Who’s afraid of the core curriculum: Haredi parents’ struggle to bring secular content to ultra-Orthodox schools

Rabbinical opposition, political pressuring and a conservative society that fears any kind of change: ultra-Orthodox parents across the country face huge obstacles in their struggle to give their children a broader education. They are willing to pay a high price for their battle – including harming their chances of getting a good matrimonial match for their offspring and even ostracism from the religious mainstream. As a result, just 12,000 children studied last year in the framework of the state-run Haredi education system. What role has Prime Minister Naftali Bennett played in this trend? A special Shomrim report.

Rabbinical opposition, political pressuring and a conservative society that fears any kind of change: ultra-Orthodox parents across the country face huge obstacles in their struggle to give their children a broader education. They are willing to pay a high price for their battle – including harming their chances of getting a good matrimonial match for their offspring and even ostracism from the religious mainstream. As a result, just 12,000 children studied last year in the framework of the state-run Haredi education system. What role has Prime Minister Naftali Bennett played in this trend? A special Shomrim report.

Rabbinical opposition, political pressuring and a conservative society that fears any kind of change: ultra-Orthodox parents across the country face huge obstacles in their struggle to give their children a broader education. They are willing to pay a high price for their battle – including harming their chances of getting a good matrimonial match for their offspring and even ostracism from the religious mainstream. As a result, just 12,000 children studied last year in the framework of the state-run Haredi education system. What role has Prime Minister Naftali Bennett played in this trend? A special Shomrim report.

Bini Aschkenasy

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews join Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky for a 'Prayer for Voters Before the Election' at the Western Wall Plaza. Photo: Reuters

December 7, 2021

Summary

On

the eve of Rosh Hashanah, ultra-Orthodox journalist Yishai Cohen reported on Twitter on a “holy call” issued by Shas’ Council of Torah Sages: “It is the holy duty of every parent to send their sons and daughters – from the very start of their education – exclusively to education institutions belonging to the ultra-Orthodox education system, which will inculcate them in the ways of the Holy Torah. Anyone who is tempted, for financial or other reasons, to send their children to another framework, which does not reflect the absolute values of the Torah, such as the state-Haredi system, is committing a sin and is harming their child’s soul. They are embezzling God’s deposit, an unbearable sin.”

The call was signed by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, considered Shas’ spiritual leader since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, as well as rabbis Shimon Baadani, Moshe Maya, Reuven Elbaz and David Yosef. Rabbinical opposition to the state-Haredi education system is nothing new and it is motivated primarily by the desire to maintain the autonomy of Haredi education system, which prides itself on teaching students only subjects related to religion. The state-Haredi system also teaches the core curriculum.

Toeing the same line as the rabbis are the elected officials serving in the Haredi parties. MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was quoted a year ago by ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat as saying that, “we will not give welfare to anyone who wants to go to a state-Haredi school (…) When a child goes to one of those schools, the upshot is that a secular clerk is running the show.”

So, what is the state-Haredi education system, which has so angered the rabbis and their emissaries in the Knesset? First announced in 2013 at a cabinet meeting, during the tenure of Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) as education minister. The goal was to introduce the core curriculum to ultra-Orthodox children – boys and girls alike – at primary school. Eight years have passed since then, but the state-Haredi education system is still working without legislation and without any official notification from the director-general of the Education Ministry. According to the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, just 12,666 students have enrolled in the state-Haredi education system last year: 4,139 children in 164 kindergartens and 8,527 kids in 60 primary schools. To give that figure some proportion, it’s worth mentioning that there are some 300,000 ultra-Orthodox children of kindergarten and primary school age.

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews join Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky for a 'Prayer for Voters Before the Election' at the Western Wall Plaza. Photo: Reuters
Pnina Pfeuffer: “The Education Ministry does not have an official policy on the state-Haredi education system, but it’s fair to say that the most recent education ministers have opposed it. When Naftali Bennett was education minister, he didn’t want to promote them."

