Ronica Yomtoubian used to sit in lecture halls at UCLA listening to Torah tapes on her headphones until the moment the professor started speaking. As an Orthodox woman, she tried to fulfill her academic requirements as a biochemistry major "with blinders on," shutting out immodest clothing and speech -- and secular values.
Then, after a summer studying in Israel, she decided to transfer to Maalot, an accredited college program for Orthodox women who want a traditional Jewish environment and also wish to study Judaic topics while earning their bachelor's degree. Maalot, a branch of the Maalot Aidner Institute in Jerusalem, on Third Street just west of La Brea Avenue, has granted approximately 35 bachelor's degrees since it opened in 2000. There are currently 60 women enrolled.
Many Maalot students say they chose the school because they wanted a small college that supports their Torah values, provides the opportunity to learn from Jewish sources and prepares them for graduate schools and for a variety of professions, school registrar Nechama Landesman said.
The presence of Orthodox higher education in Los Angeles brings the city into the debate over the value and risk of having yeshiva students attend a secular college. A growing number of yeshiva graduates are leaving Orthodox observance when they get to college.
Some argue that yeshiva high schools need to make Judaism a more integral part of a student's identity so that the student has something to hold on to when she leaves the sheltered environment of high school. On campuses across the country, including UCLA, the Orthodox Union and Hillel teamed up a few years ago to start the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which brings young Orthodox couples to college campuses to create opportunities for Torah study as well as a social circle appropriate for yeshiva graduates.
But others advocate keeping young men and women in a sheltered environment throughout college to assure that yeshiva students don't give in to previously unavailable temptations. Undergraduate programs such as those at Maalot, or Yeshiva University and Touro College in New York, fill that niche.
Next fall, Touro College will open branches in Los Angeles for men and women, offering a four-year bachelor's degree with a traditional core curriculum as well as Jewish studies classes, said Esther Lowy, the school's dean in Los Angeles.
More than 200 women have opted for Maalot since it opened less than five years ago. The student body consists of women straight out of high school, some who transferred from other colleges, and others, including some young grandmothers, who interrupted college careers to start families.
Maalot offers classes in business and finance, education, graphic arts, psychology, Jewish religion and philosophy. The school accepts credit for course work at other colleges. Several students have gone on to graduate school.
The school has no dorms, and the few students from out of town live with families in the area or in apartments.
"Religious girls are often thinking about marriage and starting families when they are college-aged," Landesman said. "This means they need to get their degrees in the most time-efficient and cost-effective way possible. Maalot students can cut their time in college from four years to two by testing out of many lower-level classes."
Landesman acknowledges that allowing women to test out may detract from students' broader knowledge, but she believes that the Judaic studies add depth to the experience.
"The Rambam, the Maharal and Luzzato are the philosophers from which we learn," she said. "Students get more out of a halacha [Jewish law] class than they would from a class in Chinese culture."
Judaic classes teach the women topics they can apply in their professional and personal lives, such as business ethics or interpersonal-relationship skills.
"Maalot's Kodesh classes impart a tremendous sense of mission, and that mission is to be a better human being," Landesman said. "You don't get that at a regular college."
Many students choose Maalot precisely for what they do not get at regular colleges. Approximately 20 percent of the school's population are students who left UCLA, Santa Monica Community College and other schools not in synch with the students' beliefs as Orthodox Jews.
Shira Cohen-Gadol, who graduated from Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and transferred to Maalot from Santa Monica Community College, said coarse language and inappropriate male-female interactions made her start thinking about changing schools. What clinched it was when a sociology professor screened a pornographic film.
Cohen-Gadol says her classmates at Maalot influenced her decision to deepen her level of Jewish observance.
"After seeing the girls at Maalot stop what they were doing every afternoon to daven mincha, I began to join them," she said.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the director of Hillel at UCLA, insists that the secular environment of universities is not fatal to Orthodox observance.
"We have up to 35 people who come [to pray] at our daily mincha/maariv minyan," Seidler-Feller said. "We have a Shabbat community and learning in our beit midrash all day."
Seidler-Feller sees the culture of college campuses as the first of many encounters with the world for which Jews need to be prepared. He said it's important for students to have intellectual conversations with people who are different from them, and to contribute their own viewpoint to the wider conversation.
"It is also important for university students to encounter both new and classical ideas of the world that are not necessarily Jewish," he said.
Rabbi Nachum Sauer, who teaches Jewish studies at Maalot, puts Torah study on a higher plane than other subjects.
The pursuit of "all learning and parnassah [earning a living] should be guided by the light of Torah," Sauer said. "Maalot offers students the opportunity to continue to grow in Torah, while learning the skills necessary to contribute to the finances of their families."
For more information on Maalot call (323) 938-5196. For information on Touro call (310) 246-1231.