Education Ministry in Talks With ultra-Orthodox Group to Train Secular Teachers, Parents

The group teaches girls 'that they must be homemakers because it's a commandment from God,' the Forum for Secular Education says

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit a class of first graders to open the new school year, Harish, Israel, September 2, 2017.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit a class of first graders to open the new school year, Harish, Israel, September 2, 2017.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Education Ministry is contracting with an ultra-Orthodox-Zionist organization to operate a training program for teachers in the state nonreligious school system and parents of students in these schools.

The program’s stated goals are “providing tools to strengthen the bond with the child” and “triggering processes that create positive change in children,” based on Binyan Shalem Institute’s experience in conducting training on family, intimate relations and parenting “in a Jewish spirit.”

Half of the million shekel ($283,000) project, the cost of which will be divided equally between the Education Ministry and the organization, will target a non-Haredi population. The ministry’s share will come from its psychological consulting services for teachers, students and parents.

In addition to questions about increased religious activity in secular education, which has been hotly debated this past year, there are questions about the contract process. The ministry did not respond to questions.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attended the organization’s annual conference, which is sex-segregated.

The stated purpose of Binyan Shalem is premarital counseling, marriage counseling and training family counselors. “If I could explain the Torah of intimacy on one leg, I would say you have to put emphasis on good deeds and fear of the heavens,” says Ester Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, whose husband is a rabbi.

According to a report Binyan Shalem submitted to the Registrar of Associations, it received some 700,000 shekels from the Education Ministry between 2008 and 2015 — 93,000 shekels in 2015 alone — and 338,000 shekels from the city of Jerusalem. In addition, it raised 617,000 shekels in donations.

The joint venture with the Education Ministry expands Binyan Shalem’s operations in secular education. The first contract, signed in late 2015, seemed not to be implemented (both bodies refused to comment on the reason why). The contract was approved anew two weeks ago, and enters into force in August.

The program’s goal is to establish “a system of training, support and enrichment for parents and teachers on educational issues they encounter,” according to an internal ministry memo. It calls for Binyan Shalem to operate in elementary and high schools “a program that will include training and enrichment meetings for teachers and parents,” including 88 four-part seminars for parents, with the number likely to increase.

“Binyan Shalem’s annual conferences are held with the blessing of all Zionist Haredi rabbis,” says a person who is close to the world of religious organizations. “The approach of the institute is very Torah-oriented. You have to obey the rabbis, strengthen Jewish family values and the women whose husbands serve in the army.” He says the organization is associated with the “nationalist Haredi wing of Habayit Hayehudi,” the party led by Bennett.

Another source, also religious, says the contract with the institute reflects a patronizing attitude. “Secular parents can educate their children, and even if there are problems there are enough secular organizations and counselors who can help. You don’t need Binyan Shalem’s intervention.” He adds that “another question is how people in the organization will react to parents who waver, for example, how to help their LGBT children.”

The Forum for Secular Education called on parents, principals and teachers to keep Binyam Shalem out of the schools. “The Education Ministry’s contract with a body with a scary agenda attests to the slippery slope of religious proselytizing,” the forum said. “Binyan Shalem’s values are diametrically opposed to the secular experience and its values. This is not the first time that, under the guise of domestic harmony or family values, they teach girls that they must be homemakers because it’s a commandment from God.”

The agreement calls the project a joint venture. This type of contract has become common in recent years, often because the two sides, government and private, seek to avoid issuing a public tender or financial support through a budgetary rule, two tracks that require closer supervision.

The contract thus raises questions. One of the conditions for approving a program as a joint venture is that the service the private organization is offering is unique. But, Binyan Shalem is not the only group offering seminars to parents for strengthening their connection to their children, not in the religious sector and certainly not in the secular public. The ministry is supposed to make a comprehensive study to prove that advancing a program can only be done through a contract with a specific organization. Several organizations dealing in this field were surprised to hear this week about the new project.

The Education Ministry commented: “The contract process with Binyan Shalem was openly competitive, according to administrative rules. Other nongovernmental organizations had the chance to submit their candidacy for the joint venture.” Still, the ministry refused to provide any details regarding the process — when it was held, how many organizations were involved and what the results were.

Outsourcing the operation of seminars has raised additional criticism. The Movement for Public Psychology commented that “the decision to disburse funds for carrying out psycho-educational tasks to non-profits, which hire service providers whose quality of training is unknown, instead of transferring the budget to the Public Educational Psychology Service, whose staff is well trained in performing such tasks but whose resources are diminished, is unclear. It is an astounding choice, which raises questions about the desire to privatize or to disburse the funds to specific groups for political reasons. Instead of providing the public a professional public service given by educational psychologists licensed by the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry prefers to sign a contract with an association that has no supervision.”

Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit commented that Binyan Shalem’s proposal “was evaluated according to professional standards related to the field of training parents.” He added: “The association being religious does not disqualify it. Disqualification over religiosity in a democratic state is against the law and reeks of racism.” He noted schools “are given the option of choosing the program.”

Binyan Shalem refused to respond to Haaretz’s questions.

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