The ultra-Orthodox Parents Who Want Schools That Teach Kids Math and English

The decision to exempt Haredi schools from teaching the core curriculum was a big win for the ultra-Orthodox parties, but it has driven hundreds in the community to demand the state to supply them with alternative institutions.

Vaknin family in their home in Elad.
Gil Cohen Magen

Last week should have been a crowning moment for the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas. As they were promised in the coalition agreements, the government began repealing a law that required Haredi elementary schools to teach the core curriculum — math, English and science — or lose their funding. In fact, the coalition embarked on a fast-track process, that should be completed this week, to do away with the law sponsored by former Education Minister Shay Piron (Yesh Atid).

If the ultra-Orthodox parties were expecting wall-to-wall applause from their community for the law’s repeal, they were mistaken. Last week, hundreds of Haredi parents signed a petition to Education Minister Naftali Bennett demanding the establishment of alternative ultra-Orthodox schools where their children could learn the core curriculum, terming it “critical for their success at every stage of life.”

Ostensibly, the law related to only about 40,000 of the approximately 400,000 ultra-Orthodox students – those who attend independent schools that make do with only partial government funding in exchange for being exempt from teaching the core curriculum. But in reality, even boys (as opposed to girls) who are in the regular ultra-Orthodox school systems study secular subjects only at a very low level, if at all, and only in elementary school.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) told Radio Kol Chai last week that that isn’t a problem, since “it’s possible to be a merchant even without the core curriculum.” But not everyone agrees.

Neta Katz, a businessman from the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, has two children, aged 6 and 8. They attend a school where most of the parents are considered “modern” – they work, and don’t hide their smartphones. Yet the school teaches almost exclusively Jewish subjects.

So every few days Katz or his wife takes the boys to private English classes, which are nowadays offered in almost every ultra-Orthodox town. But it isn’t easy, because the eldest gets home from his regular school only at 5 P.M.

Neta Katz.
Emil Salman

“He’s exhausted, he wants to play,” Katz says. “Every time, it’s a struggle. I don’t want to force him, but to us, as well as half of ultra-Orthodox parents, this seems important.”

Katz, 29, is one of the petition’s organizers. “We don’t want to force others,” he added. “But why don’t we have the option of doing this at school?”

The signatories stressed that they reject the coercive approach of the old law, which would have imposed financial penalties on schools that don’t teach the core curriculum. Coercion, the petition said, “is not the right way to effect true internal change.”

Nevertheless, it added, “We are worried by a situation in which our children have no ultra-Orthodox educational alternative that includes the core curriculum, which is critical for their success at every stage of life.”

The signatories want a new ultra-Orthodox school system that would operate alongside the existing ones, but would teach the core curriculum. They also want the ministry to help the handful of private ultra-Orthodox schools founded in the past few years that already do teach the core curriculum.

As of last Thursday, the petition had been signed by 620 ultra-Orthodox parents; the organizers’ goal is 1,000. And Katz said that for everyone who signs, “there are another 10 who say, ‘sign, sign,’ but don’t dare do it themselves.”

It’s hard to remember a previous case in which ultra-Orthodox people were willing to sign their own names to a petition opposing what is ostensibly the ultra-Orthodox consensus. And while some of the signatories, like Katz, are longtime activists on this issue, others are just ordinary people who have stopped being afraid to openly call for change.

“Suddenly, people have found the courage to essentially tell the ultra-Orthodox leadership, ‘You’re harming our interests,’” says Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, founder of Hochmei Lev, an ultra-Orthodox high school in Jerusalem that prepares its students for the matriculation exams. “The leadership finds itself in a pickle.”

The ultra-Orthodox activists have found some surprising allies. One is a group of former ultra-Orthodox Jews who are suing the state for its failure to ensure that they studied the core curriculum as children. Another is Rabbi David Yosef, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, who was quoted by Channel 10 television last week as saying that Shas’ school system needs to beef up its secular studies.

David Oman of Modi’in Ilit said the petition’s signatories want “the right to choose.” Though he believes children should acquire a basic secular education, he says, “I recognize others’ right to think differently and to decide how to educate their children. But I expect the same from them – to let me decide.”

Yehiel Vaknin of Elad, a 33-year-old father of four, currently heads a department of the Bnei Brak municipality while also studying for a master’s in law at Bar-Ilan University. But he said it took him years of hard work – while raising a family – to make up all the material he didn’t learn in the ultra-Orthodox schools he attended.

“People don’t know what it means to embark on life at age 20-plus or 30-plus, what someone who hasn’t learned the basics has to deal with,” he says. “There were years of hardship and poverty, and the whole family suffered,” while he learned what he needed to join the workforce – a project that required spending “a great deal of money” on private teachers.

“I didn’t even know the multiplication table,” he says. “Today, I’m trying to do everything I can so that my children won’t have to suffer what I went through.”

Vaknin says the school in Elad ostensibly does teach the core curriculum, “but at a very low level.” For instance, “The teachers themselves never learned English, so how can they know how to teach it?”

As usual these days, Facebook is leading the rebellion, but it has also reached the mainstream media. It was easy to find people willing to be interviewed for this article, and ultra-Orthodox advocates of the core curriculum also appeared on several radio and television programs last week. This has given advocates of change a feeling of power, even though they still represent a tiny minority. Why are these modern ultra-Orthodox suddenly daring to come out of the closet? Katz says it’s because so many parents disagree with the leadership’s view that learning the core curriculum is somehow unJewish. “They don’t see this as something inherently contradictory to Judaism or ultra-Orthodoxy,” he says. “So it’s easy to rebel against this.”

Another reason, he adds, is that the rebels are people who have only recently learned the cost of shunning secular studies through their own experience. “They themselves are trying to integrate into the job market and understand how difficult this deficit makes it,” he says.

For the last 10 to 15 years ultra-Orthodox people have been attending college, Katz notes. So people understand that secular studies aren’t an anti-Jewish decree which must be opposed at all costs – and they also understand how hard it is to starting learning this material for the first time once they are adults.

Katz himself spent years in a college preparatory program trying to make up his knowledge deficit, but eventually had to give up his dream of getting an MBA. “I got a high grade on the entrance exam, but the studying, the hours, the travel, were beyond my capabilities as someone who had to support a family,” he says. “More than 50 percent dropped out of the program.”

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox leadership has been waging war on Cohen’s high school, which prepares its Haredi students for the matriculation exams. As a result, it has found itself without a building for the coming school year. Cohen believes that it’s not the fact that he founded such a school that has angered the leadership, but rather that he speaks publicly about the need to teach secular subjects.

Now, however, Cohen is no longer alone. And he believes it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion also spreads to other issues in the Haredi world.