Is Eshkolot the future of haredi secular education in Israel?

While the Eshkolot program has attracted close to 20,000 students, there remains an official stigma among many to publicly acknowledge their participation in the program

 SEVENTY-FIVE percent of Eshkolot program students are haredi men with no formal secular education.  (photo credit: Courtesy Eshkolot)
SEVENTY-FIVE percent of Eshkolot program students are haredi men with no formal secular education.
(photo credit: Courtesy Eshkolot)

In 1936, sociologist Robert K. Merton (born Meyer Robert Schkolnick) devised the law of unintended consequences, which postulates that the actions of people, especially governments, always have unanticipated or unintended effects. 

Perhaps one of the more unexpected consequences of the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns in Israel has been the increase in Internet usage in the haredi community and its corresponding effect on haredi education. When the pandemic broke out, schools closed, and classes in most educational frameworks turned to online formats. Since many ultra-Orthodox households at that time did not have Internet access, haredi school systems conducted classes by phone, making learning difficult, if not impossible. 

As a result of the 2020 lockdown, a large number of haredi households became connected to the Internet. According to the Israel Democratic Institute’s 2021 Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel, almost two-thirds of haredi households were connected to the Internet in 2020, compared with just 28% in 2019. That number has likely increased since.

In recent months, the issue of secular studies in haredi schools has become widely discussed, not only in Israel but in the United States as well. In September, The New York Times published a lengthy piece suggesting that “generations of children have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency” (“In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush with Public Money,” September 11, 2022).

Closer to home, before the most recent election, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if elected, he would increase the budget of haredi institutions that do not teach core subjects. His pledge was part of an agreement to maintain unity between the United Torah Judaism factions of Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael. The Education Ministry had published a tender that promised significant funding to haredi schools on the condition that they teach secular subjects. The Belz Hassidic group was willing to accept this, but Degel Hatorah was opposed, and Netanyahu’s offer brought the two groups back together. 

 RABBI MENACHEM BOMBACH, founder, Netzach Educational Network: Sketched the outline of what would become the virtual school.  (credit: Elimelech Pasikov) RABBI MENACHEM BOMBACH, founder, Netzach Educational Network: Sketched the outline of what would become the virtual school. (credit: Elimelech Pasikov)

Most recently, in mid-October, UTJ chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf claimed that math and English studies did not affect Israel’s economy, in an attempt to justify the lack of these subjects in haredi schools in the country.

The origins of Eshkolot online learning

In 2020, as children languished at home during the pandemic, some in the haredi community felt both the frustration of the lockdown and the educational potential presented by the Internet that was not being utilized. “During corona,” says Rabbi Menachem Bombach, a prominent haredi educator and activist, “I sat at home, frustrated by trying to teach students using a telephone.” Bombach adds, “We knew that there were many more people in the haredi community who were on the Internet, especially during corona. In Betar Illit alone, there was a 900% increase in Internet usage.”

“We knew that there were many more people in the haredi community who were on the Internet, especially during corona. In Betar Illit alone, there was a 900% increase in Internet usage.”

Rabbi Menachem Bombach

Bombach created a WhatsApp group and, together with Racheli Ibenboim, a haredi social entrepreneur, and other friends, sketched the outline of what would become the Netzach Eshkolot Virtual School, an online educational platform that enables haredi students to utilize the Internet for secular studies. A group of haredi entrepreneurs approached a number of foundations and received backing for the program. In September 2020, Eshkolot was launched by Telem and Netzach, led by Ibenboim. The program quickly attracted students, and today some 19,000 haredi students are studying English, mathematics, geometry, algebra and physics online. Each subject includes dozens of pre-recorded videos. Eleven courses are currently available, encompassing 350 hours of study.

Seventy-five percent of the students in the Eshkolot program are haredi men who have had no formal education in secular subjects. The average age of students in the program ranges between 16 and 25, though there are students as young as 12 and 13, as well as some over 35. Close to 40% of the students in Eshkolot are from Jerusalem, with almost 33% coming from the country’s Center. 

The Netzach Eshkolot program is part of the Netzach Educational Network, founded by Bombach, which combines religious and secular studies, educating haredi students to become observant Jews prepared to live and work in Israeli society. Netzach provides its students with a high-quality haredi Jewish education while preparing them to receive their matriculation (bagrut) certification, enabling them to pursue higher education and become gainfully employed.

Netzach currently has 12 schools in its network, which includes elementary, high school and post-high school programs for boys and girls in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Betar. Netzach Eshkolot is the only online school in the Netzach network.

