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Rapid Rise of Israel’s Orthodox Schools Sparks Fear of Army, Work Force Shortage

Jerusalem – Two recently released government reports have reignited scrutiny of ultra-Orthodox participation in general Israeli society.

A study released last month by the Central Bureau of Statistics predicts that one-third of all Jewish elementary-school students in Israel will be enrolled in the ultra-Orthodox education system by 2012. A week after the education study was released, the Israeli military reported that the number of eligible 18-year-old men not enlisting in the army had sharply risen to one-quarter, nearly half of them ultra-Orthodox.

The findings have alarmed many secular Israelis, who warn that the government-subsidized education system for ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, is creating a generation of students unequipped to enter the job market and unwilling to serve in the army.

“We are now educating an entire generation without imparting basic values and basic studies — and we are using public funds to do it,” said Michael Melchior, a Labor-Meimad lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s education committee. “This is about education, but it’s much deeper. This is about where we want to go as a society and what kind of Jewish state we want.”

The reports, both of which received wide media coverage, have generated a flood of hand-wringing. Military officials have warned of a looming manpower shortage, and earlier this week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Israelis to return to the days when draft dodgers were publicly shunned as carrying “the mark of Cain.”

The ultra-Orthodox community, one of the poorest sectors of society, now constitutes roughly 10% of the Israeli population. With a majority of Haredi men choosing Torah study over full-time work, and even more claiming exemption from military service on religious grounds, resentment of the societal privileges granted to the ultra-Orthodox is considerable among the tax-paying and army-serving secular public.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders acknowledge the priority given to religious education, but insist that the community does not pursue its interest at the expense of the state.

“The Haredi world is indeed dedicated first and foremost to Torah study,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. “But that has not prevented individual Haredim, with the blessings of their leaders, from entering the work force or military. Nor has those individuals’ ‘compromised’ education prevented them from succeeding in those milieus. Should the messiah tarry that long, God forbid, and a need arise for larger numbers of Haredim to become part of the larger Israeli societal infrastructure, it is not hard to imagine that happening with the blessings — and ongoing guidance — of Haredi spiritual leaders.”

According to the recently released elementary-school report, by 2012 only 50% of all Jewish elementary-school students will be enrolled in the public education system. Increasing numbers of students are leaving the state religious system, which offers both religious and secular training, in favor of quasi-private ultra-Orthodox schools, only a handful of which teach such subjects as science, computers, Israeli history, civics and English. This year, 23% of first graders were enrolled in Haredi schools.

In May, the Knesset passed legislation, known as the “Nahari Law” (after the Shas lawmaker who sponsored it), requiring municipal governments to contribute funding to private schools, many of which are ultra-Orthodox. Another bill, put forth by the United Torah Judaism party, would ensure state funding for schools that do not teach the public school core curriculum.

“Parents are looking for values, a quality education and a comfortable, violence-free environment for their children. That is something that Haredi schools offer and that public schools do not,” Meshulam Nahari, the Shas legislator, told the Forward. “The public system is falling apart and it has nothing to do with the Haredi schools. The public system simply isn’t providing what parents and children are looking for.”

In an effort to head off the legislation, the Reform movement’s legal arm in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, has filed a petition with the Supreme Court aimed at forcing the Central Bureau of Statistics to stop funding schools that do not teach the core curriculum.

“These Haredi children are not receiving a basic education that will enable them to get by in the modern world and to provide for themselves financially,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, the attorney who filed the petition. “The state is essentially allowing one-third of its population to become a generation of ignoramuses, and the state cannot sustain itself that way.”

For lawmakers like Melchior, an equally large concern is the budgetary implications of a growing amount of government funds going from public schools to quasi-private ultra-Orthodox schools.

“This is about one sector taking a bigger part of the cake,” he said, “while the rest of the education system suffers.”


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