The Jerusalem Municipality estimates that some 10,000 students are attending extreme ultra-Orthodox educational institutions that operate without any permit or government supervision. “The Education Ministry and the city have been running away from the problem, which is only getting worse,” a ministry source told Haaretz.
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For example, a mere 600 meters (1,968 feet) separates the Education Ministry and Minister Naftali Bennett’s office from 26 Strauss Street. The Jerusalem municipality is only 150 meters farther away. Yet despite the physical proximity, the school operating at 26 Strauss does not appear in the database of either the ministry or the municipality.
The Strauss Street school operates on the third and fourth story of the building, above the rabbinical court, kashrut committee and marriage registrar of the Eda Haredit. At first glance, the desks and chairs appear to be in good condition. However, the cramped toilets seem too small for hundreds of elementary school-age children. Steps from the top floor lead to the makeshift roof, which serves as the school’s “playground.” There is no equipment and little shade. Dozens of children run around chasing each other in the frighteningly small space.
There’s a similar scene at other institutions deep inside the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) neighborhood of Mea She’arim. Rooms in old buildings, sometimes even basements, serve as classrooms, with small bathrooms and unregulated yards.
Two years ago, personnel from the Health Ministry’s district office visited one of the schools. “It was found that the classes are small the building’s balconies served as yards, the space is insufficient,” a report stated, adding, “Hygiene facilities are lacking, and garbage bins that serve food businesses and residences are near the institution.”
“There’s nothing for the children to do except religious studies. No one cares if there’s a courtyard. The food they are served at noon is shocking – if they eat anything,” says Yisrael, who attended an unlicensed school run by the Satmar Hasidic sect and left Orthodox Judaism five years ago. “The purpose of the school is to teach things that raise you up the scale of holiness; they don’t deal with material things,” he added.
The schools serve extremist sects like Satmar, Toldot Aharon, Neturei Karta and some of the Bratslav groups, which together make up the group known as the Eda Haredit. These groups don’t recognize the state or use its budgets. Instead, the parents help pay for the schools, from ages 5 to 17, but donations come primarily from abroad and some within Israel. “Every vacation, we had to go out and raise money – usually at synagogues. The competition was to see who could bring in the most money,” recalled Yisrael.
“The Education Ministry prefers not to challenge the extreme Haredim,” claimed Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child. “Apparently, there is a fear of political groups that, while they do not identify with the Eda Haredit, will support it and protect it,” he added.
The state’s oversight of schools, and their funding, depends on the kind of school – from state secular and state religious schools to “recognized but unofficial” (such as the largest ultra-Orthodox networks or anthroposophic schools), to “exempt,” with the latter having the most basic of government supervision.
The unsupervised schools constitute a fourth group, one that is completely independent. In addition to being unsupervised and unfunded by the Education Ministry and the municipality, they also have no relationship with the Health Ministry, the Home Front Command or any other authority. The training and qualifications their teachers and principals have is unknown, while the students themselves are not registered in the schools where they study.
However, a source in the municipality said the city has a “complex and complicated relationship” with some of the unsupervised schools, especially given their attempts to receive the municipal tax discounts that are given to schools. Such discounts are only given to official schools, but if a list of students is provided along with proof that they work with health and safety consultants, the city gives a partial discount to unsupervised schools. “This is not a perfect arrangement, but it allows us to maintain the very minimum,” the municipality source added.
Three years ago, City Councilor Dr. Laura Wharton (Meretz) began to try and find these hidden institutions, which she heard about from people like Yisrael. “If it were an unlicensed gas station, it would have been closed a long time ago,” she said.
“Nobody messes with the extremist Haredim,” an official familiar with the ultra-Orthodox education system said, adding, “In this respect, not all of Israel’s laws apply to Mea She’arim.”
“If the system can barely cope with the ‘exempt’ schools, how can they deal with frameworks that are at the edge of the spectrum?” asked another official, adding that a similar situation exists in Arab East Jerusalem.
The Education Ministry declined to comment for this report.