Joint Secular-observant Jewish School System Approved

Education Ministry says new system will teach Jewish values and tolerance between religious, secular.

The Knesset Tuesday approved the creation of a new state school system for both secular and observant Jews. A few dozen schools will probably adopt the new system, designed to increase understanding among Jews.

The bill calling for the new system, introduced by MKs Michael Melchior (Labor) and Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu), passed its second and third readings Tuesday, becoming law.

"This an educational revolution and a response to the divide in society," Melchior said.

There are currently four Jewish school systems: Secular, national religious, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi ultra-Orthodox. The Ministry of Education says the new system will teach Jewish values and emphasize tolerance and understanding between ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews. It has a budget of NIS 34 million, and every school in the country will be given the choice to join it. Schools that adopt the program will be assigned Jewish values teachers.

Dr. Eitan Shikli, director general of the Tali Jewish Education Fund, praised the proposal Tuesday, saying it will reduce the gap between religious and non-religious Jews.

"There is no dichotomy between observant and secular Jews," Shikli said. "The problem is that most research shows that most of the Jewish population chooses one of these two polarities."

One school that is expected to join the system is the Keshet school at Mazkeret Batya, whose students include children from both secular and observant families, and which already has a program for secular and religious students.

"We aspire to a balance between observant and secular Jews," said Assaf Hirchfeld, a one of the people who founded the school. Two-thirds of Keshet's students come from secular families, but 30 observant families have recently moved to the town, near Rehovot, for the program, he said.

At Keshet, children attend all the same classes, except for two hours a day, when observant children pray and secular children learn Torah studies.

"The observant community will feel more comfortable sending its children to a joint school system," Hirchfeld said. "Until now, the community was a minority in the secular system. Fear that their children will not be religious is a major concern among the observant community."