered environment, she said she could not fully understand the world around her, the jokes, the acronyms, the little things that brought others close. Additionally, her values didn’t “make sense” in the secular world. After class, others would party and go to bars, while, as she put it, “My world was more idealistic. I was extremely religious and was obligated to my family, my community, doing chesed and being the breadwinner while my husband studied Torah.” A month after enrolling in Hebrew University, she realized this truly was something for her. She had reconciled her decision to move into uncharted territory with her belief that Hashem wants people to be authentic and act as individuals, explaining that what made the Avot so special was how they rose to the occasion and did things that were different from others in their society.
Everything fell into place. Yaffe received her bachelor’s degree and was accepted into a master’s program in conflict resolution, which allowed her to better understand the relationship between the charedi and secular communities in Israel. She then received her PhD at Hebrew University in political science with a focus on poverty in the charedi world. She shared that no one in Israel is poorer than the charedim. She was feeling good about how far she had come until faced with her next challenge. To get a job in academia, post-doctoral work was required. “I need to go to America,” she told her husband. At this point, his patience with her journey was running thin. His response was, “Enough is enough.” However, following a large blow-up, he approached her and said, “OK, let’s go to America.”
Yaffe’s break came when she was connected with someone she had met previously who was at Princeton. His extensive work on poverty was a great match with hers. She is now a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with Princeton’s Department of Sociology and the University Center for Human Values. Her research examines, from a social psychology perspective, how identity, social norms, and authority play a role in creating and preserving poverty. Her Princeton biography notes she is the first women from Israel’s charedi community to achieve a postdoctoral position.
She currently lives in Borough Park, not an easy commute to Princeton. However, it pales in comparison to her husband’s. As a rosh kollel in Israel, he must constantly fly back and forth between continents. Jaffe is currently researching poverty in four strictly religious communities in the U.S., and has accepted an opportunity afterwards that will take her to Tel Aviv.
By Robert Isler
Robert Isler is a freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected]