The Coup to Get More ultra-Orthodox Israeli Boys Studying Core Subjects

New schools that combine religious studies with general education just might be the ticket to get more Haredi kids into the professions.

A Jerusalem yeshiva
Olivier Fitoussi

One of the most sensitive secrets in ultra-Orthodox society is the dropout rate from the community’s schools. A study published this summer by the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies looked at the dropout rate from Haredi secondary schools for boys yeshivot ktanot. The rate ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 students per year, or 3.5% to 6%. Over six years, this translates into 20% to 40%.

This of course is a huge number. According to the Jerusalem Institute and the Israel Democracy Institute’s statistical yearbook on Haredi society, the dropout rate is two to four times higher than in the state school system.

The main explanation is the raft of demands at the yeshivot ktanot. From ninth grade through the 11th grade, the boys only study religion, usually with just one study partner, from early morning until late at night. As a result, most yeshivot ktanot are also boarding schools where only the few talmidei hachamim (gifted Torah scholars) thrive and the dropout rate swells.

The Education Ministry identified this problem a few years ago and opened vocational schools for dropouts. This accounts for the fall in the annual dropout rate to 2,000 from 3,000 students, down to 3.5% from 6%.

Still, Rabbi Bezalel Cohen says these efforts are akin to the proverbial Band-Aid to treat cancer. “The Education Ministry is putting large budgets into the vocational schools and supposedly reducing the dropout rate. This is an interest of Haredi society and there was money for it from the governing coalition,” he says.

“In reality, these are kids who were already moving away from religion with a low self-image, low motivation with low educational goals. These schools offer a partial technological matriculation exam [bagrut], so there’s not much of a horizon in the professions.”

The right mix

Cohen is one of a number of rabbis advocating a new solution for youths dropping out of the regular Haredi system. Instead of vocational schools, they hope to create a new category of yeshivot ktanot that combine religious studies with general education. Graduates would have a chance to earn a bagrut certificate that would enable them to attend university.

“The yeshivot ktanot could identify who is likely to drop out and offer them an alternative path of study,” Cohen says. “The dropouts aren’t necessarily stupid, and a study track that includes a full bagrut could really suit them.”

Cohen is the principal of one of the 16 Haredi yeshiva high schools that resemble an ordinary high school more than a yeshiva. Two-thirds of them opened in the past decade.

Some 27,000 Haredi boys enroll each year in the yeshivot ktanot, while only 1,400 enroll at these 16 schools that mix religious studies with general education. Still, this number was just 600 in 2005. Some educators see these schools as a way to change Haredi boys’ education from the ground up.

After all, the leading rabbis in ultra-Orthodox society did not come out against the new trend, which is crucial. Haredi leaders are extremely keen about not exposing Haredi kids to the outside world, whether via a general education or otherwise.

There is thus a very set educational path for most Haredi boys once they leave elementary school. The law exempts the yeshivot ktanot from teaching core-curriculum subjects and lets them receive funding equivalent to 60% of the funding for a state high school. All this happens without a single hour of regular subjects.

There’s another strange wrinkle. Of the 1,400 Haredi high school students now pursuing a full bagrut certificate, 1,100 aren’t really on the list, at least not in the eyes of traditional Haredi society. The reason: These boys are not part of the Haredi mainstream and are thus not perceived as having the potential to become talmidei hachamim.

These are students from families where the parents are newly religious, are from English-speaking countries, or are masorti (“traditional”), with the parents trying to get their sons more involved in religion. Or, some of these students simply have learning disabilities.

In other words, these kids are not from the Haredi mainstream, thus they have a higher dropout rate. Haredi society doesn’t fight over this segment of the community, so it doesn’t consider it a terrible loss if these students go on to study regular subjects.

But rabbis like Cohen aren’t resting with these segment of the community. At least 300 of the students in the new Haredi yeshiva high schools come from the Haredi mainstream, so this is increasing tensions in the wider community.

Cohen is the one drawing most of the fire. He has been the most vocal advocate for the mixing of religious and general studies. In interviews, he openly talks about his plans to attract students from the Haredi mainstream to his school, the Chachmei Lev Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And his yeshiva is smack in the heart of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The opposition to Cohen’s yeshiva has stung. For three years it hasn’t been able to move out of its temporary site because the Haredim won’t let the Jerusalem municipality allot it a permanent site in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. It’s still not clear when the yeshiva might be able to move to a permanent building, and if so, where.

“The anger is being directed at me because I’m trying to reach the Haredi mainstream and because I’m right in the middle of the city. But my biggest sin is that I give interviews and write about this. The attack on the yeshiva is therefore to a great extent a personal attack on me,” Cohen says.

“I’ve become a kind of celebrity for my defiance, and you could argue that this hurts the yeshiva, but it’s also beneficial. The interviews I’ve given have put the issue on the Haredi public agenda, and people are listening. I make them mad, but they’re also agreeing more and more that kids who want to study for a bagrut certificate should be given that possibility.”

Toning down the rivalry

Nearly all the heads of the other alternative Haredi yeshiva high schools take a different approach. They don’t make public statements and insist that their schools aren’t out to challenge the standard ultra-Orthodox educational track.

“We’re not competing with the yeshivot ktanot. The yeshiva ktanot will always have priority over us,” is a typical refrain from officials at these schools. They add that their schools are just as ultra-Orthodox – they teach the full spectrum of religious studies, often at a very high level. And these officials take pride in the number of their graduates who go on to study in the standard post-high school yeshivas.

At least one of the schools, Maarava Machon Rubin, is considered an elite yeshiva in ultra-Orthodox society. Admission is based on very strict entrance exams. The school offers high-level bagrut studies and charges an astronomical tuition of 3,000 shekels ($778) a month. The yeshiva is located in brand-new buildings in the Haredi community of Matityahu near Modi’in Illit – deliberately far away from the main Haredi population centers of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

Maarava (considered “the Harvard of the Haredi world”) is the envy of the other Haredi yeshiva high schools. But the school has drawn criticism for its elitism – the school maintains a small enrollment of students who can pass the tough entrance exams and pay the high tuition.

In this way, Maarava avoids clashing with the big Haredi rabbis – its target population is the modern and affluent minority in the ultra-Orthodox community. The average Haredi parents aren’t well-off; they’re used to paying 500 to 1,000 shekels in monthly tuition for a yeshiva ktana – for full-time boarding. That’s a model the newer Haredi yeshiva high schools can’t easily compete with.