After Outcry, Tel Aviv Schools Outsource Fewer Lessons to Orthodox Groups

Only a handful of Orthodox programs are now being used in the city's elementary schools, down from about 40 two years ago

A fifth grade class in central Israel.
Zvika Yisraeli/GPO

The number of secular elementary schools using programs provided by religious associations has plummeted over the past two years from about 40 to five, and the programs still being used are more limited. Teachers on staff, rather than outside instructors are now teaching about Judaism.

“There is no justification for transferring responsibility for lessons [in Judaism] to outside bodies that have nothing to do with the spirit of the school and the community it serves,” says one school principal in Tel Aviv.

The head of the educational administration in the Tel Aviv municipality, Shirli Rimon Bracha, said this policy is “not against religion or Judaism, but a desire to limit outsourcing as much as possible to one-dimensional religious groups that claim Judaism for themselves.”

After opposition to Orthodox associations operating in secular schools surfaced two years ago, Mayor Ron Huldai issued an instruction that school faculty teach Jewish culture and holidays rather than outside Orthodox groups, which are generously funded by the Education Ministry’s Jewish culture division.

In 2017, the ministry directly allocated a record high of funds, about 211 million shekels ($58.5 million), to strengthening “Jewish culture.” Some of these groups are also funded by the Agriculture Ministry.

The heads of these associations are close to the ministers of the religious Habayit Hayehudi party. Government support, which includes having young women doing national civil service teach the programs, allows the Orthodox organizations to offer their programs at a low cost or for free.

According to municipality figures obtained by Haaretz, about two years ago, Orthodox organizations were conducting programs in 70 percent of the city’s 55 secular elementary schools with Jewish student bodies. In contrast, such programs were only operating in 10 percent of the schools as of September 1.

Principals reported that in some cases the programs were limited to the period between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur or to specific events such a Torah reading or to a single lesson a month. These figures do not include schools in the Tali system, which are identified with the Reform movement, but even when all schools are included, outside programs have declined significantly.

Secular principals have said that outsourcing these lessons to the Orthodox groups into the schools was a money-saving measure. But using outside instructors also obviates the need for teachers to deal with the question of how to mark the various holidays in a secular, pluralistic educational environment.

The perspective offered by Orthodox groups, some of them with a national ultra-Orthodox ideology, may be narrow, but it saves principals from having to decide how to present the material.

“Why do we need a religious person to explain about Rosh Hashanah,” municipal education chief Rimon Bracha says. In that vein, the Shenhar Committee, whose recommendations were adopted by the Education Ministry but never fully implemented, concluded at the time that the teachers instructing in Judaism should be of a similar background as the community were the school is located.

One elementary school principal said that lessons on the holidays were being taught by young people brought by the Orthodox groups.

“I thought it would make the material more interesting for the children,” she said.

But the principal said that some parents had complained about some of the information imparted, for example about the importance of the Temple or Orthodox observance.

“These are things that are not suitable for a secular school. I issued a directive that teachers must oversee outside activities. They are the ones who know their students best. It’s more natural and right for the children and their parents. The following year I gave up the outside programs entirely. We were liberated,” she said.

Rimon Bracha says that once the teachers are tasked with teaching lessons on Jewish culture and the holidays, “they discover the beauty in preparing the lessons. They exchange information and ideas and the lessons become more personal and are based on family traditions, rather than a prescribed ceremony.”

A number of pluralistic organizations assist the teachers, but do not take over. “The goal is for the teachers to know how to deal with Jewish and Hebrew culture and tradition, not to raise children without identity or roots, but also not to allow interested parties to take over the children’s understanding of the traditions that belong to all of us.”

The success that Tel Aviv schools have had in significantly limiting the activities of the Orthodox groups shows the important role a determined local government can play in education, even in the elementary school system, where the ministry exercises stronger control.

The ministry has quietly acquiesced to municipal opposition to the outsourced religious education, partly because it is difficult to come out against teachers taking a more active role in imparting Judaism and also to help avoid fielding more accusations that there is too much religious influence in the secular schools.

There are some secular schools where outside groups called “centers for deepening Jewish identity,” provide instruction under the aegis of the ministry's Jewish culture division. Until the beginning of the current school year, the association that runs these centers was headed by Itay Garnik, an activist with Habayit Hayehudi, and close to its party leaders.

This year, he was replaced by Yisrael Ben-Pazi, deputy director of another Orthodox party, National Union, which is a part of Habayit Hayehudi. Ben-Pazi, and the head of the Jewish culture division, Rabbi Itiel Bar-Levi, declined to comment on the drop in programs offered by Orthodox groups in Tel Aviv schools.

Last week Haaretz reported that the Jewish culture division had funded a for-men-only performance planned by the Netanya municipality. After the Justice Ministry banned the exclusion of women from the event, women were allowed in but escorted to seats on the sidelines where they could hardly see anything on stage.

Two weeks ago, the Jewish culture division helped fund a performance by singer Sarit Hadad in Givatayim, at which Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked delivered a welcome speech. The Education Ministry declined to explain the connection between a Sarit Hadad concert and the justice minister.

Earlier this month Haaretz reported that a woman had sued the Transportation Ministry and the Merkaz Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, a religious organization, that won the bid to operate defensive driving courses for preventing her from signing up for a driver’s education course, because it had been designated for men-only.

“I was looking “I for something convenient, hoping to get it done quickly,” said Meytal Lamour, adding, “I saw a vacancy in Ramat Gan in October, but the screen message said it was for men only. Lamour's predecent-setting class action suit was filed by the Israel Women’s Network.

Merkaz Yeshivot Bnei Akiva said that the course that Lamour wanted to attend also served the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, and that 35 of its courses were gender-separate but that there were “dozens of non-gender-separate courses available at the same time.”

According to Merkaz Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, out of 300 courses held nationwide each month, only four are for men only “in Bnei Brak, for the convenience of the residents and with the approval of the Transportation Ministry.”

Students in an Israeli school
Matt Cardy / Getty Images