Is the Israeli educational system failing haredi students?

Tens of thousands of men, educated in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) system, are not taught English or math past the fourth-grade level.

Haim Rubinstein, spokesman for the organization Out for Change (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haim Rubinstein, spokesman for the organization Out for Change
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Like many bright and ambitious young men and women, 28-year-old Menachem Estryk of Jerusalem wants to become a doctor. And while the road to and through medical school is a challenging one even for the best and brightest of students, Estryk is faced with what one might say is a “learning disability.”
He is not dyslexic, nor does he suffer from an attention deficit disorder.
And though he attended school, Estryk is simply one of tens of thousands of men, educated in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) system, who was not taught English or math past the fourth-grade level.
Estryk grew up in the Givat Mordechai neighborhood in Jerusalem, and studied in haredi schools and yeshivot until he was 18. Along his way, he became non-religious and eventually joined the army. Despite the fact that he was no longer observant, he served in the Nahal Haredi, also known as the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.
But it was only when he was discharged from the army, and his friends began their post-high-school studies, that he realized just how little he knew.
So Estryk began a special preparatory program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With much effort and work, and at great expense, he received high marks, and is hoping to begin medical school in a year. But, he says, if he had been able to study the core curriculum subjects when he was still in school, he would never have fallen so far behind.
Many agree that the inability of the Israeli educational system to ensure a modest level of core curriculum subjects for haredi students is puzzling.
It is even more so when one considers that some of Judaism’s greatest scholars – from ancient authorities such Maimonides, Sa’adia Gaon and Abraham Ibn Ezra, to scholars of the past hundred years such as Rabbi Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik – greatly valued and understood the significance of secular knowledge and education.
Study of the core curriculum subjects is greatly limited in the haredi school system.
Today, in most haredi schools, study of secular subjects such as mathematics, science and English, ceases for boys after the eighth grade.
According to the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, there are approximately 40,000 boys enrolled in haredi institutions in grades nine to 12, the vast majority of these boys study only Jewish subjects, primarily Talmud.
According to Moshe Shenfeld, head of Out for Change, an organization which assists former members of the haredi community in their educational and vocational training, just 3%-5% of boys who study in haredi schools receive a full matriculation certificate (bagrut).
Among girls, approximately between 10% and 20% study these core curriculum subjects in order to obtain a matriculation certificate. Others study for a somewhat lower level of matriculation certificate. The result is that the vast majority of students from the haredi school system are ill-equipped to enter the current job market, certainly for jobs that require a basic command of English and math.
Menachem Estryk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Menachem Estryk (photo credit: Courtesy)
TO GRASP the current reality, we need to first understand how the educational system in Israel developed. According to Prof. Zvi Zameret, author of a study on the first 50 years of the educational system in the State of Israel, when the British Mandate came to an end, there were three primary educational approaches and school systems that were recognized and funded – the General Zionist Movement, which strove to educate its pupils with the values of Jewish and universal-modern culture, the Labor Zionist Movement, which attempted to instill its socialist and pioneering values, and the Mizrahi faction, which believed in an integrated curriculum of religious and secular subjects, and which was opposed to the anti-Zionist school system.
At that time, about half of the pupils attended General Zionist schools, one fourth attended the Labor Zionist schools, and one fourth attended Mizrahi institutions.
The number of children in non- Zionist, ultra-Orthodox schools was very small – no more than 5,000, including primary and secondary school age, out of a total of 138,000 in the entire Israeli school system at that time.
Each of the three major educational systems functioned independently, and received its budget from the World Zionist Organization.
When the State of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, one of the first laws enacted was the Free Compulsory Education Law, which mandated free education for all children between the ages of five and 13. However, rather than unify the education system into one entity, the law not only retained the three competing trends – General Zionist, Labor Zionist and Mizrachi – but recognized a fourth, non-Zionist track, requested by the small haredi Agudat Yisrael party. The Free Compulsory Education Law stated that all four Jewish educational approaches, as well as the Arab educational system, would be recognized and funded. An additional law, the State Education Law of 1953, led to the merging of the general educational system with that of the labor system, but it did not address the divisions within the religious school system. Both the religious Zionist and the haredi school systems were recognized within the state educational framework. It seems that few believed the haredi school system would ever reach the significant numbers we are seeing today.
TODAY, ACCORDING to most estimates, the haredi educational system in Israel, including kindergarten, numbers 400,000 pupils, out of a total of 1.6 million between the ages of three and 18 in Israel, overall. It is estimated that there are between 16,000 and 18,000 12th-grade students in haredi schools, most of whom emerge lacking the necessary educational skills to succeed in today’s workplace.
According to Out for Change, the government sets aside NIS 500 million a year to assist students from haredi schools who want to further their education after their formal schooling is completed.
These funds are used to set up courses from the Education Ministry to help such students fill the gaps in their education and receive a matriculation certificate, provide vocational training, and job training during their army service.
Institutions such as the Mercaz Chareidi Institute of Technology assist haredi men and women, and provide training for jobs for which they would otherwise not qualify due to the subpar secular education they received.
In the past, the government has attempted to treat the problem with legislation. In 2013, the Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, which at the time held 19 seats in the Knesset, spearheaded the passing of a law, stating that any educational institution in Israel would be required to offer between 10 and 11 hours of instruction per week in subjects like math, English and science.
