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One morning last week, after the celebration of the announcement of the great Lotto prize, three young men were joking around while waiting on line at the betting kiosk, their euphoria noticeable on the sleepy Jerusalem street. It turned out that the chances of the three to become millionaires which were disappointed were not related to their good mood.

"Did you see how Bibi [former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu] was sweating?" said one of them to his friend, referring to the farce, as he put it, that took place on the eve of the Likud Party Central Committee convention, during which it was decided not to move up the primaries. His friend, absentmindedly crumpling the used Lotto form, replied that, "the Likud has been smelling bad in general lately. That's good for us."

Judging by their appearance, it wasn't difficult to guess that they were Shas members. When I asked them, it turned out that they were employees of the educational network of the movement, Ma'ayan Hachinuch Hatorani. A little gloating in relation to the ruling party doesn't hurt anyone, particularly when there is an atmosphere of elections in the air, and Shas is counting on those who are disappointed with the Likud. "You have to relax a little after a month of hard work of registration for the network," they explained.

That particular Lotto kiosk is located on the corner of a central street in the city, in an area that is full of offices of former and current Shas notables. In that building, former Shas leader Aryeh Deri and his brother, attorney Shlomo Deri, share an office. In another, right opposite, are the offices of the educational network and a pedagogical center; and in a building on the next street, the modest office of Shas chair, MK Eli Yishai.

In these places there is no trace of the ostentation that was characteristic of Shas during its boom time. About three weeks ago, after considerable effort, the party building was sold, the place where the megalomaniacal office of Aryeh Deri once took up 3,000 square meters. In the movement, which is collapsing under the burden of its debts, they breathed a sigh of relief. The money, needless to say, was swallowed up by repayment of bank debts.

Standing tallThe 2005 version of Shas is a financially depleted party, which is only beginning to emerge from the tribulations of the Deri regime, but is proud of its clean hands. El Hama'ayan, the unofficial educational system of Shas, is on the verge of closure. The educational network, the crowning glory of its activity and its electoral asset, has dismissed many of its employees, and is being run under the close supervision of an accountant from the Finance Ministry. The fund for saving the educational network, established by Moshe Yosef, the son of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, and the strong man in the movement, was investigated by the Registrar of Associations and wasclosed. Under the watchful eye of the monitoring accountant, it is no longer possible to write checks for either large or small amounts.

But in the movement, it seems, they have gotten over the trauma of the days of the Deri trial, of the threat, dating from the year 2000, that Maayan Hachinuch would be closed, and they are standing tall.

All of them, from the senior members of Shas to the last of the activists, as well as commentators and investigators involved with the movement, are convinced that sitting in the opposition has done Shas no harm. They do not believe that the shaky financial situation of the movement, the lack of cash flow or the colorless leadership (the MKs, headed by Yishai), have hurt its chances of succeeding in the next elections. They say that this is definitely not a party with clipped wings. When Aryeh Deri was in charge, they explain, there was budgetary chaos. The educational network was a nonprofit association that depended on coalition agreements, without any representation in the budget. After Yishai took over the job, the deficit, which had reached NIS 100 million, shrank substantially.

"The period of rehabilitation has only benefited us," says the director of the network of kindergartens of Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani, Gil David. "Maayan Hachinuch is a unit connected to the Ministry of Education, just like the independent education" network of the ultra-Orthodox.

Gil, along with the head of personnel in Shas' educational network, Moshe Revah, exemplifies the changes in personnel that have taken place in the party. The experts at "special allocations" and the army of assistants in Versace suits have disappeared, and have been replaced by nondescript officials and a facade of proper administration. But this should be said with reservations. Because Shas still has a network of local associations which, according to a senior member of the party, are supported by donations that pay for the long school day at all its schools, transportation, etc. In addition, the movement has several schools that are not part of Maayan Hachinuch, which are budgeted by the movement.

Between the lines, Shas is exultant: We have become accepted, and not only into the budget book. We have become a normal party. An equal among equals. Not only in the Israeli street, but in the internal-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) arena. That is perhaps even more significant for Shas. Yossi Elituv, the political commentator of the Haredi magazine Mishpacha (Family), says that at present, even the Lithuanian Haredim are wooing Shas, because of growing gaps between Lithuanians and Hasidim. A real "end of days" scenario, if one thinks of the abyss that existed between Shas and Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the late leader of the Lithuanian Haredim, almost two decades ago. (The Lithuanian and Hasidic Haredim are of Ashkenazi, or European, origin, whereas Shas is a Mizrahi party, whose members originate in North Africa and Middle Eastern countries.)

"Had Shas been in the coalition, without undergoing rehabilitation, when it was based on special allocations and coalition agreements, it would have fallen apart," says David. He estimates that Shas will greatly increase its electorate, particularly among traditional Mizrahi elements, Likud voters and the weaker sectors.

Elituv is very cautious in his assessments. He says that there are two sides to spending years in the opposition: Shas has become bourgeois, "it is no longer a protest movement. It lacks the enthusiasm of its good years." But on the other hand, "it has not made political mistakes." In other words, it has signaled more than once that it is in favor of the weaker sectors, when it did not join the government because of the cutbacks in allocations to these sectors.

