The Ashkenazi Answer to Shas' Education Network

It took the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox only four years to establish an education network to rival Shas'. Its 2,500 students attend 20 schools, many of them in secular settlements.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

Next to the gate of a Netivot Moshe school waits a child, his face glowing as he skips and jumps impatiently. When his teacher arrives, he jumps up and embraces him, saying, "This Shabbat, Father made kiddush [prayer over wine] for the first time and Mother covered her hair."

The tale is just one of many that bespeak the success the Netivot Moshe school network, established by United Torah Judaism to bring religion to the people, especially to the younger generation. The schools conduct intense activities intended to induce not only the children, but also their parents, to become religious.

In the case of the little boy, the parents caved in after he put pressure on them for two years. Its the kind of children-convince-parents tale that leaders of the network like to tell.

The second type of story they love is about the children who hold out despite the hostility of their families.

When one of the girls studying at Netivot Moshe in the settlement of Kadima repeatedly clashed with her mother over religious practice, the mother - a single parent - transferred her daughter to a secular school. After one day in her new school, the girl went on a hunger strike. A week, the mother gave in. The result: during the week, the girl lives with her mother and studies in Kadima. On weekends, she visits various members of the school staff, who are ultra-Orthodox. Other newly religious girls say that on Shabbat they stay in their rooms to completely disassociate themselves from their family's desecration of the Sabbath.

In recent years, Netivot Moshe has been quite successful in recruiting secular students. A few months ago, Rabbi Mordechai Lev, one of the two heads of Netivot Moshe, sent a letter to school principals of the independent (ultra-Orthodox) education stream. The letter indicated that in the last school year, which was only the network's second year, Netivot Moshe already had 2,100 students. Some 750 girls and boys studied in ten elementary schools throughout the country. Last year, about 1,200 children attended about 50 kindergartens and 150 girls studied in three high schools.

This year, according to a senior network official, the school has added two elementary schools, in Hadera and Nes Tziona, opened four new kindergartens and doubled the number of its high schools from three to six. The new high schools opened in Netanya, Safed and Haifa. The network expected an increase of over 500 students this year.

The organized campaign to make secular and traditional children in Israel religious was initiated by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States, who supply considerable funding. The process of establishing Netivot Moshe is described in Lev's letter, published here for the first time.

The letter notes that in 1979, a delegation of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and functionaries from the United States, headed by the Novominsk rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Perlov, arrived in Israel. The main problem the delegation raised was the failure of UTJ in bringing children back into the fold, especially when contrasted with the success of Shas's educational network, Maayan Hahinukh Hatorani, in this area.

The historic goal of the independent educational network of UTJ has always been to provide ultra-Orthodox education to all Jews. However, Lev noted, the delegates contended that, "For over a decade, during a period in which there has been a huge reawakening [an ultra-Orthodox euphemism for a return to religion, S.I.], and there is a thirst for Jewish Torah education, for some reason the independent educational network has not developed...

"Instead of the independent network leading the way, it has become an obstacle and has caused difficulties at every step." In this context, it should be noted that Lev, a member of Agudat Yisrael, is not only one of the two leaders of the Netivot Moshe network, together with Rabbi Zvi Boimel, a member of Degel Hatorah. Both serve as the representatives of the Torah sages on the board of the independent network, which means that this constituted severe internal criticism.

The network does not teach children returning to religion alongside ultra-Orthodox children, due to the gaping cultural gap between ultra-Orthodox and secular communities. Yated Ne'eman, Degel Hatorah's newspaper, explains, "It is impossible to let the children of secular people into an ordinary Torah school because of the spiritual level." The secretary of the ultra-Orthodox Beit Yaakov school in Netanya explained to Ha'aretz a year ago why it was necessary to establish the separate Netivot Moshe educational network. "The children that moved to Kadima are mainly newly religious... Their values are different. They had discipline problems."

Another problem of the independent educational network is that in many secular areas, it had no schools at all. Lev reveals in his letter, that ultra-Orthodox donors from abroad were not willing to contribute to the establishment of new schools in the independent education network. The reason: "Many complaints are heard about the manner these schools are run, without any supervision or control, and without any need to submit orderly reports on any subject to anyone and this has caused a total lack of trust on the part of donors."

