Second-class citizens?

As registration for state schools falls, city is filling the unused classrooms with haredi pupils.

haredim students children classroom 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim students children classroom 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The latest episode in the saga of the lack of educational structures for haredim in the city is taking place in Kiryat Hayovel. About a week ago, the municipality placed two caravans in a public plot on Rehov Warburg to serve as kindergarten classes for haredi children. It didn't take long for the area's largely secular residents to voice opposition, with the chairman of the neighborhood administration, Kobi Cohen, saying he felt "betrayed, humiliated and outraged" by the development. "For years I have been known for my tolerance and my unshakable attitude that a child is a child, no matter whether he is haredi, secular or Arab. Every child in this city deserves the best affordable education and I have credentials for having acted accordingly, including many cases where I had to convince my constituency, who were not exactly ready to accept those compromises," says Cohen. "But this time they've gone too far. Rabbi [Deputy Mayor Yehoshua] Pollack acted like a thief in the night, exactly as if his only goal was to upset the tenuous and fragile relationship between haredim and secular in this neighborhood," continues Cohen. "You can quote me on this: As long as I am chairman of the neighborhood administration here, neither Pollack nor any other haredi will force on us any caravan or any other solution that doesn't suit us." The struggle to secure educational structures for haredim is not a new one. Since the creation of the state, the haredi education system has operated largely independently of local, regional and national guidelines, setting its own curriculum and securing some of its own funding - including for the construction of its schools. Trying to raise donations to keep pace with the number of pupils enrolled, haredim often find themselves without classrooms for their children. The result has been a trend of last-minute, interim municipal solutions - including offering empty classrooms in otherwise non-haredi schools and areas - which over time become permanent arrangements, arousing the anger of secular residents. "It's as if they [haredim] have some special watchers units - as soon as registration is on the decline at a school in a secular area, they come [to the municipality] and request one or two classrooms, and once they obtain it, they come back and ask for the entire building," says Meretz city councillor and Comptroller Committee head Pepe Alalu. "Don't get me wrong," he adds. "They [the haredim] genuinely suffer from a lack of classrooms, it's just that they are not acting as if they really want to solve the problem - I would say it is the opposite." According to a municipality-commissioned report drafted in 2006 by planning specialist Moshe Cohen, the process of taking over state school buildings is part of a systematic plan to entrench haredim in secular areas. Page 24 of the report reads: "Haredi institutions might serve as groundbreakers to create new haredi communities in surroundings where they had no foothold before. The haredi institution - usually a yeshiva - will be set in a surrounding where there are no other haredi institutions or haredi dwellings, but the location of that educational institution, in this case a yeshiva, will become a source of attraction for additional haredi families to join in." The report was never released or debated by the city council. IN RESPONSE to queries from In Jerusalem, Dor Fuchs, head of the construction department of the haredi branch of Manhi (Jerusalem Education Administration), said there was no way he or anyone at the department could know exactly how many classrooms were lacking for haredim. "Since the haredi education system is recognized but unofficial, anyone can open a school or a Talmud Torah [haredi elementary school]. The only thing needed is a safety permit for insurance purposes," he explains. "So if after one or two or five years a haredi principal says he has three times more children in his institution than when he opened it, mainly because after a while he gets fewer donations from abroad, and he now needs public money, there's nothing we can do about it" other than to allocate more money, he continues. "This education system is not planned, [problems] are not always anticipated and we always have to face situations on the ground, usually emergencies for lack of classrooms. "Every admor [head of a sect] wants his school or his Talmud Torah, and there's no law that forbids it." Fuchs says that according to Manhi figures for the haredi sector, about 90,000 pupils are expected for the coming school year. "But the problem is the [lack of] educational structures," he says. "In the regular education system, there is no need to build a new school every year - there are already existing buildings and the most that might need to be done is annual renovations. "We [Manhi] have an estimation, and I stress it's only an estimation, that we're lacking about 500 classrooms [for haredim] for this year," he continues. "But there's no way we can tell what it will look like next year. It's also because the key to calculating the space needed for new schools is different for haredi schools and secular and religious state institutions. "The average [non-haredi] school at the Education Ministry is 1,400 square meters for 16 classrooms. For reasons I cannot understand or explain, the construction department at the ministry allots only 750 sq.m. for a 16-classroom [haredi] school." The result, says Fuchs, is that at haredi girls' schools it's not unusual for there to be more than 45 pupils in a class. "So when we know, for example, that the Ort School in Ramot, which can hold 1,500 pupils, stands half-empty, and has been for a few years since fewer secular pupils are registering there, while we are experiencing such a difficult situation, it's not hard to understand why we keep on asking to be given these empty classrooms," explains Fuchs. "And what's more, as far as the Education Ministry is concerned, that's exactly its position: It doesn't care if the empty classrooms are in a haredi, religious or secular area; it says that if you have pupils without classrooms on the one hand and empty classrooms on the other hand, please make use of them before asking for more money to build." Pollack has a more straightforward take on the situation. "One thing is clear," he says. "We have babies. You, the secular, obviously are busy doing something else - you're not