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The backdrop varies from one place to another: In Holon and Jerusalem, it's an old community center that is so dilapidated and rundown that it screams out, and whose walls are covered with awkward efforts at beautification; in Bat Yam, it's a dank storeroom converted for use by teachers and pupils; in Ofakim − surprise, surprise − it's a spacious, new, well-lit building. But the story behind these buildings is the same everywhere: One day a decrepit trailer is placed in the yard of a school, and within five years an entirely different educational facility evolves. Right under the nose of municipal authorities, a kindergarten with 20 children, two teachers and a sandbox can develop into a small local network of kindergartens, schools for boys and girls, and a yeshiva.

This story is often retold by Shas people in the field, who like to describe the establishment of the facilities of Maayan Hahinuch Hatorani, the flagship educational system of the movement, in peripheral towns and low-income neighborhoods, and even in the Haredi ?(ultra-Orthodox?) population centers of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

The stories of how Shas made the "desert" bloom and rescued children from life in the streets are repeated by activists in the country's periphery. In outlying towns and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the cities, the activity of the grass-roots leaders who are supported and cultivated by the movement − the rabbis, preachers and local kabbalists, who established institutions and brought families back to religion − is as dynamic as ever, without any connection to the party's prolonged stay in the opposition ranks. In parallel with this activity, the back-to-the-faith crusade continues apace in low-income neighborhoods throughout Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Varon, director of the small Bnei Zion network of kindergartens and schools in Bat Yam and Holon, is an activist from the founding generation of Shas. He explains that he embarked on his endeavors in response to a call by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef about 15 years ago, when Shas was founded. Varon is himself a born-again Jew, with an impressive beard and a long, black coat. Yet, like many other Shas activists, it is important for him to show just how immersed he is in Israeli society. He takes pains to mention his master's degree in engineering and the fact that he served in the army as an officer. He was a member of the Holon city council for seven years until he decided to leave and move to Bnei Brak, "for the sake of the children's education."

"Bnei Zion began with 26 children in a decrepit trailer," says Varon, reiterating this factoid in every kindergarten and school he visits. His network now has 800 pupils. Its kindergartens and schools are in well-tended premises, despite the difficult physical conditions in which they operate: They are extremely crowded; some of the classrooms are in ramshackle huts; and the windows in the boys' school are broken ?(the network chose to renovate the bathrooms, and there is no funding left for other things, he explains?). The girls' school is located in a warehouse that is burning hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.

Most of the pupils do not live within walking distance, and are transported by bus and van from Bat Yam and Holon. The boys' school is near the beach in Bat Yam; the girls' school is in central Holon. The girls' kindergarten is in a caravan in that city's Neveh Arazim neighborhood, known for the large proportion of residents who have adopted a religious lifestyle. The boys' kindergartens are a few blocks away.

Not fussyThe Shas educational networks resemble a state composed of small cantons. Operating in the same hinterland in which the tiny Bnei Zion network developed are at least five other similar networks. A common thread passes through the poorer neighborhoods of Holon, Bat Yam, South Tel Aviv and Jaffa: All have Sephardi populations that are influenced by local rabbis, all of whom look up to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Rabbi Haim Rabi, the "guru" of the young born-again religious crowd in Holon, is the patron of the Pi Olalim network, which operates two schools and eight kindergartens in the Tel Giborim neighborhood of Holon. Pi Olalim is linked administratively and financially to the small Eili Be'ezri network, which has two elementary schools, one for boys ?(called Rashi?) and one for girls in Tel Kabir. A sign is posted in each of the institutions, asking parents to come in modest dress. "To what extent is that upheld?" asks the director general of the institutions, Elihu Moyal, whose eyes twinkle sardonically. "More in the winter and less in the summer. We don't really hold them to it."

Another school network was founded in Kiryat Sharett in Holon by Rabbi Yosef Mugrabi, who has also gathered around him a flock of newly religious Jews. The Netivot Rivka network is flourishing in Bat Yam. It operates two kindergartens and an elementary school for girls, and a Haredi girls high school. Until about 10 years ago, the Haredi community in the area was not that large.

The families who send their children to these institutions will vote for Shas in the elections, the activists and neighborhood leaders assume. In the most recent election for local authorities, voter turnout in Holon was very low. However, Shas received five seats on the city council, well beyond its true strength, because the public that uses the religious and educational services it provides went to vote en masse.