Bombach grew up in Mea She’arim with little knowledge of secular subjects and did not begin his secular studies until he was 20. “I worked hard to finish the bagruyot [matriculation exams],” he recalls. “The earlier students begin their secular studies, the greater the chances they will complete them. However, for someone who cannot learn in a regular school framework, the Eshkolot program makes it possible to learn secular studies this way.” 

Ze’ev Sklar, a haredi entrepreneur, was one of the people in Bombach’s original WhatsApp group that founded Eshkolot. Sklar is the co-owner and CEO of Telem, a company that specializes in initiating and leading strategic planning processes in ultra-Orthodox society in a variety of social and economic fields, including the integration of haredim in the Open University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and other academic bodies. Sklar himself holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bar-Ilan University and a master’s degree in public policy from Tel Aviv University.

Men and women in haredi society want to integrate into the job market, he explains, but it is difficult for those who have minimal knowledge of core curriculum subjects – math, science, Hebrew grammar and English – to begin university studies or get higher-paying jobs. All Israeli colleges and universities offer special, three-month pre-mechina (preparatory) programs for haredi students that are designed to enable them to get up to speed on basic subjects before they enter the regular nine-month mechina program, but Sklar notes that there is a very high dropout rate from these programs. 

“We said, ‘Let’s provide a response that will allow people to learn these subjects more slowly and let them decide on their own when they will want to join the workforce. It will be easier for them at that point to join the workforce or the world of academia.”

 LOOKING AHEAD: ‘Let’s provide a response allowing people to learn these subjects more slowly and let them decide when they will want to join the workforce.’ (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) LOOKING AHEAD: ‘Let’s provide a response allowing people to learn these subjects more slowly and let them decide when they will want to join the workforce.’ (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

What is different about online learning for haredim?

Sklar and his associates carefully researched the online learning market in search of a platform that would be suitable for haredi students. “We understood that everything that currently exists would not be appropriate for haredi society,” he says. Creating online studies for haredim, he notes, would require building a new pedagogical system from the ground up. “It’s not enough to take an image of a teacher that already exists, put a kippah on him and call him ‘Moshe.’ It requires a different way of thinking and a different way of learning.” 

Initially, says Sklar, Eshkolot filmed haredi teachers teaching the lessons, but the educators were not sufficiently comfortable in front of the camera. They then selected actors – all of the teachers are male – dressed in the standard haredi style of white shirt and black pants, with a kippah – to teach the classes. The teachers’ scripts are culturally attuned to the haredi world. “Teachers will not begin the class by simply saying ‘Hi,’” Sklar points out. “In haredi culture, the term ‘Hi’ is considered too informal and is used only in the street. He may say ‘Welcome,’ or ‘Good morning.’” Students and parents alike will feel comfortable when they see the program running on computers in their homes, he says. “There are no surprises,” says Sklar. “You can be calm and leave your child sitting at the computer.”

Those who are involved in full-time Torah study and have set aside a few hours per week for secular studies, says Sklar, are looking for a method that is concise, practical and to the point. “The style of learning must be more focused and directed,” he notes. Additionally, haredim are used to hevruta, joint study with a study partner. The online courses are designed for individuals and require the user to provide feedback through quizzes and exercises.

Additionally, the user interface of Eshkolot had to be designed in such a way that would make it easy to use. “Haredi users are not familiar with digital systems,” says Sklar.

When Eshkolot first opened, the founders hoped to attract 2,000 users by the end of 2020. They reached that number, says Sklar, in the first month. Sklar says Eshkolot is suitable for use in all haredi homes, and while it is advertised in haredi newspapers, it has become quite popular simply by word of mouth. “We have no specific agenda,” says Sklar. “We don’t speak about academia. We teach the core curriculum of subjects – English, mathematics and science. The public votes with its fingers. I just provide the tools for people who want them.” 

Eshkolot was originally conceived as a means by which young haredim could increase their understanding of subjects in Israel’s core curriculum. In May, it received an added boost when Israel’s Council for Higher Education (Malag) granted permission to offer an online mechina track, enabling young haredi students to study at their own pace online before taking the compulsory English test and other matriculation exams. Previously, haredi students were required to attend a three-month pre-mechina program to catch up on their skills in basic subjects before attending the regular nine-month mechina program. Students who complete the Eshkolot program can now take the state’s Amiram exam, an English exam used by academic institutions for placement purposes, and the Meimad exam, which is used for assessing candidates for pre-academic (mechina) programs.

