Israel Education Ministry Indirectly Funding Orthodox-style Shabbat Activities

The events are part of the so-called Shabbat Project, which claims to encourage Jews from all walks of life in Israel and abroad to 'keep one full Shabbat' this weekend

Ultra Orthodox school children walk to school in the Mea Shearim Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, January 3, 2012.
AP/Sebastian Scheiner

The Education Ministry denies funding a project to encourage Orthodox-style Sabbath observance, although in fact, it is indirectly sponsoring about 15 such events. The events, to be held this weekend, are organized by groups of Orthodox families called Torah nuclei who live in largely non-Orthodox areas, as well as by Jewish studies colleges and Jewish culture departments in municipalities. Some of the events are advertised on the ministry’s Jewish Culture Department Facebook page with the department’s official logo.

The events are part of the so-called Shabbat Project, which according to its website encourages Jews from all walks of life in Israel and abroad to “keep one full Shabbat” this weekend.

In response to a query from Haaretz the Education Ministry said it “does not support the events in question.” But in fact, the groups mentioned above that are organizing the events, receive ongoing financial support from the ministry.

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For example, in Eilat, a Shabbat meal and a ceremony during which women set aside a portion of challah dough before baking is sponsored by the local Torah nucleus, El Ami, which has been funded by the ministry over the past few years. In 2018, El Ami received 178,000 shekels ($50,800) from the ministry. El Ami’s director, Aharon Ackerman, said the event is also funded by the Jewish culture department in the Eilat Municipality, which in turn is partially funded by the Education Ministry’s Jewish Culture Department. An event in Sderot is to be held in cooperation with a local association, Reut Sderot, to which the Education Ministry contributed 345,000 shekels in 2018.

“The Education Ministry’s funding policies should be transparent,” said Yotam Brom, who heads a roof organization of Jewish renewal groups called Panim. Instead, the ministry’s Jewish culture department “acts as a pipeline to find events with an agenda without publishing it openly.”

In May, the logo of the ministry’s Jewish culture department appeared on an ad for a “Jerusalem Day Shabbat,” – a Sabbath in a hotel on the Mount of Olives sponsored by a group called Hotam, which opposes the drafting of religious women into the army and gay pride parades. At that time, the Education Ministry said in a statement that it “has no connection to the event…” and “did not fund it at all. When the department became aware that its logo appeared on the invitation, it conveyed a request to remove the logo immediately.”

Nevertheless, ads for identical events that took place in 2016 and 2017 also feature the department’s logo. The reason is apparently because another organization, Elad, also appears on the ad as a sponsor for the events. Elad receives hundreds of thousands of shekels from the ministry earmarked for organizations that sponsor activities involving Israel studies. In 2018, the Jewish Culture Department gave Elad 672,000 shekels.

In July, the department’s logo appears on the invitation to a ceremony to mark the award of a “Torah creativity prize” to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, who expressed support at the time for Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the massacre of Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In that case too, the ministry denied its involvement and said that the head of the Jewish Culture Department had ordered the logo removed.

In recent years the department has also funded an organization in the town of Givat Shmuel that awards a prize it calls the “Cathedra for Torah and Wisdom.” In 2018, the ministry supported the prize to the tune of 27,000 shekels.

The budget for the Education Ministry’s Jewish Culture Department last year was approximately 218 million shekels, an increase of 50 million shekels over previous years.