One Third of Israel's Religious Students Are Exempt From Studying Math, Science and English

The increase in the number of exemptions marks a serious setback for the government in its efforts to bring more ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the labor market

FILE PHOTO: Haredi students, Haifa, 2008.
\ Dan Keinan

Some 27% of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox students, a total of more than 90,000, have been excused from studying a core curriculum of math, science, English and other key subjects in the current school year, Education Ministry documents obtained by TheMarker show. They also show that the number of “yeshivot k’tanot” (high school level yeshivas) receiving exemptions and not offering “bagrut” high school matriculation exams has doubled over the past decade.

Under outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who took office in 2015, the number of students in exempt educational institutions soared by 7,300, the documents indicate. Bennett will not be in the incoming cabinet after his Hayamin Hehadash party failed to be reelected to the Knesset, but the religious Union of Right-Wing Parties is likely to get the education portfolio.

The increase in the number of exemptions marks a serious setback for the government in its efforts to bring more ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the labor market. There is a preference among large segments of the Haredi community that adult males devote their daytime hours to Torah study, but many of those who might prefer to find employment are handicapped by the refusal of ultra-Orthodox schools to teach the skills needed to hold down a job.

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In an interview with TheMarker last June, Dr. Peter Jarrett of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, warned that Israel could not delay ensuring that ultra-Orthodox students get a general education.

“I think that’s a dangerous strategy. You’re in a race against the clock. It’s obvious to everyone that the returns that a quality education system make to society are not immediate. Even if you manage to provide an excellent education to a sector that needs it, the resulting benefit to you and to society will not arrive for at least a decade. How long will you wait?” Jarret commented.

The Education Ministry data cover two kinds of Haredi schools – elementary level schools for boys in grades 1-8 and yeshivot k’tanot, the equivalent of grades 9-12. The education minister is empowered by law to choose which institutions get the exemption from teaching the core curriculum, which also includes social studies, Hebrew language, art and physical education.

The issue of the core curricula has been on the public agenda for two decades, but demographics and the political power of Haredi parties have defied efforts to change the educational system. The number of students at Yeshivot k’tanot has grown 60% in the past two decades, faster than the 52% increase in the Haredi high-school age population.

At the elementary school level, the problem is less severe. While the population of students has grown 40%, the number of students at exempt schools has risen just 20%. But all told, the number of exempt institutions across all grade levels has risen 33% since 2008.

In response to the data, the Education Ministry said it regards said change could only be introduced slowly.

“The expansion [of the core curriculum] must be done in cooperation and on the basis of trust between all the relevant parties,” it said. “Major and profound change must be carried out gradually. The [Haredi educational] stream is constantly growing and in the years 2014-2019, the number of students has increased fivefold.”

Exempt institutions – which account for 20% of Haredi elementary-level schools and 40% of high school equivalents – operate with almost no Education Ministry control. They are allowed to make their own decisions on most of the educational program they provide, the method of teaching, how to hire teachers and how their schools are administered. In any event, enforcement of the core curricula requirement is monitored by just 19 Education Ministry inspectors for exempt schools.

All told there are 332,000 students registered at ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, most of them run by non-profit organizations funded by the government that are supposed to abide by the rules on the core curriculum. The system is dominated by school networks associated with the Haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas.

Sources say the schools in Shas’ Ma’ayan Hachinuch Torani network are more likely to provide a general education. In the schools affiliated with United Torah Judaism, girls are more likely to get a general education than boys, since females are expected to find employment after they graduate, but the quality of teaching is poor.

Last year, Bennett approved new rules on exempt institutions for grades 1-8, which Haredi newspapers at the time said had the backing of the community’s rabbinical leadership. The rules were supposed to address half the Education Ministry’s core curriculum requirements. But they didn’t require schools to teach English as a second language, even though English is usually required for highly-skilled employment in Israel. Instead, they were permitted to teach Yiddish.

During the term of Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron, a special unit for Haredi education was formed at the Education Ministry that was supposed to boost supervision. Part of the initiative was the creation of a state-Haredi educational stream that would employ teachers who met government standards. But as of today, only 2.5% of Haredi students are in state-Haredi schools, in part because Haredi politicians have discouraged it.

“Even today the default educational choice for Haredi boys is a school without a core curriculum and only partial state supervision,” said Michal Zernowitski, chairwoman of the Ir V’em Movement, which is promoting the new stream.

“If the government wants to integrate the ultra-Orthodox through education and employment, it has to encourage this stream and open more schools like these in every Haredi town …. Experience has shown that everywhere schools like these were opened, demand was greater than the supply – the public voted with its feet,” she said.