The public relations film for the umbrella organization of the centers for Jewish identity shows a young, female, religious national service volunteer walking into a classroom. “We learned so much about Jewish tradition and identity,” says a female student, and a friend adds: “It’s part of our identity.” Later, we see the young woman embracing the students and beginning a lesson on “the special significance of Hanukkah.” A voiceover says: “What you give them today will be the Jewish identity of tomorrow’s generation.”
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The film was shown at a conference last week for 12th graders, religious girls who want to volunteer for national service in one of the centers operating in nonreligious state schools. MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, the new Habayit Hayehudi whip, was there. Hanukkah, she said, “symbolizes the struggle for Jewish identity against Hellenistic culture ... your mission is [dedicated to] Jewish identity now.”
According to Zehut’s website, the organization operates 63 centers through 32 associations in 135 local governments throughout the country. Female national-service volunteers teach classes in Jewish heritage and values in around 300 kindergartens and 700 schools, mostly to lower grades, all of them part of the nonreligious state education system. That’s about half of the Hebrew-language state schools. Funding comes from the Education Ministry’s Torah Culture Department, which supervises the centers.
Zehut and the associations stress their nonpartisan nature. But Moalem-Refaeli’s presence at the conference was not a coincidence, nor was the invitation of Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, also from Habayit Hayehudi, to this year’s conference of center directors. The Education Ministry says Habayit Hayehudi’s relationship with the Torah Culture Department predates the appointment of party chairman Naftali Bennett as education minister, but it seems to have deepened as a result.
An email from Zehut director Itay Granek underlines the extent of the cooperation between the party’s leaders and the centers, which depend on the Education Ministry for nearly all their funding. In the email, Granek boasted that in 2015 the budget reached 19.3 million shekels ($5 million), up from 18 million shekels in 2014 and 11.9 million shekels in 2013.
Granek, who was a Knesset candidate for Habayit Hayehudi in the last election (96th on the slate), told Haaretz there was “absolutely no connection” between the party and Zehut, and that his party work had no effect on Zehut’s activities.
“Party involvement in budget discussions that are meant to be professional are considered very unusual,” a senior Education Ministry official said.
The Torah Culture Department’s sponsorship of the centers’ activities in nonreligious state schools reflects top Education Ministry official’s view that instruction in “values” and “tradition” should be conducted by private, mainly Orthodox Jewish organizations operating with minimal oversight.
Twenty years ago, the Education Ministry accepted the Shenhar Committee’s recommendation that Jewish subjects should be taught by teachers whose backgrounds reflected those of the school’s community. It, like many others, was not applied. Over 95 percent of the some 18 million shekels allocated for these activities in the 2014 state budget went to Orthodox organizations. Two Reform Jewish organizations received about 3 percent, and the nondenominational Bina and Dror Israel received about 270,000 shekels combined.
The biggest slice of the budget — about 1.7 million shekels — went to Zehut, which provides “direction, continuing education, publicity and computer services” to its member associations.
Many of the associations stress that most of their activities are in nonreligious schools. In a booklet meant for lower grades published by “the Jewish Experience,” all the boys in the illustrations wear kippot.
Kedma operates mainly in the Sharon region, north of Tel Aviv, and offers an “experiential journey to the history of Israel.” A woman with a daughter in a nonreligious school says the principal recently announced that Kedma would give a one-hour lesson every week, instead of a history lesson. She says that science instruction is sometimes truncated in order to meet the requirements for history. If the Education Ministry thinks the lesson [taught by Kedma] is important, it should add it to the schedule; if it’s an elective, why weren’t the parents involved? And why does the school have to bring in an outside person, whose agenda nobody knows?” the parent said.
According to Michal Shalev-Reicher of Secular Forum, the ties between the centers for Jewish identity and the heads of Habayit Hayehudi show that Bennett’s goal is to “turn state secular education into religious education. Secular and pluralistic education are under constant threat.”
The head of Free Israel, Mickey Gitzin, added: “Bennett has turned the Education Ministry into a system of preserving and advancing political patronage and of religious proselytizing.”
Zehut said in a response that it “conducts a variety of activities at hundreds of schools, according to principals’ and parents’ requests,” that the centers are closely overseen by the Education Ministry and that programs include “subjects like strengthening the common denominator, creating bridges between different groups, and increasing the students’ knowledge of Israel’s history and their acquaintance with Jewish culture.”
Bennett’s office declined to answer questions on the matter.