having babies - so we need the place for our kids." Securing classrooms for haredi children is done "in accordance with the law," adds Pollack. "The problem is that we [haredim] always have to fight in order to get what we deserve. We have children and we don't have enough classrooms - so what should we do? Leave them in the streets without education while many schools in the secular sector are empty or half empty? I'd like to remind everyone that education is a public service to which even haredi children are entitled." "Had he [Pollack] come to me first and discussed the problem, I would have taken it upon myself to find a solution for these kids," says Cohen. "He knows I don't discriminate - haredi, secular, Arabs, for me they are all kids who deserve decent learning conditions. But I'm telling you, he used his position as head of the Local Planning Committee, perhaps caught up in the pre-election fever, and sent his bulldozers without any notification and against municipal guidelines, to create facts on the ground, and that is out of the question. I will never allow it." According to Pollack, the two caravans were placed on a public plot in Kiryat Hayovel that belongs to the municipality and can therefore be used for public needs, like classrooms. But Cohen says that the neighborhood had a different plan for the plot, and that the caravans were placed there without the necessary permits and despite the city attorney's opposition. In the meantime, construction has stopped. "Alalu and I stood there like warriors against the bulldozers to stop them," recalls Cohen, who is convinced that this incident will become a turning point in the battle between haredi and secular residents over educational structures in the city. This struggle is taking place "not only on Rehov Warburg in Kiryat Hayovel," says Alalu, who has searched for a suitable solution to the problem for years. "It is also happening in the Katamonim neighborhood, on Rehov Ben-Zakai, but nobody has heard about it because there the residents are humble people, who are not connected to the media. "There's a synagogue there, it's a Kurdish community and Pollack and his people also want to set up two caravans there to be used as kindergarten classes for haredi kids who don't even live in this neighborhood," continues Alalu. "The gabbai [synagogue head] of the community and some of the neighbors came to me, begging to get them out because the alley that leads to the caravans is the one they use to reach the synagogue. "They are old people, they cannot get along with a bunch of haredi kids," he explains. "They are religious themselves, but not haredi, and they are afraid that these two caravans will change the special character of their community, and I completely share their concern." "THE REALITY is, as usual, much more complex," says a former high-ranking employee of Manhi. "There's no argument regarding the numbers. True, haredi families constitute about half of the residents who leave Jerusalem, but still, haredi children outnumber all the other sectors - secular and religious Zionist alike - and it is of course the municipality's duty to find them suitable educational structures. "The problem is that there is a lot of politics involved here and things are not as simple as they might sound," she continues. "It's not simply that you've got kids who need to go to kindergarten or school, so the education administration provides them with classrooms. If they are haredi, they should, of course, be sent to classes and schools in their neighborhoods, but there aren't enough classrooms there and that's where the problem begins. "In fact, the problem begins outside the municipality, at the Education Ministry. According to ministry guidelines, the haredi education system is not considered municipal, and thus is not entitled to construction budgets." "It is absolutely true," admits Deputy Mayor Shmuel Shkedi (National Religious Party), who holds the education portfolio. "The Education Ministry recognizes three different streams of education: the public [secular and religious], the recognized but unofficial - which is roughly all of the haredi education system - and the independent stream, mostly the hassidic system, which is in Yiddish. "The first stream is totally public and subsidized by the state. The second is recognized by the state, but only the salaries and other budgets connected are paid by the state. The Education Ministry, which means the State of Israel, doesn't fund the structures for this education stream," explains Shkedi. "So if you go to Haifa, for instance, you have one haredi school, of Vizhnitz hassidim. Or in Tel Aviv, you have perhaps two schools. "But we're talking about Jerusalem, we're talking about significant numbers. Neither the municipality nor the parents can solve the problem, so what are we left with? An urgent need, which grows each year, for more educational structures. And where will they find these structures? Of course, in schools and kindergartens where registration is dropping, and many classrooms are empty and closed - meaning religious Zionist and secular schools." At press time, the ministry had not responded to In Jerusalem's request for a reaction. Until last month, the haredi education portfolio in the city was in the hands of deputy mayor Uri Maklev, who was recently sworn into the Knesset to replace MK Ya'acov Cohen in accordance with United Torah Judaism rotation agreements. So for the moment, it is the responsibility of Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who, as reported last week by the local Hebrew paper Kol Hazman, openly admitted before a haredi audience that he and his administration "have done a lot to extend the holiness of the haredi population and education in neighborhoods that we never dreamed of reaching before." Attorney Ze'ev Landner, chairman of the Ramot Neighborhood Administration, was one of the first to encounter the problem of securing classrooms for haredi children. "You have to understand that most of the haredi education system is regional, which means that haredim are used to sending their kids to a school not in their area. "I'm not even sure they [haredi children] are all from Jerusalem - I have more than once seen the list of the children, and the addresses given there didn't exist in the city. They come from the satellite haredi cities, and though the haredi city council members swear it is not true, I know that we are also paying for kids coming from outside the city," says Landner, who some 10 years ago led the battle for suitable schools in Ramot. "So their [haredi city councillors'] first step is to send kids for whom there is no room in haredi neighborhoods