How Did 20,000 Yeshiva Students Disappear?

It is a mystery: In June 2001, approximately 18,000 students were enrolled in post-high school yeshivas and kollels. Four and a half years have passed since then. Between 20,000 and 25,000 new students have entered the yeshiva education system - more than 4,000 new students per year.

Nevertheless, the number of students enrolled in these yeshivas (for unmarried students age 18 and above) and kollels (which cater to avrechim, married students) now totals about 85,000, only 4,000 more than in mid-2001. Where did 20,000 yeshiva students go?

These are institutions that in the past grew at a dizzying pace, because they only took in new students and rarely let out any graduates. Between 1996 and 2001, for example, the number of students enrolled in yeshivas and kollels totaled 27,000, a growth rate of 5,500 per year. Is it possible that in the present decade the yeshivas and kollels have not only taken in students but also sent significant numbers of graduates into the labor market? The answer is a bit complicated.

One of the explanations, of course, is that many fewer fictitious students are now listed in yeshiva rosters. At the start of the decade, the treasury conducted a series of extremely meticulous supervisory campaigns. In 2002, instead of increasing, the number of students actually declined by about 2,000. The dismantling of the Ministry of Religious Affairs by the Sharon-Shinui government led to the transfer of the Division of Yeshivas to the Ministry of Education, in which supervision is considered to be much more thorough than in the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The category in which the number of fictitious students was evidently the highest of all was foreign students (usually termed "passport bearers"). They used to come to Israel to study for a year, but their names would stay on yeshiva rosters for months, even years after they returned home, and the yeshivas would collect the stipends.

A check conducted by the state comptroller in November 2001 revealed that one out of every three yeshiva students who had left Israel continued to remain enrolled here. In late 2000, the number of foreign students was about 17,500, and by late 2001 that number rose to 18,500. In recent years, the treasury and the Ministry of Justice have introduced a rigid system of supervision. The result: There are now only 13,000 of these foreign students - a decline of 5,500.

The drop in enrolled students was also a function of the change in criteria for yeshiva stipends, which was adopted in 2004, and primarily the raising of the threshold for the recognition of an institution. Until 2004, budgetary allocations were granted to kollels that had five students or more, and to yeshivas that had 25 students or more. This extremely low threshold for official recognition led to a multiplicity of institutions, made supervision of yeshivas ineffective, and encouraged fictitious institutions. Since 2004, the threshold level for kollels has been 15 students in kollels and 40 students in post-high school yeshivas, still a bit low, but restraining nonetheless. Some of the institutions combined together in order to continue receiving budgets. Others ceased to receive budget allocations from the state.

It is estimated that about half of the students who "disappeared" are fictitious students who have been deleted from the lists due to the enhanced oversight under the Education Ministry. But the truly interesting question is where the other 10,000 students have gone. Have all of them gone to work? The fate of about 3,000 students is known: They switched to programs that enable military (or civil) service and entry into the workforce:

* About 1,400 yeshiva students and avrechim embarked on a "decision year" under the Tal Law (of which 250 returned to yeshiva at the end of the year).

* Each year, approximately 350 young men enlist in the Haredi Nahal unit (an infantry battalion for ultra-Orthodox soldiers). It may be assumed that in the past five years, slightly more than 500 yeshiva students have enlisted in Haredi Nahal.

* About 200 avrechim enlist each year for a shortened period of army service, lasting three months (known as shlav bet). Over a five-year period, this adds up to about 1,000 students.

It would seem, then, that between 1,000 and 2,000 yeshiva and kollel students have left their studies each year and entered the labor market. It is hard to say how many of them would have done so even if not for these programs. This leaves several thousand unexplained cases. MK Ronnie Brizon of Shinui, who in recent years has functioned as the party's supervisor of affairs of religion and state in general, and the yeshiva budgets in particular, is certain that many of them have entered the labor market in diverse ways, particularly because of cutbacks in National Insurance Institute child allowances.

Monopoly on dead bodies

Last week, an old point of contention between the religious (and particularly the ultra-Orthodox) and the secular was rekindled, one that has been nearly forgotten in recent years: the war over dead bodies. The war included a relatively old subject, autopsies, and a new subject, cremation. On Tuesday, the struggle hit a new peak, with hundreds of Haredim protesting in the Mea She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem and at the Forensic Medicine Institute in Abu Kabir. And on Monday, the Chief Rabbinate Council decided to adopt sanctions against persons who die and have instructed that their bodies be cremated.

The two campaigns have been instigated by Zaka, the organization that is headed by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. Meshi-Zahav was questioned 30 years ago on suspicion of being a member of Keshet, a group that struck at pathologists. In recent years he has left violence to younger fellows, but he has been leading a legal struggle against autopsies. Meshi-Zahav states that Zaka has set up a legal department headed by a former justice minister, attorney Yaakov Ne'eman, in which no fewer than 38 attorneys are working on a volunteer basis. This legal department specializes in aiding families that object to police autopsy requests. Meshi-Zahav claims that in more than 90 percent of cases handled by the Zaka legal department, the courts have ruled in favor of the families, and turned down the police requests. However, he did not offer more specific figures.

Last week, noted Meshi-Zahav, a violent incident occurred after a body was found on Yosef Ben Matityahu Street in Jerusalem, and there were concerns that an autopsy would be performed. "At 2 A.M., more than 1,000 people heeded the calls from loudspeakers and came out into the streets, and broke the windows of an ambulance," he says.

Meshi-Zahav says that Zaka representatives will soon be meeting with the head of the police's division of investigations and intelligence, Major General Dudi Cohen, and will try to convince him to limits the filing of applications for the investigation of reason of death and for post-mortem examinations.

Zaka versus the crematorium

On Sunday, Meshi-Zahav and Zaka representatives filed a police complaint against Alei Shalechet, the company that operates the first Israeli crematorium. Among other things, the complaint relates to the fact that there is no law on the books that permits the burning of bodies, as well as to the fact that the location of the crematorium is secret, and that doubts therefore exist regarding its licensing.

In actuality, legal inquiries into the Alei Shalechet affair have been underway in a series of government ministries for several months already, and it is doubtful if these inquiries will be concluded in the foreseeable future. The fact that there is no law that applies to the burning of corpses in fact works in Alei Shalechet's favor. It is unlikely that there is truly any legal pretext for action against the crematorium.

The Chief Rabbinate Council convened on Sunday, at Zaka's behest, and declared, "Any person who has instructed that his body be burned will not be given a Jewish burial. Shiva will not be observed, and the customs of mourning will not be accorded him."

A large percentage of religious struggles break out in this manner. A public figure blazes the trail, and persuades the rabbis to follow his lead. Yehuda Meshi-Zahav is not satisfied with the position of the Rabbinate Council. He has also appealed to the parallel religious-legal bodies of the Muslims and Druze in Israel, in the hope of eliciting similar rulings from them.

One does not have to be especially cynical to pose the question of whether in the absence of terrorist attacks Zaka is now looking for other wars, which might help it in its fund-raising efforts, for instance.

Are you looking for something to do?

"Not at all. Really not. This is a matter of principle, of the dignity of the dead person, and the belief in leaving the soul alone," says Meshi-Zahav.

You act as if Zaka had a monopoly on corpses.

"We want to have a monopoly on Jewish tradition. We must not allow the cremation of bodies in Israel."

The managing director of Alei Shalechet, Alon Nativ, has not yet heard from the police. He says that the company has already cremated several dozen bodies and that several hundred people have already signed up while alive, but he refuses to offer exact details.