Elituv says that the clear and determined stand by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef against the disengagement provided an additional advantage. He added that because of these advantages, Shas' working assumption is that it is possible that members of the national religious public, of Chabad (the Lubavitch Hasidim) and of right-wing Haredi groups, such as the Bratslav Hasidim or Haredim from English-speaking countries, will vote for Shas.

In general, says Elituv, for the traditional Mizrahi voter there is an advantage in the renewed position of Rabbi Ovadia in the forefront, because for this public, the rabbi is a symbol. This was made possible thanks to the nature of Yishai's leadership (as opposed to that of Aryeh Deri, whose blinding light hid the "Shekhina" the rabbi). "Shas maintains the connection with this voter through its kashrut [dietary laws] supervisory body, Beit Yosef, which in recent years can be found in every grocery store on the periphery, and via the large convocations at the Western Wall on the festivals, and the religious reinforcement campaigns of the rabbi" (which now, before the holidays, are at their peak in the peripheral areas of the country, in the south and in the north). However, says Elituv, Shas is moving very slowly. "If Shas rests on its laurels and doesn't work, it will lose its advantage."

Shas sources reply that the establishment and maintenance of the educational institutions goes on in the field all year long. According to their statistics, the network includes 18,000 students and 100 schools, which are spread over most of the country, and 13,000 children in 560 kindergarten classes. In addition, Shas has a separate network of early childhood day-care centers, called Neot Margalit. They claim that the natural increase in the population accounts for only 10 percent of the growth in the size of the network since the last elections, in 2003; the actual growth is 15 percent. "Wherever we establish an institution, we analyze the city," says a senior official in the educational network. He says that for every few communities there is a Shas representative, the regional director, who is responsible; the success of Shas' local educational institutions depends on his personality and his enthusiasm. The official says that this job is done on a volunteer basis.

:Back to religionDr. Anat Feldman, who researches Shas and lectures at Ahva College in the south, says that the growth of the movement has continued even during its period in the opposition. The movement has taken advantage of the waves of "strengthening" (a stage on the way to becoming newly religious) in the peripheral areas. For example, in the community where she lives, Kfar Ahim, near Ashkelon, "during the past decade, people have been becoming more religious."

"Between us, we are not a movement of Haredim," says a senior member of the Shas educational network. Eighty percent of the movement is traditional, and only 20 percent are "our active brothers, the yeshiva students, the system." Therefore, as opposed to what one might expect, in the Haredi cities, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, Shas is not strong. In Jerusalem, a city with a concentration of Haredi Mizrahim, there are only 30 kindergartens; by contrast, in Lod, a much smaller city with almost no Haredim, there are 20 kindergartens.

David says that to Rabbi Ovadia, the most important thing is taking care of "yeldei hahatzala" (literally, the "rescue children"), children of Mizrahi families who are traditional or less than that. They are worth investing in. This trend was emphasized in an article published about a month ago in the movement's bulletin, Yom Leyom, which encouraged Shas activists to live in a secular environment in other words, at the forefront of the struggle so that secular Jews will join the movement en masse.

The forefront here is, first and foremost, the schools. "They are smart and they adapt the institution to the character of the place," says Feldman. "Although the teachers are Haredi women, often the Torah-based content is not exaggerated. These are children from non-religious homes, who sometimes have been thrown out of other frameworks. The mothers come with everything hanging out. In one of the schools I saw a sign 'Entrance for parents in back.' I asked about it, and they told me: There is a kollel (a yeshiva for married students) upstairs, and we didn't want the half-dressed mothers to use the same entrance. They are lenient, in the hope that the parents will gradually return to religion."

According to Feldman, in recent years the network has been making an effort to upgrade its poor image with respect to the quality of instruction, by training principals and teachers, and becoming more professional. Recently, Shas signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education to purchase computer labs for all its schools. Half of the funding comes from the ministry, and the other half from independent sources.

Regarding Shas' chances in the elections, Feldman believes that in the future we will see "a political return." People who realized that they made a mistake when they went over to the Likud because of Aryeh Deri's hedonism. They have seen, says Feldman, that Eli Yishai is a mensch, and that at present the movement is different, that it is run by down-to-earth people, and that it takes care of the weak. They will come home again.

Dr. Jacob Lupu, a researcher from the Floerscheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem, is skeptical about the representation of Maayan Hachinuch Hatorani as a success, or as important to the movement. "As opposed to the potential, and in comparison to the 60,000 students of the independent education network, half of whom are Sephardim [Mizrahim], this is a small network. All the vibrant life surrounding the educational networks has died out. There is no supportive educational periphery. At one time it was an entire fabric of life." He believes that the attractiveness of Maayan Hachinuch has diminished in recent years, and adds, "once it could provide more free transportation, meals and more study hours."

A senior member of Shas' educational network admits that the competition with the independent education network is difficult. But he sounds almost proud when he says that "the myth that Shas provides education free of charge is groundless."