Education Min. Expanding Religious School Program

The Education Ministry is significantly expanding a privately-sponsored educational program operated by the Mibereshit movement run by national-religious rabbi Mordechai Elon. Students who participate in the program go on a six-day journey around the country, ending in Jerusalem.

The program was developed in 2006 by then-education minister Limor Livnat and the ministry department responsible for social and youth affairs. Some 12,000 students go on the trip every year, and the current minister, Gideon Sa'ar, has expanded this number to 20,000 over each of the next two years as part of his plan to strengthen Jewish and Zionist education.

The program is jointly sponsored by the Education Ministry, Mibereshit and the the students' parents, whose payments for the trip are transferred to the movement. Sources at the ministry said it will allocate NIS 10 million to the program.

Mibereshit receives many private donations. One of its prominent donors is an Evangelical Christian businessman who is said to have given at least $14 million to the organization.

The pedagogic aspects of the program include "clarification and strengthening the link of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel, through understanding our roots as a nation and our right to the land." The program also targets an "understanding of the profound meaning of Judaism and the student's connection to his Judaism - his realization of being a link in a chain of generations."

The visit to Jerusalem has three motifs: "The capital of Israel in the past and present", in which students visit the City of David and state institutions in Givat Ram, "The Higher Jerusalem," in which students visit the Old City's Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, and "Judaism," in which they pray at the Wall, discuss the weekly Torah portion and the meaning of Shabbat. They also take tours "concentrated on strengthening Jewish identity."

Rabbi Mordechai Alon, who heads the program, rarely speaks out on political matters. But sources close to him say his worldview does not differ much from that of his brother, former National Union MK Benny Elon. In the run-up to the 2006 general election, Elon rejected a proposal from the heads of the National Union and the National Religious Party to merge the two parties.

"This program privatizes value-based education and hands it over to a right-wing organization," said a source familiar with Mibereshit's activities. "There are other, much more pluralist organizations that will be happy for a portion of that support."

A source at the Education Ministry said that the program was of the "knitted scullcap" orientation - national religious - and has received very positive reviews from school principals who took part. "They said it was an extraordinarily powerful and influential experience for the students, at least as much as the Holocaust remembrance journey to Poland," the source said.