Haredi Kindergarten Teachers Organize to Fight Dismissals

For 40 years, Ruma Shuker, a preschool teacher at an Agudath Israel kindergarten in Rehovot, greeted her charges at the gate of the building with great anticipation. Yesterday she was locked out. A younger teacher informed her that she no longer had a job.

For the past four years, Shuker has been waging a legal battle against the Agudath Israel kindergarten network and its efforts to fire her. Since her official dismissal in 2003, Shuker has continued working under the force of an injunction by the Tel Aviv District Labor Court. In May, however, she received another dismissal notice.

Shuker recently joined the first labor union for ultra-Orthodox women - the Agudath Israel kindergarten teachers' association. It was founded three months ago in response to the network's financial recovery plan, which calls for dismissing teachers with seniority and reducing the wages of their younger colleagues. Agudath Israel, with about 360 kindergartens, is under Education Ministry orders to dig itself out of its NIS 130 million deficit. So far, about 120 of the network's 520 teachers have joined.

The union represents 12 teachers with 25 or more years of experience that the network is seeking to fire. In 2003, after it failed to dismiss them, management reduced their salary to that of 12-year veterans and suspended their social benefits. This month, to the consternation of parents whose children are enrolled in the affected preschools, Agudath Israel announced that replacements had been found for the 12 recalcitrant teachers. Some of them remained at home, but not Shuker.

One of the new union members reported smelling change in the air. "Haredi women are obedient," she said. "For years we were like battered women, we accepted everything submissively, but I think we're starting to learn to stand up for our rights."

The union and its swelling membership represents a breaking taboo in Haredi society. Anat Shani, the teachers' attorney, says many of the women's colleagues support the fight but are afraid to join the union. She said some have been threatened with dismissal if they join.

Most ultra-Orthodox women are teachers, and since women are the main breadwinners, the profession is the community's main source of income. That is precisely why Haredi women have never gotten involved in labor struggles.

In July, the National Labor Court recognized the new union, and the Education Ministry began including it in its negotiations over the recovery plan. The teachers say they have the support of prominent Haredi rabbi Yehuda Leib Shteinman, but Yosef Beninfeld of the network management refuses to recognize the union. He says the teachers must understand that under recovery plans, some people are hurt.

Shani says the network refuses to recognize the union and is seeking to fire the most senior teachers, while the teachers want those considering retirement to go first. The ministry has agreed to increase severance pay for those who retire. The union also wants to increase salaries, currently ranging from NIS 5,800 to NIS 7,000 per month, which are less than the NIS 8,000 to NIS 9,000 a month their colleagues in other preschools make.