Ultra-Orthodox Families' Increasing Demand for Secular Education Not Being Met

Education Ministry 'foiling attempts at integration into society,' say parents who want state-run Haredi school system to incorporate subjects like English, math

The Katz family in Jerusalem, who favor the teaching of secular core subjects in Haredi schools, May 22, 2018.
Emil Salman

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox children whose families want them to receive education in secular subjects are likely to be left in the lurch in the coming school year.

Despite growing demand among the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, to have children learn "core" subjects as English and math as part of the curriculum in the state Haredi school system – no solution has been forthcoming. The reasons for this, parents claim, include lack of room, hurdles by the local authorities and indifference on the part of the Education Ministry.

In light of this situation, an attempt by parents of some 250 children to be accepted to state Haredi schools next year is doomed to fail. A group of parents has gotten together recently, demanding an increase in the number of classrooms in these schools, but it seems that most will end up registering their children in the regular Haredi school system, where secular subjects are taught at a low level, if at all.

The parents accuse the Education Ministry of shirking its responsibilities. One has even charged that “the state is foiling attempts by Haredi families to integrate into the general society.”

The state Haredi school system was launched at the initiative of former Education Minister Shai Piron, who sought to bypass the contentious issue of core subjects being taught in the non-state schools that cater to the community. In addition to religious subjects, the relatively new state-run system offers a full curriculum of secular subjects from the first grade, and it is supervised by the ministry, in contrast to the Haredi system that is independently managed and has its own curriculum.

According to Education Ministry figures, the number of children enrolled this academic year in 43 state-run Haredi schools is 5,562, as compared to 4,675 pupils in 36 institutions last year. The ministry would not divulge data regarding the coming school year.

In conversations with parents and Haredi education activists it emerges that some 150 children who will be entering first grade in Jerusalem in the fall have been told that the schools are completely full. In Petah Tikva and Bnei Brak, 70 children are looking for a place in Haredi state schools, while others seek to enroll in them in Bat Yam, Holon and other cities – including locales with a Haredi majority such as Modi’in and Betar Ilit.

According to senior Education Ministry officials, these are numbers that warrant urgent attention.

A preliminary survey by Itamar Kea Levi, an activist in Jerusalem, reveals that there are 120 families across the country that have shown interest in setting up a school as part of the state-Haredi system in their own locales. He says that dozens of other families did not wish to give details about their efforts, as yet.

“The world is changing, people realize that you can stay in the world of Torah and work at the same time,” says Kea Levi. “In such a world, you want your child to have all the options.”

There are currently three such schools in Jerusalem – an elementary school for girls, and an elementary and high school for boys. Next year, a high school for girls is scheduled to be opened.

'A different approach'

Former Bnei Brak resident Neta Katz says that he moved to Jerusalem so that his two sons, aged 7 and 9, will be able to study at a state Haredi school. “We’re at the end of the first year and I thank God for the move,” he says, adding that his daughter will be entering first grade in the fall of 2019.

“I asked the principal of the girls’ school to keep a place for her," he says, "but she told me not to count on it. If it’s hard to deal with the demand at this point, I have no doubt that things will only get worse.”

Katz himself studied in schools run by the strict Gur Hasidic sect, and he recalls that, “95 percent of the time was devoted to religious studies, with an hour or an hour and a half left over for secular subjects. English was taught on an irregular basis. When I reached the academic world I had great difficulties since I had to start from very basic concepts like simple arithmetic problems.”

In the state Haredi schools, Katz explains, “the approach is completely different, both in terms of the level and the scope. I never knew there was a subject called science. I don’t believe core subjects should be imposed on people who don’t want them, but the state must enable this for those who do. In many high-density Haredi communities there are no such schools. If one considers the interest of the state, this is an unacceptable situation.”

Israel's compulsory education law gives the responsibility for education to the state and to local authorities. Often, this joint responsibility leads one of the sides to pass the buck. According to sources in some local governments, the procedure is usually that the municipal education department turns to the ministry to ask for a new school to be built. The ministry has various methods of supporting the school system in local authority, through enhanced general budgets or by covering some specific expenses.

The Haredi department at the Education Ministry is responsible for state Haredi schools as well as for the independent Haredi system. Katz says that when he met in the past with people in this department, he was advised to organize a group of parents and then approach the local authority.

“The problem is that you can’t wait for the free market to kick in,” says Katz. “There are many hurdles and objections and you can’t tell parents to deal with local governments on their own.”

Says Yehuda Grovais, from Bnei Brak, “The Haredi department promised to deal with establishing a school if we produced a list of interested parents. By word of mouth we managed to get a list of 40 girls who want to attend such a school next year. So we were sent to the municipality. The sense is that the Education Ministry prefers that someone else do the fighting for them.”

Grovais notes that city hall had suggested that the girls go to a regular Haredi school. When he insisted he wanted something different, he was told that, “it won’t work here.” The same thing happened to another group in Petah Tikva.

“[Education Minister] Bennett is abandoning ultra-Orthodox people who want to integrate” says one parent. “The ministry is strengthening the grip of the extremist elements of the Haredi community and we’re paying the price.”

In response, the Bnei Brak municipality says that efforts will be made to resolve the issue. The Petah Tikva municipality said there was not enough demand for such schools.

The Education Ministry said it viewed the demand for more state-run Haredi schools positively and would examine ways to meet it, together with the relevant local authorities.