Single-Sex Education: Still Le-ka-tehillah

This summer, while explaining my choice to study at Stern College to someone who had never heard of Yeshiva University, I was challenged by one question more than any other. This question was not about the double curriculum, nor about the relatively homogenous student body, but was rather the incredulous, “Are you really going to a college with only girls?” Although I answered quickly, explaining that Stern is part of a larger co-ed university and therefore has many of the benefits of other co-ed schools, this question caused me to think more about my past educational environments, which have also been single-sex. While most of the college-age readers of Kol Hamevaser are not currently deliberating between single-sex and co-ed schools, either for themselves or for their future children, this debate carries with it great societal import, and is worthy of serious discussion.

I am in no way prepared to discuss all aspects of this question, and so I beg the pardon of those who feel that their position is not fully represented. Rather, I will attempt to give a cursory halakhic overview of the issue and relate to some of the scholarly research done on this topic outside of a religious context. However, my main argument is a social and educational one, based on my own personal experiences and interactions. For this reason, I can only claim to represent the female perspective, although I will attempt to relate to the other fifty percent of the population as well, in explaining why I believe that single-sex education is the best model for a Jewish high school.1

Unsurprisingly, classical halakhic sources that deal with coeducation are few and far between. Some more recent prominent halakhic decisors who do address the issue reject it soundly.2 In the past century the idea of a co-ed Jewish school gained a modicum of support from Orthodox rabbis, albeit only a distinct minority. This, however, has not hindered the rise of co-ed institutions in many Modern Orthodox communities, and therefore it is important to analyze the halakhic sources to understand the basis for this practice before discussing the topic further.3

There are numerous sources from the Gemara, Rambam, and Shulhan Arukh that go into great detail as to the extent of separation required between men and women in society at large. Specifically, Shulhan Arukh writes that men should distance themselves “very, very much” from women.4 To explain why this is not the norm in our community is an entirely separate issue, so I will attempt to focus my discussion on the question of mixing the sexes in school, even if they will definitely be mixed in other contexts.

There is only one source in the Rishonim that specifically discusses coeducation, for the obvious reason that women were not formally educated during that period.5 The Mishnah in Kiddushin 4:14 says that a father may not teach his son “omanutbein ha-nashim – a job… amongst the women.”6 Most Rishonim interpret this to mean that the son’s job should not be one that requires constant interaction with women.7 Meiri, however, explains that the prohibition is for a father to educate his son in a school with girls, which could lead to sin.8

There are those who suggest that exposure to a sexualized modern culture may have minimized the extent to which male students are negatively distracted by their female counterparts, a development that would afford greater leniency in the area of coeducation. If men encounter women in all aspects of their lives, Halakhah may have less reason to worry about men having inappropriate thoughts or sinning every time they come into contact with a woman. The minimization of inappropriate behavior due to familiarity between the sexes has halakhic implications in other instances as well. Levush says that at a wedding with mixed seating, one is permitted to say the berakhah of “she-ha-simhah be-me’ono – in whose dwelling place is joy,”9 if mingling between the sexes is the communal norm, since the men will not be having inappropriate thoughts.10 Arukh ha-Shulhan similarly writes that even though a married woman’s uncovered hair is traditionally considered ervah, a man may recite berakhot in front of a married woman’s bare head because married women frequently did not cover their hair and would thus not constitute a distraction.11 Although these two sources seem to imply that increased exposure lessens the severity of sexual temptation, Rav Ovadia Yosef argues that the opposite is true.12 He claims, based on numerous sources in the Gemara, that in less modest times, people are actually more likely to succumb to inappropriate inclinations.

