Far from the public eye, especially the “secular” eye, Israel’s state-religious education system, generally associated with the religious Zionist movement, is changing. Haredi-Zionist, or Hardal, institutions are gaining power, and their influence is increasingly felt in “regular” religious schools.
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According to an internal Education Ministry document from a year ago, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, the heads of the state-religious school system decided to recognize Talmudei Torah — elementary schools considered more religiously observant than state-religious schools — allowing greater freedom of choice and easing requirements. That would blur the line between these schools and ultra-Orthodox schools, in effect allowing them to operate like private schools.
In response, the liberal Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said the Education Ministry is “granting the Talmud Torah [schools] in public education the ability to act in practice as private institutions.”
Over the past 10 years, the number of Talmud Torah schools in the state-religious system has doubled. These schools are characterized by more classroom hours for religious study, often at the expense of other subjects, and a high level of separation between boys and girls. Some 10,000 students are enrolled in about 60 such schools throughout Israel, according to Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.
The trend toward stricter religious observance is also apparent beyond school campuses, including sex separation from the youngest grades. In the past 15 years, the number of students in sex-separated state-religious elementary schools rose to 51 percent, from 33 percent. These schools have another characteristic: They have half the percentage of students who come from a lower socioeconomic background compared to the regular religious schools.
In recent years, the media has reported that these Talmud Torah schools have been filtering out “inappropriate” students, usually based on religious factors. But the Education Ministry has been slow to deal with the matter.
The ministry document details the characteristics of the Talmud Torah schools: Religious studies can reach half the number of classroom hours, compared to 25 percent to 35 percent in state-religious schools. Homeroom teachers should have a background in religious studies. Schools can choose between the state-religious curriculum and the official Haredi curriculum. In addition, the “Education Ministry will grant the principal and parents’ representatives wide freedom to choose how religion will be taught.”
The schools can also opt out of the Meitzav standardized tests in favor of a special set of tests that are planned for the ultra-Orthodox schools. All this, in a system of public schools that is supervised and financed by the Education Ministry’s state-religious school system.
The biggest prize the ministry grants the Talmud Torah schools is that they are recognized as not being restricted to just students from the nearby area, but open to students from the entire region not based on where they live.
What if the demand for places in the school exceeds the number of spots available? The document states: “The school will not reject any student on an ethnic or social or socioeconomic basis,” but at the same time it allows acceptance, and rejection, based on “educational-religious appropriateness.”
This allows for choosing students based on nontransparent and nonuniform criteria.
Research carried out by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah shows that the percentage of students from a low socioeconomic level is only 7 percent in the Talmud Torah schools, compared to some 27 percent in the regular religious schools.
Two years ago, a father who inquired into the conditions for acceptance to the Talmud Torah in his town was told, he says, that they accept only those students they want: “From good families.” The school said it checks the children’s background with the kindergarten teachers, said the father.
“They are proud that they are not appropriate for everyone. The selection begins in the first phone conversation, when they hear how you speak. Discrimination cannot be allowed in the public education [system], it must be open to everyone,” said the father.
A different father had similar things to say: A private education system is growing under the auspices, and funding, or the Education Ministry.
The document “continues to increase social inequality between Talmudei Torah and the regular schools,” Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah told Haaretz.
“The fact is the Talmudei Torah received far-reaching permission to act as in nonlocal frameworks, something which creates a system that filters out [students] in general.”
As for the selective admissions policy, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah claims that it allows the school to reject students based on their religious background.
“How can such an examination be done for a 6-year-old child if not according to his family? We regret that the religious education administration prefers the Talmud Torah stream time after time and in doing so is leading to the future exclusion of less-well-off groups. Research from [Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah] proves that the leniency granted to the Talmudei Torah only deepened the inequalities and brought about unfair pressure on the state religious schools to become Talmudei Torah,” said the group.
In a response, the Education Ministry said Talmudei Torah do not enjoy any special benefits. All levels of the population study in these schools, and they take the Meitzav exams like everyone, it said.