Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak
Students at Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Photo by Nir Kafri
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It took the High Court of Justice a decade, since the original petition was submitted, to rule against the distribution of welfare payments to married men studying at yeshivas. For the ultra-Orthodox, the community affected by yesterday's ruling, it could not have come at a worse time.

The Knesset members from the Haredi parties are promising to find a way to compensate for the lost budget item, but it won't be easy after the court ruled that awarding stipends to yeshiva students but not to students at nonreligious institutions of higher education is illegal and unconstitutional.

The ruling came about two months after a Knesset subcommittee was shown the results of an official survey indicating that about one third of the yeshiva students who applied for welfare lied about their income in order to qualify.

The implication is that Haredi cabinet ministers and MKs are about to fight for a line item that costs NIS 135 million a year - NIS 45 million of which, allegedly, is allocated fraudulently. The loss of the income support payments come on top of the cuts introduced a few years ago to child support payments, and will hurt a community that is plagued by poverty.

According to Haim, a 31-year-old yeshiva student, yesterday's ruling "could bring us to the point of starvation." He has four children, and his wife does not work outside the home.

"As it is I'm running between religious charities to get loans every time one of the kids needs dental care. If they want to educate the Haredim, let them start with the preschools and primary schools. Let them impose a core curriculum, but they shouldn't punish families that don't have a choice," Haim said.

Every month Haim receives NIS 2,400 from his yeshiva. NIS 855 of the stipend is from the state, the remainder from donations to the institution. He also receives NIS 1,040 in income support, or welfare.

Nearly 11,000 married yeshiva students receive the state stipend. Officially, Haim and his family of six live on NIS 3,440 a month, plus occasional assistance from their families. That amount will sink to NIS 2,400 next year, assuming that neither he nor his wife start working.

In 1981, during the coalition negotiations between Likud and Agudat Yisrael, Menachem Porush, then chairman of the Knesset Labor Committee, persuaded Prime Minister Menachem Begin to agree to an arrangement under which funds would be channeled to married yeshiva students via the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Today the allocations are handled by the Ministry of Education.

Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, Menachem Porush's nephew, yesterday castigated the High Court's "stupid and base attempt to deprive students of Torah of basic necessities."

He characterized as "repulsive" the parallel drawn by the court between yeshiva students and university students. "Yeshiva students study for dozens of hours every week in order to preserve the soul of the Jewish people," he said.