State religious schools get more devout in bid to compete

Liberal Orthodox group worried about 'haredization trend.'

religious 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Students at the Shalom Elementary School in Ramat Gan devote most of their time to learning the Torah by rote, in accordance with ancient Jewish practice. The school admits only boys. Girls go to the neighboring Haroeh Elementary School. Mixing of the genders, even at such an early age, causes distractions, say parents and teachers connected with Shalom Elementary. Besides, boys and girls study different subjects. At the Shalom School, secular influences such as cards with pictures of popular soccer stars (who desecrate Shabbat with their Saturday games), and television and pop music (with their lascivious messages), are strongly discouraged. Shalom Elementary and many other more stringently religious schools are catering to an increasingly conservative religious Zionist population. But unlike most of the strictly devout schools, the Shalom Elementary School is not private. It belongs to the state religious system. The state religious school system, once a paradigm of diversity that incorporated students from moderately traditional to strictly observant, all in a coed environment, has begun to accommodate a much more religiously committed population. Introducing a higher level of stringency is part of a conscious change in policy aimed at competing with elitist private elementary schools that cater to the higher-than-average socioeconomic strata that can pay their tuition rates. Policy-makers hope to win back a religious Zionist population that left the state religious school system during the last decade or so for private schools that offered more hours of Torah education, separation of the sexes and a more religious environment. Rabbi Avi Gisar, chairman of the State Religious Schools Council, said the effort to upgrade religious adherence was part of the state religious schools' obligation to offer Jewish education to all walks of society, rich and poor. "The growth of private schools over the past decade and a half has resulted in a more segregated, polarized society," said Gisar. "Private schools ended up attracting a higher-quality student body and teaching staff, while the state schools were stuck with the poorer students who came from less religious households. Our job is to provide quality religious education to the entire Israeli population, regardless of socioeconomic level." Members of Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avodah [The Faithful of Torah and Labor], a liberal, modern-Orthodox group, are concerned that the stricter level of observance being introduced in the state religious school system will scare away moderately traditional Israelis who are deliberating between secular and religious state schools. "I grew up in a moderately religious household," said Shmuel Shatach, chairman of Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avodah. "If my parents faced the option of sending me to an all-boys elementary school that focused on Torah education or to a secular school, they would probably have sent me to a secular school and today I would be totally secular. "We don't want that to happen to thousands of kids from traditional families. We are afraid that if this haredization trend does not stop there will be no normal religious Zionist education available. You will have to choose between secular or near-haredi." Nadav Rat, who sends his son to Shalom Elementary School and was instrumental in the school's creation, disagrees. "We are willing to accept any student, regardless of the level of religiosity of the boy's household," said Rat. "Obviously, the child is expected to adhere to the rules of the school." Rat added that the creation of the Shalom school did not force more moderately religious families to turn to secular education. "In Ramat Gan, you can choose from three different state religious schools. Shalom is the most religious. But there is also Moreshet Moshe, which is mostly religious, and Usha, which is mostly traditional or borderline secular," he said. Many parents from nearby Ramat Amidar, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the area, send their children to Shalom Elementary. "Traditional Yemenite families like the Shalom School, because we learn by rote like they did in Yemen," said Rat.