In response to the harsh criticism, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the second most important figure in Degel Hatorah, and Agudat Yisrael leader, the Gur Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, decided to establish a fund to set up ultra-Orthodox schools in secular towns, separate from the independent educational network. To accomplish this, the two men launched a joint campaign among the ultra-Orthodox Jewry in the United States.

To understand the enormous impression this campaign made, it is important to recall the great rift that began in 1988 within "Torah Judaism," between Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah. Among the ultra-Orthodox in America, the rift was treated very seriously. The campaign launched by Steinman and Alter, both new leaders, sent a very strong message of unity.

It was an excellent fund-raising campaign, and both men received funding commitments for five years. Lev notes that the Americans demanded that the new organization have no connection with the independent educational network. The campaign was conducted after the death of chairman of Agudat Yisrael of America, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, and was therefore named after him.

A senior official at Netivot Moshe notes that the money donated by the ultra-Orthodox in the United States will be used up next year, but expects that there will be no problem refilling the network's coffers in light of its success. Lev relates in the letter that the fund's annual budget is $1.5 million. The principal donor to the fund is a philanthropist named Shimon Glick.

In order to understand the importance of the American funding, it should be noted that in 2000, the network paid a monthly rental fee of almost $5000 for the building used by the Kadima school, which previously served the local workers' council and a branch of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement. But funding is needed for more that just rent. The students in Kadima receive transportation from all parts of the Sharon area, a long school day and a hot lunch.

Netivot Moshe is the main organization for taking in the many schoolchildren registered by the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox organization Lev La'ahim, which is involved in returning Jews to the observant fold. At Netivot Moshe, they say that the decision of where to establish their new schools is made in accordance with the reports from Lev La'ahim concerning the places where they have been most successful. The first four schools were set up in Nahariya, Afula, Ramat Gan and Tsoran in the Sharon. The school in Tsoran, which later moved to Kadima, became famous as a result of the struggles waged against it by the secular residents of the two settlements.

The senior Netivot Moshe official says that the fund will operate the school until it is recognized by the Education Ministry, when it will be transferred to the independent educational network. The fund also establishes kindergartens, but operates them only in the first year until they settle in, and then transfers them to the management of ultra-Orthodox kindergarten network.

The kindergartens are supposed to serve as the foundation for the new schools. Thus, for example, Netivot Moshe spread out a network of kindergartens in the suburbs of Haifa, which supply pupils to the ultra-Orthodox school established in Rekhasim.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis are also surprised by Netivot Moshe's success in establishing schools in clearly secular areas. "This sacred endeavor is planting Jewish education in unbelievable places," says the Novominsk rabbi. Often, the schools are located in settlements where hardly any ultra-Orthodox people live, like Afula. And in fact, that is exactly the point.

Girls to high school, boys to yeshivas

The curriculum in Netivot Moshe schools includes a substantial amount of general studies for an ultra-Orthodox network, but certainly less than found in the state-run schools. The network is aware of the children's backgrounds, and therefore, unlike other ultra-Orthodox schools, a child that does not observe Shabbat is not thrown out of school.

In the first few months, girls that come to school wearing trousers are forgiven. The parents are permitted to come to parent-teacher meetings bareheaded.

The network is less indulgent over discipline problems. The ultra-Orthodox are adamant on the importance of students showing respect to teachers and refraining from using slang or curse words. A child that uses bad language after an extended period in the school is asked to leave to prevent creating a bad influence on other pupils.

The network's high schools are open only to girls. Boys of high school age are expected to study in yeshivot and this applies to the graduates of Netivot Moshe, too. "I don't see them [the ultra-Orthodox] creating different tracks from than apart from the ones that exist today," says Deputy Education Minister Avraham Ravitz (UTJ).

Ravitz, however, does assume that some of the graduates will go to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high schools, which teach general studies, such as Yeshivat Ma'arba. "They may establish a few more like that," he says.

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