Parents and children in Modi’in Ilit waiting for a bus to take them to a school in Beit El.
Parents and children in Modi’in Ilit waiting for a bus to take them to a school in Beit El. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen
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Though summer vacation is winding down for most Israeli children, some students at religious schools have spent most of their summers hunkering down with the books instead of going to the beach and eating ice cream.

Eliya Avigad, a seventh-grader at a religious Zionist yeshiva elementary school in Beit El called Sha'arei Shamayim, got only one official day off this summer: the fast day of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

School is in even on Independence Day, though the hours are shortened. School isn't actually mandatory during summer vacation, but most of the 260 students show up.

It's not just Sha'arei Shamayim, though. The school represents a growing trend among religious Zionist schools, which are following in the footsteps of their ultra-Orthodox counterparts by reducing vacations so that students can dedicate more time to Torah study and less to other pursuits.

At schools like the one in Beit El, educators take seriously the idea in Jewish tradition that one shouldn't waste time. Though that is usually taken to mean that as much of one's time as possible should be spent on Torah study, Sha'arei Shamayim also teaches secular subjects like math and science.

The long school year works for these students because "they're not spoiled, and from a young age they get used to working," said the principal, Yisrael Fechter.

They are expected to do well in all subjects, not just religious ones, and this year they won the youth chess championship in the Jerusalem district, Fechter said.

Eliya said he isn't jealous of children who will be going back to school only on Monday.

"I'm happy that I'm not bored, and it's important to me to study Torah," he said. "If I really need a break, my parents agree to let me go."

Eliya traveled with his family to the Golan Heights for four days, and he says that was all the summer vacation he needed.

Even the ultra-Orthodox, at least the mainstream ones, tend to have some vacation time. Mainstream Haredi schools reopened this week after a three-week summer break that began right after Tisha B'Av.

Some Hasidic schools and those in Jerusalem's Haredi enclave of Mea She'arim that get no state funding don't have summer vacation either. They give the children a break from studying only during the Sukkot holiday and for one week around Passover.

Though Sha'arei Shamayim has existed for nearly 20 years, it was only a few years ago that it became more strict about when students must be in the classroom and adopted a methodological approach that focuses on memorizing the Torah and the Mishna.

The Zilberman method, named after Rabbi Yitzhak Shlomo Zilberman, has spread to schools in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak (where it is called "zahru," or "remember" ) and elsewhere. The longer the children are in school, the more time they have to make progress on memorizing the foundational texts of Judaism.

The method made its way to non-Haredi schools thanks to the group described as "Hardal," whose members are Zionist and typically serve in the army but in other ways are more similar to Haredim than most religious Zionists are, particularly on issues such as gender segregation and modesty.

The religious Zionist schools that adopted the method began calling themselves Talmud Torah schools, as similar institutions are called in the Haredi world.

Other such non-Haredi schools include Amit Etzion in Kiryat Malakhi, Torat Hahaim in Yad Binyamin and Shalom School in Ramat Gan.

Some of these schools do also feature art and music classes, or let the students care for animals or plots of land.

Discussions with parents and principals indicate that the short (or nonexistent ) vacations are not just ideologically motivated but also pragmatic.

"The vacation is too long" at regular schools, said Eliya's mother, Sarit Avigad, who has another son enrolled at a mainstream religious school.

"It's not good for children to wander around all day long," she said. "The idleness is also liable to lead to bad things. As a mother, I am at ease when he's in school. And when he really needs a vacation, I can make myself available for a few days off."