The budget for the state-Haredi education system has, in fact, increased significantly over the years – from 77 million shekels for the 2014-15 school year to around 133 million for each of the past four years – but parents hoping to expose their children to the core curriculum and who want to open a state-Haredi school face many obstacles. This is partly because of rabbinical opposition, but also because there is no appropriate legislation in place.

Many of those parents were reticent to talk openly to Shomrim, fearful that they, and especially their children, could be rejected by the better ultra-Orthodox schools and that their chances of securing a good marriage will be harmed.

The state-Haredi education system is the flagship project of the New Haredim, an organization dedicated to promoting change in ultra-Orthodox society. Pnina Pfeuffer, who heads the organization, says that internal opposition to state-Haredi schools “goes beyond the ideology that wants to keep the Haredi school system based exclusively on Torah study, without any secular content. There’s also an element of maintaining power; we’re talking about institutions that employ a lot of people.”

Another impediment, according to Pfeuffer, comes from local authorities. Every school must have an institutional symbol issued by the local council, she explains, “and then there’s a question of whether the mayor opposes state-Haredi schools for local political reasons.”

Where’s the education minister is all of this?

“The Education Ministry does not have an official policy on the state-Haredi education system, but it’s fair to say that the most recent education ministers have opposed it. When Naftali Bennett was education minister, he didn’t want to promote them. Nor did Yoav Galant. And the reason that they didn’t want to recognize the state-Haredi education system and pass appropriate legislation is because they didn’t want to get the Haredi factions angry. That’s not something I can prove; all I can say is that, during the tenures of Bennett and Galant, we broached the subject many times, but nothing moved forward.”

Pnina Pfeuffer. Photo: Sharon Gabai

The battle to establish a state-Haredi school in Mevasseret Zion, in which Pfeuffer was deeply involved, ended in failure – despite going all the way to the Supreme Court. A Talmud Torah (a boys-only primary school) wanted to join the state-Haredi education system, under the leadership of a specially created NGO. The local council opposed, even though the town is predominantly secular. “The head of the council opposed the move because it would have demanded financial resources from him,” Pfeuffer says. “That was the official reason, at least.”

The Court for Administrative Affairs in Jerusalem rejected the parents’ petition, and in January 2020 they took their case to the Supreme Court. The justices ruled that any group of 20 students who wanted to join or establish a state-Haredi school must be allowed to do so. “Because most of the children, in this case, are not resident within the borders of the local authority, but in several adjacent communities, the local authority cannot be expected to allocate funding.”

That ruling allows parents from one community to form a state-Haredi school in accordance with regulation, but even then, there are insurmountable obstacles. Yehuda Grovais, who lives in Bnei Brak, discovered this when the local council thwarted his efforts to establish a state-Haredi school in the city.

“We were a group of 60 or so parents,” Grovais says. “We approached the Education Ministry and we brought them a list of students. They dragged their feet. We kept the pressure up and eventually we got a meeting at City Hall – where officials made it very clear that our plan wasn’t going to be approved. Even when we said that we’d go the Supreme Court, they said that the politicians would be delighted to fight that battle and to be the ones who end the dreams of the state-Haredi education system.”

A high price

Grovais believes that he has paid a high personal price for his failure: his daughter wasn’t admitted to an independent school from the main chain in the Haredi education system. “Among parents who send their children to regular Haredi schools, only a tiny fraction agree that their children shouldn’t be exposed to the core curriculum – English and math – yet, in practice, parents continue to send them to institutions that ignore the core curriculum and the state-Haredi education system is legible.”

Raheli Solomon, a social activist and an online personality among Haredi internet users, lives in Petah Tikva. She, too, encountered difficulties establishing a state-Haredi school – but her story has a more positive ending. Last year, five state-Haredi kindergartens were opened in Petah Tikva and Solomon is “convinced that we’ll soon have an elementary school. The Haredi schools – the independent institutions that are identified with the United Torah Judaism party, as well as those who are affiliated to Shas – are owned by those parties. They have a lot of money and a lot of power, which means they have a lot of vested interests. So, the foot-dragging over the state-Haredi education system doesn’t stem from any great righteousness; it’s motivated by personal and interests and safeguarding their monopoly over ultra-Orthodox education.”

