Israeli Orthodox Groups Take Over Curriculum on Pluralistic Judaism

Sources say pluralistic groups are running only 30 percent of activities requested by state schools for the new Jewish-Israeli culture curriculum.

The new Jewish-Israeli culture curriculum taught in secular schools is supposed to convey varied outlooks on Judaism, but most of the activities are led by Orthodox groups, the Education Ministry has found, according to sources.

“The education market is extremely tilted toward religious organizations,” one source said. “Even a subject that’s meant to strengthen the pluralistic approach isn’t able to change this.”

Sources say pluralistic groups are running only 30 percent of religious activities requested by state schools. The Education Ministry declined to comment.

Last year Education Minister Naftali Bennett approved the curriculum in Jewish-Israeli culture that had been crafted for elementary and junior high schools under Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron.

The curriculum and Education Ministry officials pledged a pluralistic approach to Judaism. “We seek to expose students to meaningful, multifaceted Judaism that’s relevant to their lives here and now in a broad Israeli context,” the program’s website says.

As Bennett put it at a press conference when the program was launched, “The Jewish story that has been passed from generation to generation must continue to be told. We mustn’t break the chain.” But he said he would be scrupulous “about one principle – there will be no religious coercion, because Judaism belongs to everyone.”

The ministry promised a pluralistic approach stressing “Judaism as a culture, language and nationality” and reflecting “the variety of streams, communities and voices of Jewish society.” Sources say the budget for “experience activities” to this end has been set at around 7 million shekels ($1.94 million).

The activities are offered by outside groups, and in theory this is a free market in which pluralistic and Orthodox groups can compete for contracts at state schools.

But according to a report by Panim, a group that represents organizations promoting Jewish renewal, some 85 percent of the 18 million shekels the Education Ministry budgets to Jewish-identity activities at state schools goes to Orthodox groups. This generous government funding “lets them offer more and more programs at low prices,” one source said.

Panim, for its part, said it’s “inconceivable that conservative religious organizations operate in the state school system with the aim of changing the students’ way of life. We believe in the importance of Jewish studies from a position of respect for all ethnic groups, customs and traditions, and without efforts to make pupils observant.”

Still, another source familiar with the Education Ministry’s budgeting notes a legal dispute between the ministry’s heritage branch responsible for the Jewish-Israeli culture program and which is committed to a pluralistic approach and the Torah culture branch, which funds most of the Orthodox groups.

After this clash, it was decided that groups not defined as pluralistic could also offer activities under the new curriculum, as long as they commited to abide by the guidelines.

But there isn’t complete supervision over this. One of the largest providers of programming is the organization Zehut, which represents 40 religious-Zionist groups operating centers for deepening Jewish identity in state education. Zehut’s director, Itay Granek, is an activist in Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party.

A few weeks ago, as part of the Jewish-Israeli culture program, one of the centers for deepening Jewish identity took children from a city in the center of the country to an Orthodox synagogue. According to parents, the guides denied requests to discuss other streams of Judaism.

“The Orthodox approach was the only one presented to the children,” one of the parents said. “You don’t have to say it explicitly; the message is that this is the correct version of Judaism.”

According to this parent, the option of a cultural approach to Judaism wasn’t even discussed: “The synagogue’s rabbi only stressed how holy the place is and how holy the children are.”

Activities that have been approved for Orthodox organizations include a computer game on the Torah portion of the week, and a project that lets students “be partners in choosing the symbols of the emerging Jewish state.”

There’s also an activity on courage from the Maccabee era to the Holocaust to the present day, one on baking matza, and one on Shabbat “the guide will integrate songs and liturgical poems that discuss family values and a story for Shabbat with a moral.”

Sources say pluralistic groups run only 30 percent of the activities requested by the state schools; Orthodox groups run 55 percent and private companies the rest.

“Even if they’d promise from today to tomorrow, we’re talking about organizations that can’t really reflect the varied streams and voices in Judaism,” one source said.

Another noted: “The absolute majority of organizations dealing with complementary Jewish education at state schools are religious-Zionist or ultra-Orthodox. The heads of these groups don’t send their children to state schools.”

Still, this source noted that “the average secular parent and the average principal doesn’t have any problem with an Orthodox organization teaching the Torah portion of the week.”