Why Do Secular Israeli Schools Need Rabbis?

According to a pilot program for the current school year, a 'school rabbi' will be appointed for every state-run primary school in two Haifa suburbs.

Does a secular school need a rabbi? According to Rahel Metuki, director of the Haifa District in the Education Ministry, the answer is yes. The website Mynet has reported that Metuki has initiated a pilot program for the current school year in which a “school rabbi” will be appointed for every state-run primary school in two Haifa suburbs, Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Bialik.

The goal is for a teacher who is also an ordained rabbi to implant in the pupils customs of the Jewish holidays and Shabbat.

If the pilot succeeds, the program will be extended to additional schools in the district. According to Nira Rosenheimer, the Education Ministry’s inspector for Kiryat Bialik, the idea was proposed by a number of schools in Kiryat Bialik, in which there are state-religious units within secular schools. The rabbis are “young and even play the guitar,” the website report stated.

Why, though, is a rabbi needed in a school that already has a Bible teacher, lessons about the Jewish holidays, and so on? Did the ministry check whether the rabbis are willing to teach co-ed classes? The director of the Haifa District in the Education Ministry did not reply to specific questions on the subject. What is known is that where tradition enters, the result is often extremism. A glaring example is the gender separation in state-religious schools, which is this year being budgeted by the Education Ministry after being financed by parents for years. Are we going to see separate classes for boys and girls in secular schools, too?

A spokeswoman for the Education Ministry’s Haifa District stated in response: “In the course of the annual district conference, ‘Youth Congress: Model Society 2048,’ it was decided that in the 5774 school year, the schools will carry out educational activity based on pluralism, getting to know our brothers, the struggle against racism and the inculcation of religious tolerance.

“As part of this program,” the response continues, “a series of educational activities centering around these themes will be carried out in the district during the year. The activities will include: Dialogue circles; batei midrash [a form of religious school]; and visits by teachers bearing the title of rabbi to state [i.e., secular] schools to mark Jewish holidays or other special days in the calendar, such as Tu Bishvat [Jewish Arbor Day] and the onset of a new month. The activity is by permission only, at the choice of the school principal.

“As for the activities of the teacher-rabbis, it should be noted that they are teachers and educators who also have a religious education, young people who play various musical instruments and who will transmit the material to the pupils in a way that is both experiential and interesting. The content of the lessons will be worked out together with the homeroom teachers and other teachers in the school, including teachers of literature, heritage and Jewish culture.”

Tomer Appelbaum