Privately-funded Judaism Program Called 'Unfit' by State, but Still in Schools

Ultra-Orthodox businessman Lev Leviev is continuing to run an elementary school program to increase Jewish content in the curriculum, even though the Education Ministry decided the program was unfit to be taught in state schools.

A few months ago, the Leviev Foundation presented the ministry with a second version of the program, but it too was rejected, in part because the ultra-Orthodox approach dominated in it.

Haaretz has found that contrary to the ministry's decision, former Education Ministry director general Shmuel Abuav approved the program for some local authorities.

Some 70 schools in Rishon Letzion, Netanya, Petah Tikva and Beit Shemesh are running the program, Zman Masa (Travel Time). The Education Ministry has permitted these schools to continue implementing the program until the end of the school year, as long as a teacher attends the lessons to make sure the material does not contradict the spirit of state education.

The program was first implemented last school year in about 18 elementary schools. The Leviev Foundation finances the study hours, books and other materials. The lessons are held in the middle of the school day, so all the pupils are obliged to take part in them.

In January 2007, the Education Ministry's pedagogical secretariat, which is in charge of approving study programs, ruled the program was not fit to be taught in state schools. A few months later the Leviev Foundation submitted a new version, which was also rejected.

"Apparently, many of the problems with the former program no longer exist," wrote Professor Anat Zohar, chair of the pedagogical secretariat, in her second opinion. "However, a more careful reading reveals quite a few residual views that are not in keeping with the spirit of the Shenhar Report." The Shenhar Report stated that Jewish studies in state schools should be taught with a secular-humanist, rather than theological, approach.

"The program has various pedagogical limitations," Zohar wrote.

In most cases, the program is taught by religious and ultra-Orthodox teaching students.

The program is intended for pupils in first to sixth grades. The study book for third and fourth grade, for example, asks the pupils to point out which animals are considered clean and unclean according to Judaism. The children are taught about the various uses of olive oil, Sabbath candles and the blessings that must be said before lighting Hanukkah candles.

The prelude to the sixth grade study book tells the pupils about the "nation's mothers and fathers" - it says Abraham met his creator when he was only three years old, and "revealed the world's creator to thousands and tens of thousands." The book says that "thanks to Sarah, the light in the house was blessed."

Zohar wrote, "Despite the fact that many parts deal with values, the Orthodox approach - dealing mainly with principles of Jewish faith, religious laws and customs - prevails."

She also criticized parts of the textbooks and teachers' guidebook, including statements that "blessing and livelihood is granted from heaven to help the weak and needy"; "read the prayer with all your heart and your wish will be granted"; "the upheaval of the candle lighting moment must be enhanced. At this moment all work ceases, and Sabbath enters and brings a special atmosphere."

Zohar said that the program emphasizes only the religious aspect of holidays. "Children in state schools cannot be taught this way," she wrote.

The opinion rejecting Leviev's program was written in June 2007. A month later, then-education ministry director general Shmuel Abuav visited Rishon Letzion and authorized the program's implementation in 20 schools.

The announcement that the program had been found unfit to be taught in state schools, which was to appear in the Education Ministry director general's memorandum several months ago, appeared only in November's memorandum. "Abuav apparently didn't want the ministry's rejection of the program to be commonly known," a ministry official said yesterday.

"Some of the local authorities knew the program had not been approved, yet implemented it in their schools anyway," he said.

Abuav said, "After a few rounds of corrections, the program was finally ruled unsuitable for state education. I insisted on putting the ban in the director general's memorandum."

Parents who tried to find out whether the program was authorized for implementation in their children's school had difficulty getting a clear answer.

"Every time I asked, the school evaded the question," a mother from Netanya said. "I was told I was petty and apparently bored. When I insisted, they promised to get it authorized retroactively."

A mother from Rishon Letzion said, "I did not send my children to a state school to have to ask them what exactly they learned in Jewish identity class. It's impertinent of ultra-Orthodox groups to presume to teach us, the secular people, about Jewish tradition, as though we don't know those things. The most infuriating thing is the Education Ministry's incompetence."

Leviev's pubic relations' agency said, "The program's pilot was approved at a discussion in the education minister's bureau, and later the former director general examined the study material. To this day we have received no official notice that the program was rejected, and all the requests to meet the ministry officials dealing with it have been refused. We hope this is not an attempt to disqualify the plan due to ulterior motives."