Raheli Solomon. Photo: Private

One parent, who was afraid to be identified by name, told Shomrim about his failed efforts to set up a state-Haredi school in a central Israeli city. “We were a group of Haredi parents and we tried to set up a school. Of course, we failed. We were explicitly threatened, more or less in these words: ‘You have children in the ultra-Orthodox education system or children who are waiting to be assigned to a Haredi school. If you continue trying to set up a state-Haredi school, they won’t get in. So, stop trying to change the world.’ True to their word, my son wasn’t accepted to a ‘regular’ ultra-Orthodox school.”

Are ultra-Orthodox Knesset members preventing the establishment of state-Haredi schools? “It would be disingenuous to say that they are not involved, and that’s certainly something that they say,” says the anonymous father, “but in our exchanges with them, we were given to understand which way the wind is blowing. They may not be calling local council members on the phone to tell them to thwart our plans, but the ‘spirit of the commander’ is clear and the local officials know what they’re supposed to do.”

One woman, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Shomrim about meetings and conversations she had with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to discuss the state-Haredi education system. I wish I could tell you that ultra-Orthodox MKs are not trying to block the state-Haredi education system. Politicians have connections and can stop the flow of funding. Lack of funding is also an obstacle, and, in budget committee, these politicians try to interfere and will describe us as heretics. They say there’s no need for a state-Haredi education system. So, yes, that’s how the Haredi politicians prevent the establishment of state-Haredi schools – no matter what they tell you.”

Improving education for the girls

Unlike ultra-Orthodox boys, who are not exposed to any secular content, the girls who study in the Beit Yaakov school system do. However, some parents insist that the level of education is poor, so they began their struggle to set up a state-Haredi school for girls.

Bitya Malach has served as the principal of the state-Haredi Bnot Yerushalim School in Jerusalem since 2014. After a long struggle, she convinced the Education Ministry and Jerusalem Municipality to set up state-Haredi schools in the capital for both sexes. Malach comes from the mainstream of us society but recognized the need for students to be taught the core curriculum. “In July 2014, I was offered the position of principal and, by the end of August, we had set up the first state-Haredi school for girls, with nine brave students,” she says.

Bitya Malach. Photo: Tekno Art

She has a lot of respect for the society in which she grew up, “but the difference between Beit Yaakov and the state-Haredi education system is not what they are teaching – it’s how they are teaching. There are new pedagogical methods that haven’t reached the classic ultra-Orthodox schools. We want to see, at the end of the process, girls with their own opinions, who have a broad base of knowledge, including religious matters. A student who knows the Torah, Jewish law, morality and Jewish history – as well as secular disciplines – is well equipped to succeed.”

How did it succeed in Jerusalem?

“Mainly because Nir Barkat, the previous mayor, didn’t object. To set up a state-Haredi school, you need a mother and father – the local authority and the Education Ministry. In other places, because there was huge opposition from the local authority – and I can tell you that it’s not just the local council members who object; ultra-Orthodox politicians are also involved – no state-Haredi schools were ever set up.”

According to Malach, some principals of state-Haredi schools are afraid that it will harm their children in the future, so they don’t send their kids to those institutions. “With all due respect,” she says, “a principal must believe in the school she’s running.”

Indeed, her 16-year-old son Yair studies in a high school yeshiva affiliated to the state-Haredi education system. “There have been problems,” he says. “I have to admit that. One time, I took a road trip with friends to Tiveria. We were chatting with some yeshiva students we met at the beach. When we told them where we study, they were critical. The Haredi public doesn’t really accept people who study in yeshiva where they also take the bagrut matriculation exams.”

Yair has a very busy daily agenda. He leaves home for morning prayers at 7:30 and, after breakfast, he joins his 30 classmates for three hours of Talmud study. After lunch, religious studies are replaced by secular classes.

Do you want to go to university?

“Yes.”

