Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court has ordered a married “yeshiva student” to pay back to the state the NIS 84,000 he received for his yeshiva studies, because he did not study.
The court’s verdict, issued this week and published for the first time on Thursday, followed a government investigation which found that the individual in question had not been present in yeshiva despite being officially enrolled as a full-time yeshiva student.
Although no hard data is available, it is widely suspected, and even acknowledged in some quarters, that large numbers of full-time yeshiva students who receive state-paid stipends do not fulfill their requisite number of study hours.
Through what is known as the “Torah is his trade” arrangement, which has been anchored in Israeli law in several formats over the years, yeshiva students receive a stipend from the state on condition that they study for 35 to 45 hours a week. In 2012 the stipends totaled as much as NIS 900 a month, but the government has cut that figure in half for 2014.
According to the state’s recent investigation, the individual in question was managing a girls’ seminary, although he was doing so without pay. Because of this, the state cut the funding of the yeshiva in question and also submitted a lawsuit against the student.
“The purpose of the stipend is to assist someone who really and truly makes Torah his trade, in every sense of these words, and adapts himself to a specific lifestyle whose essence is Torah study,” the state argued in its claim against the student.
Because he had not been present in yeshiva, the state requested that the stipends given to him over seven years be repaid.
The students claimed that the investigation gave only a partial picture of his whereabouts during study hours and did not accurately reflect his general yeshiva attendance. The state argued, however, that in the instances during the investigation that checks were conducted as to his presence in yeshiva, he had not been in attendance, and that this was sufficient to establish that he did not attend on a systematic basis.
Judge Miriam Lipshitz-Pribas accepted the state’s arguments.
“The plaintiff has demonstrated that the absence of the defendant [from yeshiva] was routine, not a random or onetime incident, and he was absent during hours in which he declared he was in attendance at yeshiva in order to manage the girls’ seminary,” she ruled.
There are currently some 50,000 full-time yeshiva students who have received exemptions from military service because of their religious studies. There are another 60,000 full-time yeshiva students who are already past the age of military service, or exempt for other reasons, and they also receive state-paid stipends for their studies.
The law for haredi conscription that was passed in March will extend full military- service exemptions to 28,000 full-time yeshiva students, who will then be able to enter the workforce.
Over the coming years until June 2017, the state will expect increasing numbers of haredi men to enlist in some form of national service, thereby reducing the numbers receiving the state’s stipend. If government targets for haredi enlistment are not met by that date, a maximum of 1,800 yeshiva students every year will be eligible for military service exemptions and government stipends for yeshiva study.
Hiddush, a religious freedom lobbying group that has campaigned intensively to draft haredim into military service, welcomed the ruling and called for greater enforcement of the conditions for receiving the monthly payments.
“In light of the great prevalence of this disgraceful phenomenon that has been exposed numerous times, such investigations will not only strengthen the rule of law but could also contribute significantly to the Treasury,” said Hiddush director Uri Regev.
He said that criminal proceedings should also be conducted against anyone falsely declaring himself to be in attendance at yeshiva, as well as yeshiva deans who affirm fraudulent attendance records. Yeshivas themselves receive state funding according to the number of students they have.
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