While in the more “right-wing” Orthodox world coeducation is widely condemned, Modern Orthodoxy has accepted coeducation as an option, largely based on the example of Rav Soloveitchik and the Maimonides School.13,14 Students of Rav Soloveitchik disagree as to whether he believed that coeducation is le–ka-tehillah and that boys and girls should be in class together, or whether he felt that it is be-di-avad, and himself chose to open a co-ed school due to mitigating factors. Benny Brama, a former teacher at Maimonides, suggests that Rav Soloveitchik truly valued coeducation, and it was for this reason that the Rav fully integrated his school. If this is true, the practice of coeducation could be justified by bringing to bear the view of the Rav. On the other hand, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a leading student of Rav Soloveitchik, claims that the Maimonides School was modeled to fit specific circumstances, namely, to accommodate the fact that had the school not been co-ed, girls would have received an inferior Jewish education, or none at all. Thus, according to this latter perspective, the co-ed aspect of Maimonides should not be used as a paradigm for yeshivah education.15

In addition to halakhic considerations, there are many other variables that contribute to the educational decision regarding co-ed versus single-sex education.16 To further understand the complexity of this issue, we must analyze it from a secular educational perspective as well.

While for years single-sex education was marginalized in favor of a coeducational model, in recent years, single-sex education has come into vogue, in part due to a wave of studies attempting to show its benefits. Although single-sex public education is still rare in the United States, it is fairly common in many other countries, thereby providing wider bases for academic studies. In 2002, the National Foundation for Educational Research in England released a study on school size and co-ed vs. single-sex schooling, which studied 2,954 high schools.17 The study concluded that both boys and girls benefited from separate classrooms. Test scores improved almost completely across the board, and girls in single-sex schools were found to be taking more traditionally male courses, like the sciences. In his 1998 study “Single-Sex and Coeducational Schooling: Relationships to Socioemotional and Academic Development,” Dr. Fred Mael argues that allowing development in single-sex environments helps adolescents mature into more socially adept adults.18 This applies to men and women equally.

While these studies and others19 strongly support the hypothesis that single-sex schools are more beneficial for both boys and girls, other studies have shown no discernible difference between the two models of education. In 2005, the United States Department of Education commissioned a report to review all previous studies in this field. The report’s conclusion was decidedly ambiguous, noting that many studies indicated higher standardized test scores for students in single-sex schools, but could not show any long-lasting gains, whether academic or social.20 Therefore, given the available scientific evidence, coming to a definitive conclusion in regard to which model is scientifically most beneficial does not seem to be possible.

However, we should not be discouraged from analyzing the issue from a communal, values-based perspective, rather than a scientific one, as the Modern Orthodox community has many educational goals that these studies do not consider. When it comes to education, we do not look just for high scores and academic success, but also aim to create environments that will help students grow to be committed Jews, ovedei Hashem ve-lomedei Torato.

Even when coming from the perspective of Jewish values, the sample of Modern Orthodox high schools is too small and too diverse to make any broad judgments. What I can do, though, is share some specific educational issues relevant to our community with the goal of showing that single-sex education is a better choice than co-education, specifically for girls.21 An all-girls high school is an environment in which teenage girls can grow to their fullest potential, without distractions from the opposite gender. From personal experience in numerous co-ed settings, I can confidently say that daily interaction with boys influences girls to focus more attention on their looks. When educators struggle to convey the values of tseniut to their students, both male and female, a co-ed school environment is likely to inhibit the achievement of this goal. Strong anecdotal evidence also suggests that the presence of boys in a classroom leads some girls to shy away from participating in heated classroom debates and impedes their ability to exercise their full academic capacities. Do these problems prove that single-sex schools are ideally better? Could these issues be solved with effective educational tactics? It is hard to say for sure, but it is critical to acknowledge that the mixing of the sexes in a school setting is often detrimental to the female students, and many high schools may not be equipped with the educational tools to forestall these negative effects.