Any institution that did not fulfill these criteria would receive significantly less funding. Enforcement of the law was delayed and was not scheduled to come into effect until 2018.
In the interim, the government fell, and was replaced by a new coalition, which included haredi political parties.
The law was repealed by the government on August 1 this year.
Critics of the original law maintain that it was doomed from the start, by virtue of the fact that its implementation was delayed until a future date. Had the law been implemented immediately, with incentives, such that schools that instituted the core curriculum would receive more funding than those that did not, it might have had a chance of achieving results.
In 2016, for the first time, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of haredi men in the workplace has reached 51.2% and the percentage of haredi women in the workplace is now at 73%.
While these numbers are far below those of the general population – where 86% of men and 80% of women work – it still represents a marked increase from previous years, in which just 36% of haredi men were part of the workforce, and only 61.5% of haredi women worked. Clearly, there is a need and a desire on the part of haredi society to engage with and work in general society.
Undoubtedly, government funding for institutions to train haredim who were not exposed to basic secular studies has had some positive effect.
Yet, while the haredi training institutions are somewhat helpful, the success enjoyed by some graduates of these institutions is misleading. One might get the impression that students of such institutions are able to catch up on their core curriculum studies in just one year, thus leading some to question the necessity of studying core curriculum subjects in the haredi school system at all.
However, according to a recent article in The Marker by Merav Arlozorov, this is an incorrect assumption. While it is true that top students from elite yeshivot such as Mir, Hevron and Ponovezh usually achieve success, the average haredi student who comes to these programs with minimal math skills and weak English finds these programs far more difficult. Studies have shown that 50% of haredim who begin degree programs at these institutions eventually drop out.
HOW DO members of the haredi community feel about not learning core curriculum subjects? What is it like to grow up in the 21st century with a limited skill set in math, science and English? Michael Nadel was born in Israel, but grew up in the US. He attended yeshiva high school at the Talmudic Academy of Philadelphia, where he studied both religious and secular subjects, and earned his high-school diploma.
After he was married and had come back to Israel, he returned to school for further training, at a haredi training institute, and became proficient in computer programming. After two years, he earned a degree in computer multimedia.
Nadel developed a number of Hebrewlanguage programs that were published by leading Jewish software companies such as Davka Corporation, and today is still active in the world of computers.
Michael Nadel (right) and family (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Nadel (right) and family (photo credit: Courtesy)
Today, Nadel, a Karliner Hassid, lives in the haredi settlement of Betar Illit, located in the Etzion bloc, where his children have attended the haredi school system. His oldest son, now 20, was recently married, and unlike his father, did not study secular subjects in school. While he himself is of the opinion that one should work for a living, and not depend on the community for support, Nadel recognizes the reality, and says that in his community, “it is difficult to obtain a shidduch [match] if you admit that you want to work.”
His son, he hopes, will eventually be able to earn a living by dint of his musical skills.
Nadel’s oldest daughter recently finished high school with a matriculation certificate, and will be studying social work at a haredi institution in the near future.
The Karliner Rebbe, he says, believes that girls should study secular subjects, and receive a matriculation certificate.
He recognizes that his five other boys will most likely not study secular subjects in high school, and hopes that when the time comes, they will get into the regular workforce by studying at a haredi training institute, similar to the kind where he studied. “You can’t run a nation without the people working,” he says.
IRONICALLY, WHILE members of the haredi community receive governmental aid and assistance for remedial or vocational study, haredim who are no longer observant, and have left their religious communities, do not receive the same assistance.
Haim Rubenstein, 28, grew up in Bnei Brak, and was raised in a haredi family.
He is no longer observant, and, he says, is therefore not eligible to receive the same educational benefits that haredim who remained in the religious fold receive, in order to study or receive job training, the costs of which are largely absorbed by the government.
Today, Rubenstein is a spokesman for the organization Out for Change.
He says that it is estimated that 1,300 members of the haredi community drop out each year. Based on these figures, there are many thousands of citizens who, due to the inadequate, and in some cases nonexistent, study of secular subjects, know very little Hebrew, English, math and other secular skills. And, because they are no longer observant, they are barred from the subsidized programs that the government has fashioned for their haredi counterparts.
Rubenstein is part of a group of 50 former members of the haredi community who are suing the Education, Economy and Industry, and Defense ministries for damages amounting to NIS 4 million. The suit claims that the government neglected to provide them with sufficient educational background in the core curriculum, and additionally now discriminates against them by not allowing them to benefit from the course subsidies that are offered to members of the haredi community.
The efforts of the government to solve the problem, while well-meaning, seem in a sense, akin to the story about the “wise men” of Chelm, whose bridge at the entrance of the city was slippery and dangerous. People walking on the bridge would fall and break their legs.
Instead of repairing the bridge, and preventing accidents, the wise men decided to build a hospital next to the bridge, to treat all those who fell and to patch them up.
Designing programs for adult haredi students who had not studied English, math and science since eighth grade is better than doing nothing, but it will not fully solve the problem. It seems that a better solution would be to somehow implement the study of core curriculum subjects while these students are of school age. And while the haredi community will always value religion over the other three Rs, perhaps a bit of time could be found for their study as well. The increasing numbers of the haredi population, and the growing number of haredi students who graduate with little or no knowledge of secular subjects, will not only affect that sector of society, but will ultimately be crucial in the economic future of the State of Israel and all of its citizens.