A Commission on Haredi Education

Less than 15 years ago, in the 1989-90 school year, the Haredi elementary school system constituted a mere 7.5 percent of all children in that age group. Last year, it had grown to 23.5 percent of the elementary school system.

It's hard not to wonder exactly how members of the National Task Force on Promoting Education (the Dovrat Commission) thought its recommendations for shortening the school week and canceling classes on Fridays would be implemented in the low-income neighborhoods and development towns. Did they think that a wretched menial worker would drive the kids in her family SUV to nursery school before going on to work? Or that the single mother working as a low-echelon clerk would inform her Romanian housekeeper that from now on, she would be watching the children on Fridays? Or perhaps they assumed that the municipalities would fund education and enrichment activities from their own meager budgets?

It is much more likely that the infant daycare, afternoon playgroups, housekeepers and foreign workers will be supplanted among these parents by babysitting services that will be offered by Haredi school systems and cultural networks.

Given the situation, it is hard not to raise the cynical proposition that the recommendation to shorten the school week was planted in the commission's conclusions by an agent of the Haredi educational establishment who infiltrated into the task force. Yet despite the beauty of this conspiracy theory, it will have to be rejected in favor of the "slipshod theory," according to which the Dovrat Commission related to the state education system as if it operates in a vacuum, without any competitors.

In fact, the state education system faces a very strong and very violent opposition that has grown at a dizzying pace. Less than 15 years ago, in the 1989-90 school year, the Haredi elementary school system constituted a mere 7.5 percent of all children in that age group. Last year, it had grown to 23.5 percent of the elementary school system. The large natural growth of the Haredim is insufficient to explain this growth, particularly in a period in which a million immigrants arrived in Israel, most of who are fervently secular.

The other explanation is the religious revival movement, which operates several Torah-based educational networks. Each year, on behalf of the Haredi Lev Ahim (Hearts of Brethren) organization, thousands of yeshiva students make home visits to traditional and secular families, trying to persuade them to transfer their children to school networks such as Shuvu and Netivot Moshe.

One of the basic arguments employed by the yeshiva students is the advantage granted by this school in keeping children off the streets and away from criminal activity. They offer parents a long school day and a long school year with far fewer vacations. While the Dovrat Commission recommends an extension of the school day, the Haredi schools will always be able to offer parents a longer school day, since their teachers follow the instructions of the rabbis, not the directives of the teachers' unions.

Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a member of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel in the United States, explained the logic behind the back-to-religion efforts among children when he said a few years ago that in Israel you can buy souls for Torah education, "for pennies, for the cost of a lunch." If the recommendations of the Dovrat Commission are implemented, it will also be possible to buy souls for a long school week.

Formation of the Haredi society of learning was made possible by a few especially short-sighted laws and decrees enacted by the state. One of the more important ones was the allocation of funds to Haredi education despite the fact that these schools barely taught any general studies. As such, the state allowed Haredi education to raise generations of graduates who lack even a minimal base of general knowledge, and who are hard pressed to earn a living in the general labor market. A similar role was played out by the ruling, according to which army service exemption would be granted in sweeping fashion to every Haredi yeshiva pupil. Therefore, the state turned the yeshivas into mass cities of refuge to anyone not wanting to serve in the army.

The Dovrat Commission has not yet completed its work, and therefore, the suggestion has been made that it consider the fact that shortening the school week may indeed lead to a major reform of the school system, but mainly that of the Haredim. Any reform of the state school system must take the competitors into account. Any proposal for change must be such that it will leave the pupils in the state schools and state-religious schools. Not one that chases them away.