Israel Weighs Separation of Orthodox Jewish Children From Other Gifted Students

Plan would set up gender-segregated, religious-only enrichment centers, separate from program for secular and Arab children; ministry staffers also exploring changing curriculum to emphasize Jewish religious law.

Emil Salman

The Education Ministry is considering setting up separate enrichment programs for Orthodox Jewish students rather than have them study with secular students, both Jewish and Arab, as is now the practice. In an effort to explore the issue, the ministry has recently collected data on the number of students in state religious schools in the center of the country who have been identified as gifted.

The ministry currently runs programs for gifted students, Orthodox and secular, at 57 sites around the country. Some locations include Arab as well as Jewish students. The proposed plan would provide funding for gender-separated gifted classes beginning in 3rd grade for gifted children from state religious schools.

Staffers of the ministry – which is headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Habayit Hayehudi party, whose support comes largely from Orthodox Jewish voters – have also explored adapting the curriculum to the lifestyle of Orthodox students, including by teaching science, economics and law with an emphasis on halakha, or Jewish religious law.

Ministry sources have confirmed that the separation of gifted Orthodox Jewish students is being considered, as is gender separation of Orthodox students, but at this stage, they said, it would just involve additional teaching hours for Orthodox students rather than separate centers.

In response, the ministry told Haaretz that about half a year ago, the state religious school system asked it to examine whether there are gifted students from that system who are staying away from the program because it is not geared to their Orthodox way of life. “The subject is being looked into and if that is indeed found to be the case, the ministry will consider a fitting solution within existing settings.”

Ofer Vaknin

The current gifted education centers are an independent part of the public school system, providing enrichment to elementary school students identified as ranking in the top percentile academically. The children come to the centers from a number of schools in a given area once a week instead of attending class at their regular schools. At the centers, the class size is small and they are offered a curriculum that includes science, art, and the humanities, along with study skills.