To make that a realistic goal, Yair is studying English and maths, but, if he were to want to take on more disciplines, he would find himself limited. “They don’t offer all the subjects,” he says, “and that sucks. There’s math, physics, computers, sciences, literature and, of course, Torah and Talmud.”

What about military service?

“That’s certainly an option, but I’m talking for myself here, not in the name of the institution where I study.”

Are you afraid that your marriage prospects will be harmed?

“I can’t really say that I’ve thought about it much. It wouldn’t bother me, but I don’t think it’ll happen.”

Former Jerusalem Mayor and Knesset member Nir Barkat. Photo: Reuters
How did it succeed in Jerusalem? “Mainly because Nir Barkat, the previous mayor, didn’t object", says Bitya Malach. "To set up a state-Haredi school, you need a mother and father – the local authority and the Education Ministry. In other places, because there was huge opposition from the local authority – and I can tell you that it’s not just the local council members who object; ultra-Orthodox politicians are also involved – no state-Haredi schools were ever set up.”

The new Haredi society

Rabbi Menachem Bombach is the head of the Hassidic Torah Academy in Betar Ilit, as well as the Netzach educational network, which is part of the state-Haredi education system.

Why did you decide to set up a high school yeshiva for the ultra-Orthodox Hassidic community, which is considered the most insular?

“Since the establishment of the state, perhaps even from the time of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hassidic Judaism], there hasn’t been a single yeshiva in the Hassidic community that combines religious with secular studies. But the bottom line is that I did it because I was a yeshiva student and I found it hard to study Talmud all day long.

Rabbi Menachem Bombach. Photo: Azriel S

“After I set up the preparatory program for Haredi students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I could see how talented guys, who successfully completed their yeshiva studies, found it hard to make up the gaps in secular disciplines. In 2013, when I founded the program, there was a 40 percent dropout rate among Haredi students. That has far-reaching implications for Israeli society. SO, I felt that the right thing would be to open a Hassidic high school yeshiva, where students also sit the bagrut.”

What do they study in your academy?

In the mornings, they study Hassidic laws and Talmud. A large proportion of the day is dedicated to religious studies. From 2:30, classes are dedicated to secular subjects and fully focus on the bagrut exam. Thank God, we have a good academic record here.”

Are all the teachers ultra-Orthodox?

“The homeroom teachers are. Some of the teachers come from the national-religious community, but, at the moment, we’re training Haredi teachers, so we hope there won’t be a shortage soon.”

What difficulties have you encountered?

“In our community, one of the defense mechanisms is fear – and justifiably so. I believe that our community is not just afraid of changes here and there, but of a change to long-standing practices – despite the fact that we know that, from the early 1970s, Haredi society has become more insulated. At the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, there was no Hassidic yeshiva that combines religious and secular studies, but there was greater openness. Obviously, there are difficulties for Haredi society, which is suspicious of everything.”

Is the Education Ministry cooperating with you?

“Very much so. That’s not even a question. True, there have been people in certain positions who never really identified with the goals of the state-Haredi education system, so it never took off.”

What’s the situation like today?

“I can’t tell you about things I don’t know, but I have heard that there’s less interest and less encouragement coming from the ministry, which is not giving the requisite support for people who want to establish a state-Haredi school.”

Bombach points out that the fact that Haredi parties joined the ruling coalition in the second half of the previous decade put the brakes on the establishment of state-Haredi schools. As far as Naftali Bennett’s tenure as education ministry goes, he says that, “it was important for Bennett to please the ultra-Orthodox parties. He arrived in the job with a political agenda of getting along with the Haredi parties, which were dead set against the state-Haredi education system.”

Will your students serve in the IDF?

“We can’t solve all the problems of Israeli society. It’s of paramount importance for us that students are integrated into the workforce via academia. So, we encourage them get married after their studies, to go on to a more advanced yeshiva and then to decide whether they want to go on to university, to join the army or to continue with their Torah studies.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (seating second from right) for a 'Prayer for Voters Before the Election' at the Western Wall Plaza. Photo: Reuters
Raheli Solomon: "The Haredi schools – the independent institutions that are identified with the United Torah Judaism party, as well as those who are affiliated to Shas – are owned by those parties. They have a lot of money and a lot of power, which means they have a lot of vested interests. So, the foot-dragging over the state-Haredi education system doesn’t stem from any great righteousness; it’s motivated by personal and interests and safeguarding their monopoly over ultra-Orthodox education.”

