New York Magazine last weekend featured on its cover one of the most interesting, and certainly the most controversial, recent news stories on ultra-Orthodox Jewry. "Escape From the Holy Shtetl" by Mark Jacobson tells of 23-year-old Gitty Grunwald, a young mother from Kiryas Joel, the enclave of Satmar Hasidim north of New York City.

Grunwald rebelled and escaped from what for her was a suffocating religious life and is now trying to rebuild her life in Brooklyn. The price for her freedom? Her daughter Esther Miriam remained with her father and his family to be brought up within the community.

The reporter, who yearns for the more simple days of American secular Jewry, sympathizes with Grunwald, sees her as the victim of an oppressive cult and barely veils his support for Grunwald's campaign to regain custody of her daughter.

Not surprisingly, the piece attracted considerable attention and provoked argument. By Monday more than 1350 comments had been posted on the magazine's Web site. A great many of the readers were scandalized by what they saw as Jacobson's biased and stereotyped portrayal of the Satmars. Some were offended by the "salacious" tone of his writing and the "provocative" poses in which Grunwald was photographed.

Quite a few disclosed (true or false) information that questioned her suitability as a parent. However, Grunwald had her fair share of supporters, whether from empathy for her plight or a critical view of the Satmars.

Few of the commentators dwelled upon the broader issue implicit in the feature: What is society's responsibility in the 21st Century in ensuring that children receive a broad modern education, in tune with current values and the demands of the workplace? Should the preferences of parents and spiritual leaders in minority groups take precedence, even if that means cutting off their children from the outside world?

The pure way or the highway

But while Kiryas Joel and a few other Haredi ghettos are no more than pinpricks in the American firmament, in Israel these questions are of an entirely different magnitude. More than 20 percent of the Jewish schoolchildren in Israel last year, some 215,000 kids, studied in ultra-Orthodox schools. Their proportion is growing, the younger the age group.

These schools come under varying degrees of government supervision, but the Education Ministry as a rule has little power over the curriculum taught there. The ministry's attempts to ensure that all schools receiving some kind of government funding teach at least a core of basic subjects (mathematics, Hebrew grammar, English and science at a satisfactory level, and not only religious studies) or else lose their funding, has met with fierce Haredi opposition.

The ultra-Orthodox parties' clout in the Knesset and government, the fact that they often have the crucial votes needed for the coalition's survival and the annual budget vote, means that education ministers have never received sufficient political backing to see such a move through. The arrangements reached are a sham, essentially allowing the Haredi schools to carry on as they have before. And even if a government not reliant on ultra-Orthodox votes were to pass such a resolution, how would it be enforced for the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox children who study in institutions that on principle don't receive a shekel of government funding?

The Haredi politicians say theirs is a pure way, kept sacred through centuries of devotion, and no foreign idea should be permitted to sully it, that the secular education specializes in producing criminals and drug addicts, and that those of their graduates who decide in their twenties to embark on a career or take academic courses are capable of filling in whatever they haven't learned in a few months.

Boiled down, these arguments can be summed up basically as: Butt out. No one will tell us how to educate our children. But there is a deeper reason for this dogma. The ultra-Orthodox leaders firmly believe that the only way their community can flourish is to enforce a complete separation between their followers, especially the young generation, and corrupting outside influences. Aside from a few who have to pursue their careers in the wider society, the great majority must remain insular.

The very idea that anything of value can be learned outside the confines of a narrow interpretation of Torah and mitzvot is blasphemous. An education system with a curriculum all of its own is key to this. Just one example of the complete difference between the systems is that while most Israeli kids are enjoying (and parents suffering) their summer holidays, ultra-Orthodox children of all ages are still studying and will continue doing so until Tisha B'Av, in three weeks' time.

In David Ben-Gurion's hut at Kibbutz Sde Boker, there is a newspaper cartoon from the early 1950s of the first prime minister teaching three students, a kibbutznik, a city dweller and a man with a skullcap. On the blackboard are the first letters of the alphabet and the old man is telling them, "It's the same aleph, bet, gimmel." Ben-Gurion was only partially successful in his attempt to abolish the separate educational streams.

While the secular parties and movements were persuaded to merge their school systems in the national Education Ministry, the religious divide remained. The national religious stream maintained a small degree of independence within the ministry, teaching a similar curriculum of general subjects along with religious studies, but the Haredi streams were allowed to operate almost without interference. Hence the name of the largest of them, Hinuch Atzmai - independent education.

Ben-Gurion yielded since he saw the ultra-Orthodox as an irrelevant fringe that would eventually dwindle to extinction. Today the Haredi demographics are a big deal, but you mainly hear about them in two contexts - when army generals complain about shrinking recruitment and when secular schools close and are replaced by ultra-Orthodox institutions in areas of Haredi growth, such as Jerusalem. But we never seem to be able to look beyond the numbers and see the children themselves.

The Israeli political system makes it almost impossible to force change on Haredi schools, despite Israel's being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the country's responsibility for "the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society."

But what about society's responsibility to the young men and women who have opted to leave their community and are thus forced to make their own way, without family support, in a world for which they have been given no skills to comprehend? There are thousands of Gitty Grunwalds in Israel. Aside from a handful of under-funded private organizations, no one is helping them adjust. The Haredi world will never provide them with assistance; this would only legitimize leaving the fold. They desperately need help.

anshel@haaretz.co.il

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