Law revoking requirement for haredi schools to teach core curriculum expected to pass

"Perhaps half of haredi parents want children to have general education at elementary school level," says haredi high-school principal.

August 1, 2016 19:46
4 minute read.

Rivlin at Haredi school in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)

Legislation that will annul a law passed by the previous government requiring haredi elementary schools to teach 11 hours of core curriculum subjects English, Maths and Science was expected to pass its final vote in Knesset on Monday night.

The law will give the Education Minister the power to continue funding haredi elementary schools which do not teach the core curriculum, regardless of the stipulations of the existing law which require steep cuts in government funding for such schools.

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Approximately 50,000 haredi elementary school pupils study in such institutions.

The law was however never implemented, but United Torah Judaism insisted in its coalition agreement with the Likud party that it be gutted.

While arousing the ire of UTJ, the law passed by the previous government was not popular even among haredi activists who wish to institute core curriculum subjects in haredi schools, who criticized it as “coercive” and counter productive.

An online petition created by such activists last week and signed by more than 700 people called on Education Minister Naftali Bennett to establish new haredi schools which teach the core curriculum to create options for haredi parents who do want their children to have a general education, and to actively support institutions that have already adopted such a program.

Rabbi Betzalel Cohen is the principal of the Chachmei Lev haredi high school for boys in one of Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhood's, which teaches the core curriculum subjects required for high school matriculation.

His school started off in 2013 with 12 pupils, currently has 60 pupils and will open next year’s school year with approximately 100 boys, a large number of whom come from mainstream haredi families.

Chachmei Lev and Cohen himself have experienced great difficulties in establishing and advancing the school.

The Yated Neeman, the largest selling haredi daily newspaper, has written two editorials against Cohen and his school in the last month, while UTJ representatives on the Jerusalem Municipal Council fought hard to prevent a budget allocation to Chachmei Lev for badly needed new premises.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Cohen said that there was an increasing desire among the haredi population to give their children a general education, saying that as much as half of all haredi parents might want to do so.

This sentiment has evolved out of the experience of many haredi men who began to leave yeshiva and try to find work in the early 2000s but faced exceptional difficulties because they had no education in basic subjects like Math and English.

Such people, who are now parents, do not want their children to have a similar experience and want them to get a basic education, said Cohen.

Cohen identifies two main obstacles to the goal of persuading such people to send their children to a primary school where core curriculum subjects are taught.

The first problem is that within the haredi community, parents who send their kids to schools where they teach the core curriculum are considered to be less religious, or less strict with Jewish law, and are more modern and open in their world view.

In addition, the perception is that their children will have greater exposure to the internet, movies, sport, and other such concepts, all of which is anathema in haredi society.

“So parents want their children to learn English and Math, but they don’t want them to be with children who go to schools where they learn these subjects. This is the biggest problem,” said Cohen.

The second problem is that even though many parents now do want their sons to have a general education in elementary school, they still want them to go to what are called yeshivot ketanot from grades 9 to 12 where no core curriculum subjects are studied.

But parents are concerned that if they send their children to an elementary school which teaches the core curriculum, good yeshivot ketanot will not accept them afterwards.

Cohen said the solution is to enable the establishment of new haredi primary schools which teach the core curriculum whilst imposing, like other haredi schools, strict regulations for standards of behavior of pupils and parents.

This would assuage the fears of parents regarding the level of religious observance of their child’s classmates and their families and encourage more people to send their children to such schools.

And such an approach would also mollify yeshivot ketanot who could be more certain that they would not be bringing in children from less religiously stringent parents if the accepted pupils from elementary schools that teach the core curriculum.

Cohen adds that new yeshivot ketanot which cater to this sector of the haredi community should also be opened as another measure to encourage parents to give their children a general education at the elementary school level.

Finally, the rabbi said that the phenomenon whereby traditional haredi schools do not accept pupils, or expel existing pupils based on the fact that one of their siblings attends a school which teaches the core curriculum must be stamped out by the Education Ministry.

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