As children around the country ready themselves to go back to school, increasing numbers of haredi parents are electing to give their children a general education alongside their religious studies.
This trend is particularly evident in Jerusalem, where new schools have opened in recent years, for both elementary and high-school aged children.
Indeed, the new school year has seen the number of children in the state ultra-Orthodox school system double, from 600 pupils last year to almost 1,200 this year.
There are now 11 schools in this system in Jerusalem, including five yeshiva high schools for boys, three elementary schools, known as “Talmudi Torah,” for boys, and three elementary girls schools.
Some of this increase is due to established haredi schools transferring to the state haredi system, established by then-education minister Shai Piron when Yesh Atid was a coalition partner the last government.
But this two-fold increase in pupils in the haredi state system is also indicative of the growing desire of increasing numbers of haredi parents to ensure their children will have the educational tools to support themselves when they grow up.
Bitya Malach opened a haredi girls elementary school in August 2014 with just nine pupils. This year, the school’s third, she will have 71 pupils in total over the three grades. Some 80 girls applied for a place in first grade, although Malach was only able to accept 28.
Her school is located in the Rehavia neighborhood at a site allocated to her Banot Yerushalayim school by the Jerusalem Municipality, and although it is common for haredi girls to study for a general education, Malach says that the level of instruction at her school is much higher than in the average Bais Yaakov system where most ultra-Orthodox girls go.
And she observes that in the last three or four years members of the haredi community have increasingly adopted an attitude in which they seek to give their children a better life, to allow them to escape the poverty endemic in the community and to earn a respectable income.
And this is a sentiment very much shared by Malach and her husband, who at the beginning of their marriage was a full-time yeshiva student.
Malach says that at a certain stage, they decided that they wanted to advance themselves personally but were met with closed doors due to their lack of a general education and academic qualifications.
Through years of hard slog they both managed to obtain master’s degrees in different fields, but decided that the difficulties they had experienced due to their lack of education was not something they wanted their children to contend with.
This, says Malach, is the process which many young haredi parents have gone through in recent years and which is responsible for the increasing demand for core curriculum studies in the sector.
And she believes that this trend will keep growing, estimating that supply will outstrip demand in about five years.
“Haredi society is in process of change which will take a long time, and one of the most important aspects of this change is in the field of education,” she says.
Along with the difficult experiences of young haredi parents who sought to provide themselves with an income, Malach attributes the increase demand to the rapid growth of the community and the financial burdens it has faced as a result.
And another factor has been the influence of families from the US and Europe who demonstrated to many young people in the sector in Israel that it was possible to remain haredi and get a general education and integrate into the workforce.
Although introducing general education studies to the traditional fare of Talmudic studies has aroused opposition, Malach says that the opposition is becoming less relevant since the demand for broader education is coming from the grassroots.
“This is coming from the people now, the people are now saying we want this, we believe that this is the way and, we will lead the process ourselves, while remaining part of the haredi society, as we have seen is possible in the US and Europe,” she says.
Aharon Brandwein is the principal of the Amit Hedvat Hatorah haredi yeshiva high school in the capital’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, which was founded in August 2014 with 15 pupils.
This year, the school will have 150 pupils who will study toward the high-school matriculation tests which most Israeli children take in all of the critical subjects along with computer studies.
According to Brandwein, some 50 percent of his pupils come from immigrant families, mostly from the US, UK and other English-speaking countries, many of whom came to Israel in the last 10 years, with the remaining families being native-born haredim.
He strongly emphasizes that Hedvat Hatorah is not for people who cannot study Talmud or do not want to, and that its emphasis remains on religious studies. Nevertheless, the pupils study toward the high school matriculation exams because of the importance their parents have placed on this issue.
Brandwein also points out that he and the management of the school have worked hard to obtain the permission of senior haredi rabbis to go ahead with their joint program of religious and general studies, and that even though the rabbinic leadership is not supportive of such a system it does not oppose Hedvat Hatorah.
“We are in full contact with the rabbis, and we comply with exactly what they say,” he says, although he refuses to divulge which rabbis have authorized his school.
One yeshiva high school in particular, Yeshivat Chachmei Lev in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood, has faced intense opposition from the haredi political leadership, although it has continued to grow regardless and having started with 12 pupils in 2013 will open this year with approximately 100 boys.
“Our pupils wear black suits, look haredi, behave haredi and are haredi,” says Hedvat Hatorah’s Brandwein. “They simply get an extra aspect to their education. This is due to the desire of the children’s parents to enable these children to go out to work and earn a respectable living.”
The number of pupils in the new state haredi school system in Jerusalem is still small.
Out of a total of 78,000 ultra-Orthodox school pupils in the capital, only 1,200 are in the state haredi system.
But most haredi girls schools outside of the state system teach a basic core curriculum anyway, while nationally some 58 percent of haredi boys now study the core curriculum too.
Malach argues that more than anything it was the option, not the obligation, of having institutions teaching a general education for haredi children which has led to the recent success.
“The will has been there for some time, but I don’t believe in coercion, and nor do many people in haredi society,” she says, referring to the recently passed and then repealed law, which remained unimplemented, which was to drastically cut the funding of schools not teaching the core curriculum.
“But there was an inclination in the Education Ministry to give people the option and this is when demand increased, so there needs to be options and whoever wants their children to have that option can take it,” Malach says