In addition to potentially negative aspects of co-ed schools, there are numerous benefits to single-sex schools. The Jewish world has been decades behind in proving to its daughters that they need not be held back educationally because of their sex. We recognize differences between men and women, and a school would be remiss to claim that those differences are insignificant. Nonetheless, the best way to demonstrate the opportunities available to women is by providing them with those opportunities. In an all-girls school, student positions such as GO President and captain of the Debate Club will always be held by girls. Every student in AP Calculus and Advanced Talmud will be female as well.22 The effect that this has on students cannot be overstated. In an all-girls school, a student’s sex plays no role in determining which classes she takes or how she views herself in relation to other students and will not be intimidated by the presence of boys. No one talks about the smartest boy in the class and then the smartest girl. For adolescent girls who are struggling with peer pressure and are attempting to develop an identity, an all-female environment allows them to express their individuality more easily and develop the confidence to express their true selves to the outside world.23

An all-girls school also affords the best role models for female students. To begin, the administration of an all-girls school is often female, providing students with a variety of women to respect and admire. While there is nothing wrong with having rabbis as principals, students in co-ed schools who consistently see men in administrative positions are often denied exposure to females in leadership roles that are already accepted in the Modern Orthodox community.24 The importance of role models is relevant to individual classroom setting as well, and applies in both boys’ and girls’ schools. Students are able to develop close, meaningful relationships with their teachers when the relationship relates not only to material learnt in the classroom, but extends to the personal realm as well. I believe that such personal connections are often easier to forge in single-sex classrooms. For example, girls often feel more comfortable talking to teachers about specifically female issues in single-sex settings. On the other hand, many boys may develop close relationships with male teachers while playing basketball, an activity that would be skipped in a co-ed class. Teachers in single-sex schools have more opportunities to become close with their students and influence them in a positive way.

Another benefit of single-sex schools is the administration’s ability to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of the students.25 Issues of women in Judaism, for example, are extremely important to teach, but co-ed schools may have a difficult time dedicating a year of their curriculum to an issue that does not resonate with fifty percent of their population. SAR Academy, a co-ed school in Riverdale, for example, has offered a senior elective that deals with women in Judaism. In contrast, Yeshiva University High School for Girls is well known for its mandatory WIJL (Women in Jewish Law) course. Similarly, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, NJ guarantees that every senior spends her year learning about issues relating to Jewish women. Even if a co-ed school chose to allot the time for such a course, students will feel most comfortable in an all-female environment, asking questions that are often personal and fraught with emotion.

Many still argue that coeducation is better for all students: It gives a wider variety of opportunities and interactions and prepares students for the “real world,” where the sexes mix freely. Some worry that single-sex environments hinder girls’ development, both academically and socially. On an academic front, since boys add diversity to the classroom discussion, bringing new perspectives and experiences, a co-ed environment may be more conducive to a broad and rich learning experience. However, Rivka Kahan, principal of Ma’ayanot, argues, “Differences between individuals dwarf the differences between boys and girls.”26 Thus, if the students in a single-sex school have diverse backgrounds, the diminished diversity due to the lack of boys will be insignificant.

On the social level, some claim that the lack of interaction between the sexes stunts students socially and impairs their ability to interact normally with the opposite sex. This detriment may continue into their adult life and may even affect their marriages. This objection is unfounded for two reasons: First, we have already established that many believe that interaction between boys and girls is halakhically permissible. Therefore, even if the classroom is separate for the aforementioned reasons, there are many other venues for co-ed activities, such as youth group activities and summer camp.

Finally, some claim that girls receive a better Jewish education, particularly in the area of Gemara, in co-ed schools. This argument reflects the real correlation between all-girls schools and schools that do not teach or do not emphasize Gemara learning. However, this does not mean that a single-sex school cannot be the setting for a girl who wishes to learn Gemara at the highest possible level. I have heard first-hand from a teacher in a single-sex school that there was no difference between the level of the twelfth grade advanced Talmud class that she was teaching and the twelfth grade advanced Talmud class that her husband was teaching in a co-ed school. In areas where the learning gap between a co-ed and single-sex school is a small one, it is also important to consider the added value of girls learning Torah in an environment where its import is discussed openly. With the background of “Kol ha-melamed et bitto Torah ke-ilu lomdah tiflut, – Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity,”27,28 girls in single-sex schools often connect more deeply to learning Gemara, especially because all-girls schools are often classified based on whether or not they teach Gemara, a distinction not found in co-ed day schools. Those people who believe that an all-girls school will, by definition, have a lower level of talmud Torah should at least consider this additional factor.

