1.5 Million Torah Classes, One Supervisor

With one inspector, the Education Ministry cannot catch fictitious activity reports

This year, various Jewish cultural organizations applied for funding for 1.5 million Torah classes. There are few spheres in which false reports are as rampant as they are in Jewish culture, or as it used to be called, ultra-Orthodox or Torah-oriented culture. On that note, it is more than surprising to discover that just one inspector reviews these 1.5 million classes.

This fact was revealed in a letter by Sophia Mintz, who is in charge of the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law at the Education Ministry, to attorney Sharon Tal, of the Israel Religious Action Center .

The Jewish culture budget finances organizations such as Shas' Hamaayan Hachinuch Hatorani (NIS 12 million in 2005), Agudat Yisrael's Torah Veyahadut La'am (NIS 3.7 million), the National Religious Party's Ma'aleh (NIS 3.8 million) and Jewish outreach organizations Arachim (NIS 800,000) and Or Haim (NIS 400,000). Given that there is only one inspector, the following information, relayed by Mintz, is totally unsurprising: In the years 2002-2004 not one non-profit association was disqualified as a result of on-site reviews, nor were the number of classes at any association reduced following an activity review.

The fact that there is only one inspector raises serious questions: How many sites can he possibly visit? To conduct more reviews, would he have to neglect classes in peripheral communities, which are known for their abundance of fictitious activity reports? Is it fitting that reviews determining the fate of millions of shekels be conducted by just one man?

Tal's main request - for the field visit reports - was rejected by the Education Ministry on legal grounds. However, in light of the fact that there is just one inspector, Tal may not have received many reports anyway.

Mintz wrote in her letter that the Jewish culture organizations applied for funding for 2.5 million classes. From the Education Ministry's response to Haaretz, it is evident that that was true for 2003. Since 2004 the number of classes has been reduced to 1.5 million due to budget cuts.

This means that even the little information the ministry gave Tal is no longer relevant. Yehuda Levy, director of the Education Ministry's department for ultra-Orthodox culture, says the civil service regulations do not mandate the number of Torah class inspectors. Another Education Ministry source added that a tender was recently issued "for an external body to review the classes, with the aim of expanding the scope of supervision of organizations supported [by the ministry]."

What kind of animal?

How is it that for several years now there have been no scandals surrounding remarks that Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef has made in his lectures, which are broadcast by satellite radio? One possible explanation is that when Shas was in the opposition, the media was a lot less interested in what the rabbi was saying. A senior Shas official offered an entirely different rationale. Rabbi Yosef, said the official, has decided to tone down his remarks and be much more cautious.

Rabbi Yosef gives two lectures a week that are broadcast over the Shas satellite radio network - one on Saturday night, from a synagogue in Jerusalem's Bukharan neighborhood; and the other during the week, from the Havat Da'at yeshiva headed by his son David Yosef, in the capital's Har Nof neighborhood. The Shas source said that Rabbi Yosef had considered discontinuing the lectures altogether due to their negative repercussions, but his sons persuaded him to continue, just in a more delicate manner.

Now, with Shas back in the coalition, Rabbi Yosef's pronouncements will be followed more closely. His decision to speak more cautiously will also be put to the test. Thus, for example, in the past Yosef has called former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a blind goat, and former prime minister Ehud Barak a blind fox. Yosef has also mentioned other animals (with intact eyesight) in reference to former Knesset member Avraham Burg (a calf) and the Arabs (snakes). Shas sources say that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not have exclusivity over any blind animals.

Uniform allowance

Are child allowances being trimmed or equalized? This is a classic question of political semantics or semantic politics. From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox they are unequivocally being trimmed, if not slashed. Many secular Israelis, however, see the process as one of equalizing. The process, by whichever name, is progressing on two separate tracks.

One track is the reduction of the allowance paid for children born prior to June 2003. Data provided to Haaretz by the National Insurance Institute indicate that the government has saved NIS 11 billion since the cuts began: NIS 1 billion in 2002, NIS 1.7 billion in 2003, NIS 3.1 billion in 2004 and NIS 3.5 billion in 2005. Based on these figures, the savings since the beginning of 2006 amount to at least NIS 1.5 billion. What happened to child allowances during this period? In 2002 the allowance for the fifth child and up was NIS 868 apiece. Today it is NIS 329, a reduction of 62 percent, or almost two thirds. There is no doubt that this is a considerable achievement for the now defunct Shinui party. But what about equality?

In 2002 the allowance for the fifth child was five times that for the first. Today that allowance is still more than double, which means the situation is still far from equal, although it is significantly improved. The part concerning children born through June 2003 was halted under the coalition agreement with Shas. The agreement essentially canceled all the cuts aimed at the allowance between now and 2009, preventing the completion of equalizing the allowances for all children.

The second part concerns children born from June 2003 onward. Their parents will receive the same sum for each child. Some see this as the truly important part, for two reasons. It guarantees that in a few years there will be total equality, and determines families' expectations for assistance for their next child. In other words, if in 2002 a family knew that it would receive an additional NIS 868 upon the birth of its fifth child, from June 2003 that family knows it will receive NIS 148.

More than 400,000 children have been born since June 2003, and all of them receive the same allowance. They account for 17 percent of the 2.35 million children who receive allowances - one in six. According to the NII's figures, NIS 500 million has already been saved due to this clause. This process will be hampered if the coalition agreement is implemented, as it calls for every family with four or more children to receive an additional NIS 450-500. This translates into an allowance of NIS 600-650 for the fourth child. In other words, the fourth child will receive four times as much as the first.

In any event, there is an advantage to the fact that the increase relates to the fourth child. It means that it is not just for the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. Many families in the national religious public have four children, and there are such families in the secular public, too. The increased allowance will benefit some 160,000 families, half of whom have four children, and the other half, more than four.