to another neighborhood, probably a secular one, where they find empty classrooms. "It becomes a matter of emergency - where would the kids go? After a while, some parents decide to move closer to the school. The transportation for kids is not always safe, some of the kids are very young, so they move," explains Landner. "Remember, we're talking about a secular area, where they have obtained two or four classrooms in a secular school, perhaps have erected a wall between or in the courtyard. Usually, it will be more than one family - after all, it's obvious they have community needs. So three or four families will move to a secular or perhaps a religious Zionist neighborhood. "After a while, they will ask for their own synagogue, then for a Talmud Torah, then for more classes in the school that hosts them, whose own registration, meanwhile, is dropping. Then they will ask for a mikve, and a few more families will join them, and the secular families will begin to leave," continues Landner. "Within a few months, it becomes a haredi or almost haredi neighborhood, until the same scenario repeats itself again somewhere else." The problem, Landner says, is not the request by haredim for additional classrooms. "They really need them, there's no question about it. The problem is that we have had a few occasions to realize that perhaps they are not really searching for the best solutions for their problem. During [former mayor Ehud] Olmert's days, after the first 'take-over' of a school in Ramot, [the Yonatan Netanyahu primary school], we all realized that we were facing a real problem, which needed a serious solution. We, from the Ramot Neighborhood Administration, and with the help of city council members, went to Olmert, obtained his support for our plan and we proposed a municipal budget - not money to get from the [Education] ministry, but from the residents to build two schools for haredi children: one for boys and one for girls in Ramot. "It was a real, serious effort to solve the problem without causing additional haredim to enter secular schools and raising the anger of secular residents," recalls Landner. "And do you know what happened? [Eli] Simhayof, the deputy mayor and head of the Finance Committee, who was supposed to approve the budget, buried it and finally it was wiped off the committee's agenda. "His reason? Simhayof said that he didn't want to take public money for haredi use because the secular residents would say again that haredim only take the secular residents' money! "Later on, I discovered that there was perhaps a simpler explanation," continues Landner. "Had they approved the budget, they would have had a fight about whose school it would go to: haredi Ashkenazi or haredi Shas? So they just dropped the whole thing and continued to take over our [non-haredi] schools and following that, chased out secular families who went to other neighborhoods or just left the city." Perhaps surprisingly, Simhayof does not deny Landner's claims, and even adds details to the story. "Of course I remember that. They [non-haredi Ramot residents] were in fact very generous - they offered a few million shekels, but I am not naïve, you know. I knew exactly what such a budget approval would mean with me heading the Finance Committee. I could already hear the reactions of the press and the residents: 'Look at these haredim, they take our tax money to build their own schools, etc.'" ACCORDING TO Landner and Alalu, for years Manhi tried to formulate a clear picture of the needs of the different education systems in the city. "They [haredim] always refused a survey of the haredi education system for all kinds of reasons, but the bottom line was that for almost four years it wasn't done, so we [municipality] couldn't even get ready on time," says Alalu. "It was always in mid-July or close to mid-August that they came to the city council and whined that there's a terrible lack of classrooms for their kids, and the end of the story was always the same: Here and there, you have so and so empty classrooms, give them to us." Shkedi adds: "There's a lot of politics inside. It's not only a matter of educational needs. Don't forget the harsh competition between haredi Ashkenazim and Shas. Sephardi girls are not accepted in prestigious Ashkenazi institutions, so maybe Simhayof, being aware of the problem, preferred not to take the [Ramot non-haredi residents'] offer and thus avoid internal and external tensions." "Once we realized that they [haredim] always come at the last moment and put pressure on us to find solutions, we proposed at city council to do a survey on the exact needs of the haredi education system," says Alalu. "You know, something that is naturally done in any civilized country: You prepare a master plan to know in advance your needs and get ready for them. But they always refused, arguing that it was a shame to spend the NIS 300,000 this kind of survey would cost." Despite haredi opposition, the survey was finally administered under Moshe Cohen, who years ago presided over the city's Mass Transportation Committee. Simhayof insists he will never condone spending money on new school buildings when there is space in existing ones. "I have my sense of responsibility," adds Simhayof. "This is public money. I'm telling you, never, never while I'm in charge, will public money be used - or perhaps should I say misused - for new buildings for schools, as long as there are empty classrooms around. I will never allow it." Apparently, the ministry has a similar attitude. "For the ministry, the separation - with all its meanings - between haredim and other residents doesn't exist, or at least, is not relevant in the ministry's plans for the construction of schools," says a high-ranking ministry official who once served in Manhi. "They [the ministry] really see it that way: Empty classrooms should be given to pupils who don't have enough classrooms in their schools, despite all the cultural differences which we, inside the city, are aware of. "The ministry will never budget new construction as long as there are empty classrooms in some schools, where, because of the departure of secular residents, registration is dropping. That's the ministry's policy." City councillor Meir Turgeman, who has been an activist on the issue for years, is more optimistic. "The new guidelines, passed about two months ago by the deputy minister of education, MK [Meshulam] Nahari from Shas, offers a solution to this problem. From now on, according to the amendment he made, even unofficial but recognized schools - which are roughly all those in the haredi education system - will also be allocated budgets for schools and kindergarten buildings."