“I hope that someone who studies in Eshkolot will find it easier to integrate into other studies, whether it is job training or academia,” says Sklar. “But I also know in the end he will need to study in mechina. If we can make it 50% easier for him and lower the dropout rates from mechina, that’s already an accomplishment. The dropout rates from mechinot are astronomically high today. I believe that when we measure the results in a year, our dropout rate will be much lower.” 

Rabbi Nechemia Steinberger has been involved in integrating haredim into the workforce and the world of academic studies, and today heads the haredi preparatory program at Hebrew University. Steinberger explains that the process of haredim deciding to study and enter the workforce frequently takes several months from the time they find the proper study environment or contact an employment placement center. In that sense, he explains, Eshkolot is a valuable tool that enables them to immediately sample what is available. “It is an opportunity to say, ‘You don’t need to make a crucial decision yet. Meanwhile, you can study math and English and Hebrew in a very friendly environment.’”

In the conflict-tinged environment between haredim and the government in 2020 regarding their reluctance to follow restrictions during the pandemic, Steinberger says Eshkolot was viewed as an opportunity to use the pandemic to accomplish something positive for the haredi community.

Steinberger expands on Ze’ev Sklar’s explanation of the differences between traditional haredi education and online learning. “When you are teaching students who are over 20 – subjects that you would normally teach in first and second grade – it requires a different pedagogical approach.” He adds that the nature of the program enables evaluators to measure how much work students are doing and their progress. “We are talking about real data – not just feelings,” he says. This contrasts with the traditional method of study in haredi schools for boys, he says, where homework is not assigned, tests are rarely given and learning is not measured.

In Steinberger’s view, the fact that students who complete Eshkolot can take the Meimad and Amiram exams is significant. “It gives them accreditation for what they are studying,” he explains. “It’s about giving them a type of diploma for entering the academic world.”

Students who pass the Amiram and Meimad tests can bypass the three-month pre-mechina program (k’dam mechina) and enter the regular university mechina program, which lasts for nine months. Steinberger adds that haredim who enter the academic system are not always able to fit into the system. “There is a false assumption that every yeshiva boy can go into academia,” he says. 

In his view, students who successfully participate in the Eshkolot program can prove their mettle and succeed. “If you are in your house, sitting in front of a computer, and you are studying and have a feeling of success, when you come to the institution you will have already gained confidence. This is one of the best things to happen to the whole haredi academic system because it will lower the number of dropouts from the system.” 

Eshkolot – what do students say?

While the Eshkolot program has attracted close to 20,000 students, there remains an official stigma among many to publicly acknowledge their participation in the program. This reporter was in touch with a number of students in the program of varying ages, who requested that we not use their real names to protect their privacy. Eliezer, age 12, lives in Elad, a haredi town located between Rosh Ha’ayin and Shoham. “I was bored during corona,” he says, “and I wanted ‘action.’” His father enrolled him in Eshkolot, where he studied Physics I and Physics II, and is now studying algebra online. Eliezer says the program provides him with a tool for continuing and progressing in his life. 

Eliezer’s 14-year-old brother, Yeshaya, studies in Elad. Like his younger sibling, he began his online studies during corona, studying English and physics. He wants to continue his studies in chemistry, engineering and programming, and says he would like to become a programmer or a pilot. 

Another parent from Jerusalem enrolled his 12-year-old son in Eshkolot during COVID. “During the corona period,” he says, “my son was bored and got into fights with his brothers, so we decided to find a way for him to study online.” He says his son is interested in science and wants to become a scientist. He adds that he has not publicized the fact that his son is in Eshkolot.

Moshe, age 19, is single and lives in Beit Shemesh. He joined Eshkolot “because I want to fill in the gaps and try to be accepted for an academic appointment in the engineering field.” He has been studying in the program for a year and says he has received a great deal of support from his family for his decision to pursue secular studies because “for some time, I have wanted to earn a good living.” He adds that the study material is professionally designed and makes learning engaging.

Is Eshkolot the future for haredi education?

Rabbi Steinberger cautions that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for secular studies for haredim. “While it is a solution for some, online study as a concept does not have a high success rate. Is this the only solution? Definitely not.”

He notes that the majority of haredim in Israel are today part of the workforce, though it is a smaller percentage than the general public. Nevertheless, haredim who have a minimal background in English and mathematics are equally limited in the types of jobs they can do. 

“Can we create a real system so that you can have haredim get a full bagrut where they can really compete in the job market?” he asks. “That is the big issue now, and we are not there yet. Haredim are already working. The question is what kind of jobs they will get and how early they can begin their secular studies. That is the big issue.” 