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The number of students at "regular" public schools attending supplementary Jewish studies classes funded by the Education Ministry rose by 92 percent in the past two years, while the number of students in state-religious or ultra-Orthodox schools benefiting from these funds has remained stable.

Despite the sharp rise in Jewish studies in non-religious schools, however, most of the budget for this subject goes to religious schools. The Education Ministry is considering changing the criteria for receiving these funds in order to direct the money to more non-religious secular schools - a move expected to spark opposition from the religious parties.

"Today there is much greater awareness in [non-religious] state education that dealing with Judaism is not only for the religious, and that it is also appropriate for our students to study Judaism, which is magnificent and pluralistic," Shuki Yaniv Elhadad, the principal of Be'er Sheva's Ironi Het high school said. "As this awareness intensified, external groups sprang up to help schools get the necessary budgets."

Students at Ironi Het study Jewish liturgical poetry. Other schools use the funds to teach Bible, Jewish identity, the weekly Torah portion and Land of Israel studies, among other subjects.

In the past few years the Education Ministry has allocated from NIS 130 million to NIS 160 million annually for supplementary Jewish studies in high schools.

The budgets are allocated to each school in accordance with specific criteria.

While state-religious and ultra-Orthodox schools have so far been the primary recipients of these funds according to figures obtained by Haaretz in the past two years non-religious schools have increased their participation markedly.

The number of requests from "regular" schools for supplementary funding for Jewish studies funding rose from 49 to 67, while the number receiving such funds rose from 24 to 48. The number of students at non-religious schools benefit from the Jewish studies budget nearly doubled, from about 18,000 to about 34,500.

Instruction hours

Every participating school receives up to several hundred thousand shekels a year that it can use to add instruction hours pertaining to Jewish studies, to hold informal activities or to provide teachers with additional training, among other things.

In the two years since the eligibility criteria were amended to make it easier for non-religious schools to qualify, the amount the latter received rose by 36 percent while the amount alloted to state-religious and ultra-Orthodox school system declined by 36 percent.

The total budget for these supplementary studies was reduced slightly this school year.

But even though non-religious schools have been getting a bigger piece of the pie lately, some principals complain that the funding criteria still discriminate against them, making it easier for religious schools to get the money.

"The criteria are not sufficiently flexible to include the creativity that every school has developed in Jewish studies," one principal said.

"There has been an important step forward, but it is nowhere near enough," he added.