The Religious Services Ministry, headed by Minister Naftali Bennett, recently approved a supplementary budget for a project setting up batei midrash, or religious-study academies, for students throughout Israel.
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The project would join the programs run by the Jewish Identity Administration through the Orthodox Jewish non-profit organization Laga’at Baruah.
The Jewish Identity Administration, an agency set up by Bennett, MK Ayelet Shaked and former chief army rabbi Brig. Gen. (Res.) Avichai Rontzki, runs programs designed to instill Jewish values in the Israeli public.
Established on the strength of the coalition agreement between Habayit Hayehudi and Likud, the administration was modeled after the army’s Jewish Consciousness Department, which Rontzki created some years ago when he served as the army’s chief rabbi.
The program’s budget will be increased 53 percent to 5.8 million shekels ($1.48 million) from 3.8 million. The new total will be divided between the Religious Services Ministry and Laga’at Baruah, enabling the program to expand to 1,200 students.
In early November The Knesset Finance Committee approved a 17-million-shekel budget increase for the Jewish Identity Administration.
“The students are showing a interest in the fields of Jewish identity, and they want to study these subjects in depth,” an official said during the discussions in the Religious Services Ministry.
Rontzki, who is running for election in the Habayit Hayehudi party primary, is one of the heads of the Jewish Identity Administration, even though he holds no official position there, according to the Religious Services Ministry.
In an interview published last weekend, Rontzki said the administration “is active almost exclusively among the non-religious public — in other words, among the elite groups of secular society.”
The religious-study academies, where the students learn in exchange for a scholarship, began operating several years ago, but the program has expanded thanks to the connection between the Jewish Identity Administration and Laga’at Baruah (“Touching the Soul”).
During a meeting at the Religious Services Ministry several weeks ago, it was reported that the program had 800 participants this year, each of whom receives a stipend of 4,000 shekels.
“The grant they receive for participating in the program makes it easier for them to pay tuition and meet their other expenses,” said Eli Levanon, the director of the Jewish Identity Administration. “That is why there is a great response on the part of the students.”
In an interview with the magazine Olam Katan for religious teens, Rabbi Rontzki said, “The issue I felt was urgent when I was in the army and when I worked as a rabbi in civilian life is still urgent for me today: to strengthen Jewish identity among the people of Israel a thousand times more than what it is now.”
He said that the Jewish Identity Administration “assists tens of thousands of people, but this must be made infinitely larger. What is needed is someone who will take this and run with it and see it as his whole world. That is the main reason I decided to go into politics ... to make the administration much larger. It needs to be in the Education Ministry.”
While Religious Services Ministry officials have said on several occasions that Rontzki does not work for the Jewish Identity Administration in an official capacity, Rontzki’s statements in the magazine interview show that an official title is unnecessary.
“The administration’s activity is still relatively small,” he said. “What are 50 schools? We need to reach 5,000 schools.”
He added, “We invest a great deal in Tel Aviv, in a very active beit midrash called Hamakom. Why are we investing in Tel Aviv, but investing less in the traditional population, for example? Because secular influence on the whole country comes from there. Unfortunately, that is how it is.”