Israel's Education Ministry Working Overtime to Stress 'Jewish Identity'

State-sponsored elementary school project aims to promote 'Jewish people’s national asset' - Shabbat; group chosen to run project detracts from secular traditions, critics say.

Lior Mizrahi

The Education Ministry is working hard to augment children’s Jewish identity even as the Religious Services Ministry is doing the same. A new project, to be carried out over the current school year in 300 primary schools, will focus on the “Jewish people’s national asset — Shabbat,” according to a document obtained by Haaretz.

Mibereshit, a Jewish educational organization, has won the tender to run the project. Mibereshit has also been running the Masa Israel program for 11th-graders, in partnership with the Education Ministry, at a cost of tens of millions of shekels — on top of the hundreds of thousands of shekels it receives from the ministry each year.

Late last year the Education Ministry joined up with the World Zionist Organization to carry out the Israeli Shabbat project (different from the project of the same name led by the Beit Hillel organization that brings religious and secular people together). The ministry said the WZO had been chosen because of its great experience in the field.

But the WZO is not running the project directly — Mibereshit is; the tender it won closed after just three weeks. Mibereshit officials had no comment for this article.

According to an official at a Jewish organization that stresses pluralism, when he asked about the program and the tender’s conditions, “people hinted that it wasn’t a good idea to submit a bid.” WZO officials did not say whether other groups had submitted bids.

Education Ministry officials gave no specifics about the Israeli Shabbat program. “The program’s content is in development,” one said, adding that the project was largely a “one-time activity for parents and children in public schools about values, family and Shabbat.”

According to the tender, the program aims to “strengthen the family connection” by “encouraging the study and experience of the traditional Shabbat meal, its customs and values.”

It says that because of technological developments, “direct communication is disappearing” — communication that “creates memories for generations of family togetherness, of embracing and closeness. Shabbat is quality time that belongs to us all, a time for gathering, talking, being together as a family — a time for love. The Israeli Shabbat project seeks to create such times around significant and high-quality content, and around the national asset of the Jewish people — Shabbat.”

Bashing secular people's Shabbat

According to an official at a Jewish organization, there are two problems with the program.

“The first is the paternalistic view reflected in the tender: Secular people’s Shabbat contains no closeness or love, which can be found only in the traditional model. That contrast was never accurate, but to speak that way in 2014 is ridiculous,” the official said.

“The second problem is that the project was given to Mibereshit, which couldn’t act in a pluralistic way if it wanted to. The kids in the public-school system come from a variety of backgrounds. There’s no good reason an Orthodox organization should teach them about Shabbat.”

Mibereshit was established in 2002 by Rabbi Moti Elon, who was convicted in 2013 on two counts of indecent acts by force against one of his students.

The organization’s goal, as it reported to the Registrar of Charities, is “to impart basic values of Jewish tradition to children and teenagers.” It says this includes “the deepening of children’s knowledge and the emotional development of identity with the people, the land and the heritage of the Jewish people.”

The organization’s executive director between 2002 and 2008 was Avi Wortzman, now the deputy education minister and a member of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party.

According to a WZO official, “The program’s content was determined by the Education Ministry’s primary education section,” though Mibereshit officials say their organization is responsible for it.

The budget for the Israeli Shabbat project is about 4 million shekels ($1.1 million). The program, geared for children in the third to sixth grades, contains two parts: an event conducted by a teacher, based on a kit distributed by Mibereshit, and an event that parents take part in, conducted by an instructor from Mibereshit.

The tender states that the cost of each activity is 3,450 shekels, with 600 activities costing roughly 2 million shekels. According to the WZO, the rest is to be used for “acquiring activity materials in the schools for the pupils and their parents and the ongoing running of the program, based on the Education Ministry’s instructions.”

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has resumed work — amounting to 4.5 million shekels — with the nonprofit organization Orot, which gives classes on Jewish topics in public schools. The privatization of values education, which the Education Ministry has been promoting for years, is particularly prominent when it comes to Jewish studies. Among the many groups that benefit from this process is Mibereshit.

In 2009, then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar doubled his ministry’s funding of the Masa Israel program to 10 million shekels. According to the Finance Ministry, the organization has received about 30 million shekels since then, including contributions it has received for Masa.

Mibereshit officials take pride in the fact that more than 100,000 students have taken part in the program, which is billed as “a formative and unforgettable experience that strengthens the feeling of belonging and commitment to the nation, the land and the State of Israel.”

Students and teachers have told Haaretz that Judaism is often stressed at the expense of democracy, and that discussions on Zionism often reflect right-wing views.

Either way, about a year ago, Education Ministry officials expanded the Masa Israel program even further. In addition to its cooperation in the Masa Israel program, Mibereshit also receives funds from the Education Ministry for projects on Jewish culture and education.

Based on Education Ministry figures and numbers reported by Mibereshit to the Registrar of Charities, this funding ranged from 200,000 shekels to 300,000 shekels annually between 2010 and 2013. The amounts from previous years were even higher.

These Jewish culture and education projects are part of a broad system that includes academies for the study of Judaism and the Land of Israel, and classes on religious topics. The Education Ministry’s religious culture department is responsible for distributing the funds. The total amount in this area in the 2013 budget was 29.1 million shekels.

But over the year that sum grew to 97.6 million shekels. Similarly, for 2014 the budget was 37.6 million shekels, but the Knesset Finance Committee has approved an extra 51.8 million shekels at the request of the education and finance ministries.