It is difficult to write an article about an issue that is particularly close to my heart. I openly acknowledge that my high school experience was an extremely positive one that has influenced my beliefs on this issue. However, as a halakhic Jew, I believe that the first place we look for guidance in life is not personal opinion but rather Halakhah. Finding that Halakhah strongly encourages single-sex education was a push for me to continue developing my own thoughts on this issue. There are still, and will continue to be, disagreements within Modern Orthodoxy as to the best educational model, and every school makes a decision based on its unique circumstances. I would like then, to echo the words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on this issue: “You ask another question and it is not a question just of issurim: assur mutar, mutar assur… in education you run a wide gamut from relatively minimal situations to maximalist situations.”29 The challenge for us is to think critically about this question and to view it through a variety of lenses, including halakhic, scientific and educational ones. Serious debate and discussion can only enrich the educational opportunities available to students, and even those who disagree with each other can certainly agree on a shared goal of improving the experience available to every Jewish student.

Rachel Weber is a junior at SCW majoring in Jewish Studies, and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

1 This debate also exists with respect to elementary schools; however, the halakhic debate about when to begin separating the sexes is complex, and the social issues involving elementary school students are also very different from those of high school students. For these reasons I have limited my argument to high schools, an environment with which I am also more familiar.

2 See, for example, Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:137 and Responsa Yabia Omer 10:23.

3 For a more comprehensive view of the halakhic issues at hand, please see Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, “Co-education – Is it Ever Acceptable?,” The Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society LV (Spring 2008), from which much of this research was taken.

4 Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 21:1 (translation mine).

5 Rabbi Seth Farber, An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the Maimonides School (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press in Association with The Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute, 2004), 79.

6 Translation mine.

7 See Kehati to Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14.

8 Beit ha-Behirah to Kiddushin 80b, s.v. ve-lo yelamed adam omanut le-beno bein ha-nashim.

9 Koren siddur translation.

10 Levush ha-Hur, minhagim 36.

11 Arukh ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 75:7.

12 Responsa Yabia Omer IV, Even ha-Ezer 4.

13 See Rabbi Lebowitz’s article for more details, as well as the more moderate opinion of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

14 For a detailed analysis of the opinions related here, and other information about Rav Soloveitchik and coeducation, please see Rabbi Seth Farber’s article, “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Coeducational Jewish Education” in Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, available at: http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/rabbi-joseph-soloveitchik-and-coeducational-jewish-, and his book An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the Maimonides School (see endnote 2 above).

15 Farber, 76-7.

16 This idea was originally shared with me by Rivka Kahan, principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ.

17 Available at: http://www.singlesexschools.org/NFER.pdf.

18 This study was quoted in Rabbi Lebowitz’s article mentioned in endnote 1 above and was originally published in Review of Educational Research 68.2 (Summer 1998), 101-129.

19 See, for example, “Single-Sex vs. Coed: The Evidence,” National Association for Single Sex Public Education, available at: http://www.singlesexschools.org/research-singlesexvscoed.htm.

20 Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/single-sex/single-sex.pdf.

21 As I mentioned above, my experience is limited to that of girls’ high schools and therefore I will try to only address what I know personally.

22 I once again owe gratitude to Mrs. Kahan for her insight into this pattern.

23 Erik Erikson, in his stages of psychosocial development, calls adolescence a phase of “Identity vs Role Confusion.” See Francis L. Gross, Introducing Erik Erikson: An invitation to his Thinking (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), 47.

24 While adding female administration to co-ed schools could conceivably solve this problem, most co-ed Modern Orthodox high schools would continue to prefer ordained rabbis as principals over women for numerous reasons, including the importance of male role models for male students. In an all-girls high school, the idea of a female administration is more accepted, and interacting with such female leaders will enable students to develop confidence in their own leadership abilities, even in areas that are traditionally male.

25 For more information on gender differences in learning, please see the numerous scholarly articles collected at http://www.education.com/topic/gender-differences.

26 Based upon a personal conversation.

27 Sotah 21b.

28 Soncino translation.

29 AMODS Convention, Center for the Jewish Future, 2007.