Grabbing them youngThe director of a community center in one of the more hard-up neighborhoods of Holon, which has witnessed a considerable process of return to the faith in the past decade, is up in arms, and declares that the phenomenon is "tearing families apart."

"It irks me that they are grabbing the young people," she says. "We invest a lot of effort in rehabilitating delinquent youth. All of a sudden, the teenage boys are disappearing. When you ask one of them 'Where did you go?' he'll say, 'The rabbi told me not to come anymore.'" She claims that residents have stopped coming to the community center and have begun to cloister themselves in the Haredi community, by decree of the local rabbi. "And they want everything for free," she adds.

However, sociologists studying the return-to-religious-Judaism processes, or the history of Shas, or both, dispel the theory that the movement's attractiveness derives from the transportation and hot lunches it offers free of charge. "Nowadays," says Dr. Neri Horowitz of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, "it is no longer the funding or the transportation. It is a deep and complex process that Sephardi society in Israel is undergoing." This, he says, is a belated response to modernity on the part of the Jews of the East. "They went through the trauma of immigrating, they thought they would succeed in joining the national enterprise and would make their way into modernity through Zionism and the state-religious educational system, but it didn't work."

Horowitz contends that Shas is a social and religious, not a political, movement. "In the 1980s, Shas succeeded in proving its ability to offer another identity option," he explains, adding that the movement has completed its meteoric formative stage and is now engaged in stabilizing its status. This includes establishing its rights and upgrading the educational system and its activists' expertise.

The more the number of small networks increases, the greater the competition among them. They vie for buildings owned by municipalities, and for budgets from the Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani system.

One of the positive outcomes of the competition is the enhancement of the level of education. The desire to meet the standards that are considered the norm outside of the Haredi world is expressed in various ways. Elihu Moyal, the director of the Eili Be'ezri network, which operates in Holon and Tel Aviv, intends to establish a Haredi community center in the network's school in Tel Kabir. To that end, he is trying to enlist the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a philanthropic organization that generally contributes to educational projects. The Rashi boys' school mentioned above is called a "community school," but this is only half serious: The term "community" was pulled straight out of the lexicon of the greater Israeli society, in order to adapt the school better to parents' aspirations.

The schools operated by Rabbi Varon and via Eili Be'ezri already teach English in first grade and offer studies on a higher level. All of the teachers in Varon's schools have teaching certificates; some have bachelor's degrees. The veteran teachers, he says, were sent to complete their certificate studies after they began working. This certificate is now compulsory, the rabbi adds. This was not always true. The Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani network offers in-service training for teachers and also fields a team of supervisors. The schools also train guidance counselors, who work as volunteers during recess in schools, because there is not yet any authorized salaried positions for them.

Lackluster image of the Shas educational institutions notwithstanding, the schools of Rabbi Varon and of the Eili Be'ezri network in Tel Aviv received good scores in the Meitzav ?(national standardized?) tests in Hebrew and mathematics, averaging above 80. The scores were not affected by the socioeconomic situation of the children.

No impudenceSigalit Levy of Holon, a newly Orthodox woman whose five children are enrolled in a variety of institutions, is less concerned about scholastic achievements. Nor is she bothered by the fact that her children have to be transported to school. She is very happy with the warm attitude they receive from their teachers. But more than that, she is even happier about the respect they accord adults in the schools − and to their mother. "They're not impudent, and they help at home − thank God," she says.

Moshe Vahaba, a newly religious Israel Electric Corporation employee, is the head of the parents' committee of the boys' school that belongs to the Bnei Zion network in Bat Yam, where he lives. He says it is important that "every pupil show respect to the teacher. The pupil learns what a father is and what a child is. Once, they would grab the ear of a child who was acting wildly, and twist it. That doesn't work anymore. Today's young generation is cleverer than our generation was, but there are other ways of punishing. At Bnei Zion, when a teacher walks into the room, the children stand up. The child learns what a teacher is, what a rabbi is. When the teacher talks, they raise their hands. I don't know if that is the case in secular schools." As Vahaba sees it, respect for the teacher neutralizes violence. "If there is no respect for a teacher, why should there be respect for a friend? If the child does not respect his parents, why should he respect others?"

Prof. Menachem Friedman, a leading researcher of the Haredi community, says that parents choose the Shas educational network for exactly the same reasons that well-to-do parents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem prefer to set up private schools.

"Economically weaker parents also want the best for their children, and try to protect them. They are disturbed by the violence in the schools. They are afraid of not being able to control their children," says Friedman. "They cannot send their children to private schools. Their alternative is Shas."