Keep control away from the government.

Shas Knesset member Yaakov Margi, who served as chairman of the Knesset’s Education, Culture, and Sports Committee, declined to be interviewed for this article as to his position on state-Haredi schools. MK Yitzhak Ze'ev Pindrus, however, of the United Torah Judaism Party, did agree to talk to Shomrim. “Our fundamental opposition is, first and foremost, against government control over the content of our education system,” he said. “Last year, we saw just how fluid the government can be: one moment it was for us, the next is was against us.”

You were a member of the coalition for over a decade.

“Even then, it was against us. You claim that we’re against the state-Haredi education system, but it’s been in existence since 2013. I have been expressing my opposition ever since – so how did it come into being?”

Not very many schools have been established. In any case, in the end, some of your constituents want state-Haredi schools. Why stop them?

“We believe that a solution should be made available to those people who want their children to study the core curriculum and our solution is to offer them schools that do provide this, but within institutions that are ‘recognized but not official.’ We insist on this because we want parents to maintain control over what education content will be studied – not the government. I don’t trust the government. The government could suddenly make a strategic decision that the education system must teach the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. There already was such a decision one, and I don’t want anything forced on me.

“The national-religious public recognizes this, too, and is slowly moving to recognized but unofficial schools. I don’t trust the government even when I am a member of it; I didn’t trust Bibi and I don’t trust Bennett. As a Haredi cannot accept the government deciding as a matter of principle to take control of Haredi education by any means. I will not stand in the way of any parent who wants to go down a different path.”

So why are your constituents insisting on state-Haredi schools?

“A quarter of a million people voted for me and they vote with their feet by sending their children to the Haredi education system. There are no more than 5,000 people studying in the state-Haredi education system [sic]. Studying the in Haredi education systems means total dedication. You pay tuition and are not housed in a proper building. I understand that some parents have a problem with this and, obviously, it’s tempting to go into the state-run system, to get a decent building and teachers who earn a decent salary.”

What about poverty. Do you agree that the failure to teach children the core curriculum will harm their ability to earn a living?

“For my children’s education, I am willing to make many sacrifices.”

As are we all.

“How many of the students in your children’s classes have become less religious?

My oldest is in kindergarten.

“Check the high schools to see how many have lost their religion.”

Maybe they only stay religious because they’re afraid of harming their marriage prospects?

“You know what, you could be right. I would gladly keep the poverty and the wretchedness if I know that there’s more chance that my children will observe the Torah and keep doing mitzvot. I am willing, as are many parents, to live on bread and water if necessary.”

Responses

A statement issued on behalf of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that, “during Bennett’s tenure as education minister, there was a rise in the number of state-Haredi educational institution that were established.”

A statement from Likud MK Yoav Galant, who served as education minister until June 2021, stated that, “every request, about any kind of education institution, was discussed with the relevant people and was answered in accordance with professional considerations.”

The Education Ministry offered the following response: “The ministry takes the expansion of the state-Haredi education system very seriously and believes in ongoing dialog with the local authorities and the parents. Since the establishment of state-Haredi kindergartens and schools, the number of enrolled students has increased steadily: in the 5774 school year (2013-2014) there were 16 state-Haredi schools in Israel; last year, there were 62 active schools (of which six were established in the past year). That’s almost a fourfold increase in the number of state-Haredi institutions. In addition, this year saw four new middle schools opened.

“As for the number of kindergartens: In 5774, there were two; now there are 150 all across the country. That is an unprecedented increase of almost 75 times in just eight years.”

Bnei Brak municipality said that, “after examining the issue and consulting with out education department, we have not come across a single official request from anybody. We are not aware of the issue and certainly do not know of any request that has been stonewalled or rejected.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
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