More ultra-Orthodox in Israel Are Sending Children to Learn Full Core Curriculum

State-Haredi school system has nearly doubled in size in last 2 1/2 years and now serves 7,500 students. 'I wanted my children to learn math and English,' says one parent

Students study at a Talmud Torah school in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, August 31, 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Ultra-Orthodox society describes its educational system as “the flask of pure oil,” recalling the pure oil used to relight the menorah in the Temple after it was liberated during the Hasmonean revolt. This reflects the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) approach to education – a conservative one that seeks to bequeath unadulterated Haredi values to the next generation.

Nevertheless, there have been slow but noticeable changes as an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox schools join the state-Haredi system, established a few years ago to accommodate education institutions seeking to teach the full core curriculum under Education Ministry supervision.

The ministry’s Haredi sector officials refused to release the latest data on such schools and preschools. They fear that publishing the information would unleash attacks against the schools by ultra-Orthodox extremists who believe these institutions are “selling out” in a shameful fashion – contaminating the “flask of pure oil” in return for government funding.

But data obtained by Haaretz shows that the state-Haredi system has nearly doubled in size over the past 2 1/2 years. While there were 30 preschools and 30 schools operating as part of the state-Haredi system in 2015, there are now 100 preschools and more than 40 schools in the system, educating a total of 7,500 children, as compared to 4,000 in 2015.

This is still only a small fraction of the total ultra-Orthodox student population, which numbers some 440,000 youngsters from kindergarten through high school, including special education programs. Some of the state-Haredi schools are geared toward formerly secular parents who became observant, but most are aimed at classic ultra-Orthodox families who want their children to learn a high-level core curriculum not available at many Haredi schools.

In general, girls in Haredi schools study the core curriculum; at the high school or seminary level there are numerous training programs in various professions. But the level of general studies for young boys varies widely. Schools in the Chinuch Atzmai network and Shas’ Maayan Hachinuch HaTorani network get more, while “exempt” schools, generally belonging to the more conservative streams reluctant to work under the Education Ministry, study only basic math and grammar. Another group of schools, known as “recognized but unofficial” schools, fall somewhere in the middle. Once the boys finish eighth grade, though, they generally proceed to yeshivas where no general studies are taught.

Rivka Schwartz, a lawyer from Jerusalem, has a 5-year-old son in a state-Haredi Talmud Torah school and daughter in a state-Haredi preschool. She said she wanted her children to have core studies without having to give up the values and Jewish studies that they would get in regular ultra-Orthodox schools. “Today there’s no reason to yield on Haredi values for core studies,” she said. “The two don’t contradict each other; you can have both.”

“I have two children in a state-Haredi school," said another parent, who preferred to remain anonymous. "I moved the older one, who’s now in seventh grade, when he was in third grade, and the younger one started in first grade. Personally I have no problem with it being a state school, but publicly it’s a problem because it’s perceived as a radical challenge to Haredi education. But I wanted my children to learn math and English.

“In a regular heder [Haredi primary school] all the parents are the same type, they are all yeshiva students,” the father continued. “Nearly all the parents work; you can see this at parent meetings, which mothers also attend, unlike in the regular Haredi schools. The teachers all come from the same teacher population as in the regular Talmud Torahs, all are yeshiva graduates. My kids get the same values as they do in the Talmud Torah.”

There are, however, differences in nuance, he said. “The regulations in a regular Haredi school will forbid having a computer at home. That’s not written in ours. The regulations are different, albeit not dramatically, though a sharp eye will catch the differences. Someone from outside wouldn’t understand.”

Nevertheless, he isn’t sure he will send the rest of his children to the state-Haredi system. “It’s hard for us because we’re always fighting for something. During the first years the Education Ministry gave some funding for transportation, but every year it dropped. This year it’s already [a] significant [expense], certainly when you have a few children,” he said. “Also, the day is longer and we have to fund the difference.

“There’s another problem and that’s that there aren’t enough Haredi English teachers who are good enough,” he said. “There are also teachers who feel a conflict – they are teaching there but don’t really believe in [the system] and think it’s wrong. The child therefore gets a conflicting message from the school and the home.”

The ultra-Orthodox community's sensitivity to changes in its educational system is illustrated by Haim Biton, director of the Shas educational network. “We have Talmud Torah schools with computerized classrooms,” he said. “We did this only after getting special dispensation from rabbis and only for certain classes in the periphery. In Jerusalem and Bnei Brak there are no computers in our classrooms. I’m under constant scrutiny from all parties: parents, principals and rabbis.”

“The Haredi extremists don’t influence our rabbis; they are marginal,” he said. “The rabbis who guide us understand the situation in the world. They show understanding of how to use the innovative tools in a proper and kosher way that is appropriate for the Haredi community.”