More than 30 percent of junior high and high school-aged haredi youths are "hidden dropouts" who are technically registered in an educational framework but are dysfunctional students, according to a Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) - ASHELIM estimate released this week. In response to the findings, ASHELIM, an arm of the JDC that helps at risk youth, launched an NIS 5 million project designed to help the haredi community to cope with the high level of hidden dropouts. "Rabbis and leaders in the haredi community who realize they have serious problem are beginning to open up to outside intervention," said Dr. Rami Sulimani, Director General of ASHELIM-JDC. "A growing number of haredi teenagers are simply not functioning in educational frameworks and they are making up an increasingly growing fringe group within haredi society." Sulimani said that few if any of these dropouts make their way into non-haredi education frameworks. According to a study by Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute a total of 17% of elementary school-aged children are hidden dropouts and 30% of junior high and high school students are. ASHELIM-JDC estimates the level in haredi schools is even higher. Sulimani admitted that part of the explanation for the higher rates of hidden dropouts among haredim is the willingness of haredi educational institutions to accommodate dysfunctional students. Nevertheless, he said that the main problem in haredi schools was the total lack of professional psychological counseling available to teachers and students. According to data provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Education Ministry, there are presently 225,000 haredi children aged 5 to 17 in the nation's schools, 21% of the total. Assuming that between 17% and 30% of these children are hidden dropouts the total number is at least 38,000. According to a study conducted in 2008 by Eliyahu Hurvitz and David Brodet under the aegis of the "Israel 2028 Project", haredi children are expected to make up a third of all Jewish children in the nation's elementary and high schools and a quarter of the total for both Jewish and non-Jewish students. This projection is based on the assumption that each haredi woman will have on average six children, 25% lower than the present average. Dr. Uzi Rebhun, a demographer at Hebrew University who recently wrote a position paper for the Metzilah Center on the possible ramifications of the rapid growth of the haredi and Arab populations for the modern Jewish state, said that there were signs of a fall in haredi fertility. "In cities such as Beitar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit we have noted a fall in fertilization rates," said Rebhun. "Nevertheless, the main source of Jewish population growth will continue to be from the haredi sector." Rebhun and Gilad Malach pointed out in the their study that even students who succeed in the haredi school system are unprepared to entire the labor market, are discouraged from doing mandatory army service and are not educated to respect Zionist ideals. If a large percentage of haredi students are also dysfunctional this complicates the problem of integrating this rapidly growing population into mainstream Israeli society. Although the ASHELIM-JDC program is being launched in cooperation with the government, significant funding was provided by the New York Jewish Federation. Methods that will be used to treat dysfunctional students here were borrowed in part from experience gained working with the haredi community in Brooklyn New York, said Sulimani. "We will be sharing knowledge with US organizations such as the Federation Employment Guidance Services (FEGS) and the Education Alliance," said Sulimani. Haredi youths exposed to post-modernist trends that encourage personal expression and a rejection of religious hierarchy and authority are finding it more difficult to cope with the stringent limits and rules of the haredi society, said Sulimani. This tension leads to emotional difficulties that are often exacerbated by haredi parents' reluctance to enter into open dialogue with their children, added Sulimani. "Parents remain oblivious to their child's needs and continue to apply the same traditional, restrictive norms to their children's behavior without recognizing the child's rights." The NIS 5m. program will train a total of 240 educators, 120 school advisers and 120 principals in the haredi school system. "These educators will be proactive in recognizing signs of distress among students whose emotional needs are not being fulfilled at home." Sulimani said that the goal to encourage a dialogue between children and parents would ultimately lead the parents to ease up on the demands they make of their children. "We want to start putting the child and his needs at the center of care and attention." Sulimani said that the most common problem he faces with haredi youths, especially teens, is their total lack of recreational time. "There is a constant demand on them to learn Torah and there are not other options. So they end up looking for other activities that are not condoned by their parents." Sulimani admitted that the approach that he intends to implement has never been tested before. However, he said that he was certain that as soon as modern educational psychology theories would be applied to the haredi community there would be an improvement in dropout rates.