Long overdue change is coming to the haredi school system - opinion

Haredi schools that choose to implement core studies like math, English and science will receive 100% guaranteed funding from the state, contingent upon students passing their external exams.

YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
YOUNG HAREDI students in Rehovot last year.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

Beginning September 1, ultra-Orthodox schools will be entitled to receive unprecedented financial incentives and budgetary support for adopting core subjects like mathematics, English and science into their mandatory curriculum.

Haredi schools that choose to implement these core studies will receive 100% guaranteed funding from the state, contingent upon students passing their external exams. They will also receive a 6,000-shekel stipend to invest in each student.

Fully private institutions will also be eligible for these benefits. This reform, put forth by the Finance and Education ministries, is a transformative moment and absolutely critical for Israel’s future economic stability and for redistributing the state’s national burden in a more equal manner.

As it stands, haredi elementary schools invest just 3% of their annual budget in the study of core subjects. This investment drops to an abysmal 1% in secondary studies.

Already, there are some key voices in the ultra-Orthodox world who are eager to adopt these plans. One of those voices is MK Yisrael Eichler of United Torah Judaism (Agudat Yisrael faction).

Haredi children return to school amid the coronavirus crisis (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Haredi children return to school amid the coronavirus crisis (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Eichler’s support for such measures stems from calls by leading rabbis within the Belz Hassidic sect who are proponents of greater haredi participation in the labor market. They have come to the realization that teaching basic subjects like math and English are essential for this progress.

On numerous occasions, I’ve had the chance to discuss these matters with Eichler and was impressed by his determination to advance such structural changes. But we still need to hear more voices of support among the leadership within the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Plenty of those wielding influence in haredi society are adamantly opposed to such reforms. They fear that students will be more prone to leave the community. This is a cowardly way of thinking. A pupil’s right to learn math, English and computer science doesn’t threaten the Torah world. It never has, and it never will.

In fact, the opposite is true. This is a way to guard the world of Torah study from becoming a one-way track to poverty and a financial burden on tax-paying citizens. Studying Torah can only be strengthened by the study of core subjects.

History has provided us with myriad examples of Judaism’s greatest spiritual minds who committed themselves to a life of learning that combined both the spiritual and secular realms.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Rav Kook), Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) were all intellectually versed across multiple disciplines. Each one possessed the necessary tools to gravitate between their profound faith and study of the divine and their responsibility to pursue a role in the greater societal collective.

Israel’s haredi population, which is currently 13% of the country’s total, is the country’s fastest growing sector, and yet participation in the labor force among working-aged ultra-Orthodox men remains stagnant at best.

The state can no longer afford to have a growing segment of the population unprepared to share in absorbing the national economic burden.

Furthermore, of the fraction of haredi men enrolled in institutions of higher learning, only 50% end up graduating. This is despite the increase in the last decade of higher enrollment rates and the further increased interest in professional and academic learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 19% of Israeli students coming from the ultra-Orthodox sector – 33% of first-graders today are haredi – the country is approaching a point of no return. This is why the proposed reform could not come at a more crucial time when looking ahead to the coming decades.

My party, Yisrael Beytenu, under the leadership of Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, has been at the forefront in the push to reform the haredi educational system. This was a prerogative of ours throughout multiple election campaigns. The reform sends a clear message that due to financial considerations, ultra-Orthodox institutions can no longer justify a curriculum absent of core subjects.

Integration into modern society and the greater Israeli social fabric begins with basic education and the right of every child to study the core subjects that will prepare them for higher education and entering the workforce.

The Finance Ministry is ready to open its pockets. I expect influential voices in the haredi community to act responsibly and encourage more institutions to embrace these initiatives.

It’s a moral imperative, and it’s imperative for the future of Israel. 

The author is a member of Knesset from the Yisrael Beytenu Party and a former member of the Israeli Council for Higher Education’s Budgetary and Planning Committee.