Dr. Nechumi Yaffe grew up in a “rebbish” Hasidic family. She is the first woman raised Hasidic in Israel to receive a PhD, and the first woman from Israel’s Hasidic community to achieve a post-doctoral position. After earning a PhD in political science from Hebrew University, she is now a research fellow with the Princeton Department of Sociology and the University Center for Human Values, where she examines from a social psychology perspective how identity, social norms and authority play a role in creating and preserving poverty. Focusing on the (ultra-Orthodox) Haredi community in Israel, she hopes to expand policy maker’s decisions with her work.
While higher secular education was not the norm where she grew up, Yaffe attributes her family’s thirst for learning as a catalyst for her journey. “I come from a learned background…a sense of responsibility and a deep appreciation for learning….this was the value. This is what life is about.” Born in Haifa, they later moved to Jerusalem, where she attended Bais Yaakov. Her parents, who were third cousins, divorced in a rare move for her community. She attended Gateshead Seminary which is known for its academic excellence because Yaffe was driven to continue her Torah studies on a higher level for as long as she could. It [empowered] me as a person.” She felt that schools spent too much time on knowing the halacha “but the focus on spiritual growth, the relationship with Hashem… was [lacking].” She was inspired to open a school in Israel that was different.
Then she got married and had kids. Previously a mechanechet, she had to step down and teach history part-time. She convinced the school that she had to improve the curriculum, and they agreed. “I went to the library to find material for the new textbook and teacher manual that I was writing. It so happens that the biggest library was in the Hebrew University.” Yaffe went to the library every week, and was exposed to academia. “It took me a whole year to realize [that this was my dream.] I feel like Hashem orchestrated it. Towards the end of the year I realized, this is my next [step].”
She put together her cobbled-together Bachelors’ degree and the curriculum book that she wrote to serve 10,000 students per year, and approached the University. She was accepted to a Master’s program in Conflict Resolution. “I wanted to understand my Haredi community and the [relationship between] them and the secular community in Israel. I wanted to understand the psychology, economics, history, and this program covers it all.”
Yaffe enrolled there soon after. “It didn’t even dawn on me that there [were] no Haredim around me.” It didn’t stop her. “If you are a person that is focused on yourself and your duties in life… saying ‘what is my obligation in this world?’ you have as the Mesilas Yesharim says, ‘I came to this world to fix something, I have a special [mission] that Hashem wants me to do.'” Yaffe sees this as being applicable in the Western/Secular realm too. “‘I want to express myself as a fully individual human being.’ Once the focus is on me versus society, at the end of the day, everyone has socieital barriers. You only end up doing something if you are committed to yourself as a person.”
Yaffe took her inspiration to move forward from the Torah. “From a Jewish perspective, this is what Hashem wants from you. To be authentic, to be an individual. If you look at Tanach, this is what was special about [the Avos]…they are doing things that are not like their society. They were individuals, rising to the occasion. They were committed to [fulfill] their personal life to the greatest extent.”
Not only was the program academically challenging, it also was challenging spiritually. “It is very easy to dismiss the Western world’s ideas if you don’t understand what they’re about. But once you understand it, you have to evaluate [and try to] understand Torah better.” It was also challenging socially. “I was very lonely. I could not understand the people around me… their jokes. They had a lot of fun, and I felt like I missed it.” Yaffe tried to reconcile this. “I was extremely religious, and I was oblig[at]ed to my family, to my community, to having children, to being a mother, to be the bread[winner] as my husband studied Torah.” Her fellow students had different lives. “They were going to bars every night…it took me a while to realize that my life was just as fun as theirs, just a different kind of fun.”
Yaffe decided not to tell many people in her community about her enrollment in university at first. “I got mixed reactions. My siblings and my father really supported me. I was very lucky.” This was more apparent as she started to become more successful as her program progressed. “I think its much easier to get support when you’re successful.”
She constantly heard from her Israeli classmates that they were surprised that Haredim could be like her. “I myself had to break a lot of stereotypes about the secular world, so it worked both ways.” She found an even warmer reception at Princeton. “I felt I could really openly be who I am, talk about Torah and…bring it into my work. When I brought my religious perspective, they were embracing it.”
Her expectations had to shift in order to realize her dream. She was no longer going to be the perfect balabusta, and she came to terms with that. “You have to prioritize.” She knows that it is easy to blame one’s background for a lack of success. “Yes some people have it harder, but those who are willing to work hard, those are the ones who will achieve…God can open a door for you, but it’s not enough. You have to walk [through it.]”