Now is the time to support Ultra-Orthodox core-curriculum yeshiva education


Israel’s new political reality—with the two main Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi political parties, the Sephardic-based Shas party and the Ashkenazi-based United Torah Judaism, inside the government won’t help the next generation of Haredi young people—in fact, on the contrary, it will perpetuate a broken system. While Shas and United Torah Judaism have negotiated financial windfalls for their constituencies, as well as a pull-back on the demand that Ultra-Orthodox young men serve in the Israeli Defense Force, this old style of conducting business could be harmful to our community’s young people. That’s because the reality is that education—not political power–is the key to the future for the Haredi community in Israel, especially if the government doesn’t put advancing Haredim through education and employment at the core of the agenda.

“Educate each child according to his own path,” the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “and he will not stray from it, even when he is old.” And yet, when it comes to educating Haredi youth in Israel, we still have much to learn. Quite honestly, there is nothing short of an education crisis in our community. Rather than providing real choices, our leaders have traditionally insisted that Haredi students have only one path: a formal, rote curriculum dominated by intensive Talmud study, with no option for students to take general studies or complete an Israeli matriculation certificate. This is the path that is likely to dominate the agenda right now—and it is not the path that our young people need or deserve.

The reality is that in the absence of a meaningful alternative, nearly a third of Haredi teenage boys will continue to become alienated from both mainstream Israeli society and the traditional ways of their community. Many drop out of school, spend their time on the streets, or are lost to the Haredi community altogether. They are unable to build families and successful lives.

Those yeshivas that do offer secular matriculation (and there are only a handful in the entire country) are far too expensive for most Haredi families to afford.

By creating Hachmey Lev Yeshiva High School, my aim is to do nothing short of transforming the Yeshiva model. We offer teens who are under stimulated in classical Yeshiva settings the opportunity to maximize their social, educational, and cognitive potential all while still maintaining a Haredi lifestyle. We are teaching the boys Gemara at the highest standards, in Hebrew and without compromise, and to live a Haredi lifestyle that will also allow them to earn a good living for themselves and their future families.

I was inspired to create Hachmay Lev based on my own family’s experience when our son reached seventh grade and boredom got the better of him. He showed little interest in his traditional yeshiva schooling. As a product of this schooling myself, I know the value of its rigor, but this model simply is outmoded for today’s young people.

Our students combine study of Talmud (32 hours each week) and general studies (20 hours each week), giving them a broader education than any other Haredi institutions in Israel. They study the core curriculum like English, math, history, Bible, civics, computer science, and Hebrew, while also enjoying music and sports. Students sleep in Jerusalem during the week and return home on weekends. Once the model has been fine-tuned, Hachmey Lev will be replicated in other locations across Israel.

I spent ten years putting Haredim into the workforce and that’s why I know that education is the core issue. After spending a lifetime of activism in the Haredi community on a variety of pressing issues, including making sure that our men serve in the IDF, and find gainful employment, I am convinced that unless and until we transform our educational system, there will simply never be the systemic change that we need.

North American and British donors know the necessity of getting the 20% of Israeli society that is Haredi into the workforce—and are supporting efforts to increase employment opportunities in the Haredi community, so that our young people can have new models to emulate. Philanthropists outside of Israel also know that Israel is the global exception, since nowhere else in the world are young people exempt from learning a broad range of studies or from working. But, money for employment without strengthening and expanding serious alternative educational models won’t create the type of workers for a 21st century workforce that Israel needs.

Philanthropists who want to impact the Israeli economy need to invest in educational models that will recast the pattern of poverty in our community. Now, more than ever, those of us who trying to change Haredi society from within need to show that our model can work for a broader segment of our community. 

Bezalel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, is the founding principal of Hachmey Lev, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva boarding school that also includes core curriculum.

[www.kidum-edu.org.il/en/education-campuses/hachmey-lev-yeshiva-high-school]

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox


Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel moves to outlaw use of Nazi symbols


Israel’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to laws to curb public use of Nazi symbols after ultra-Orthodox protesters caused outrage by calling police Nazis and wearing concentration camp garb.

Four bills swiftly passed one of five rounds of voting needed to become law, even though a spectrum of critics denounced them as a violation of free speech.

The laws call for up to a year in jail and stiff fines for anyone convicted of visually or verbally misusing symbols such as swastikas, the term Nazi or epithets related to the killing of six million Jews before and during World War Two.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the bills before they went to parliament, seizing on public outrage at devout Jews who dressed last month as Holocaust victims to show they felt persecuted by objections to their efforts to achieve gender segregation in public.

Some at the Jerusalem protest on December 31 also shouted “Nazis, Nazis” at Israeli police.

Israel has a law banning Holocaust denial but none so far against public displays of Nazi symbols.

The Jewish state established in 1948 is still home to more than 200,000 ageing survivors of the Holocaust, yet all kinds of protesters have long employed symbols of the tragedy to showcase their causes.

Jewish settlers protested against the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza by putting yellow Stars of David on their clothes, like those the Nazis once forced Jews to wear.

Critics of Israel’s occupation of land Palestinians seek for statehood have also sometimes called Israeli soldiers Nazis.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the new laws violated free speech.

“Freedom of expression means the right to say difficult things that might even been hurtful,” a statement on the group’s Web site said.

While the use of Holocaust symbolism was “indeed a big question which deserves a robust and free public debate, it is not a question that should be handled through criminal law.”

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Nazi-hunter group, said: “The misuse of Holocaust imagery is nothing new. It’s a terrible thing, we all agree.”

He said he thought Israel would avoid enforcing the measures for fear of aggravating social divisions and that “unimplemented, such a law would make a mockery of the whole issue.”

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Edited by Richard Meares)

Israel’s religion minister fears Jewish divides


Israeli society could be torn apart if disputes between ultra-Orthodox and less observant Jews continue to heat up, Israel’s religious affairs minister said on Wednesday.

In a telephone interview, Yaacov Margy, who also serves as director-general of Shas, a religious party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, condemned an incident last month in which zealots seeking gender separation spat at a schoolgirl they accused of dressing immodestly.

That attack was disclosed by an Israeli television station, whose report on the violence stunned many in the Jewish state, where concerns over religious coercion are mounting among its mainly secular population.

Margy said such incidents and ultra-Orthodox protests – in the latest, on Saturday, children were dressed as Nazi Holocaust victims to suggest public persecution of the community – had been overblown in the media.

“If they ganged up on an 8-year-old girl, this is something that must be uprooted. We have a police force, courts – anyone who is violent must be dealt with. But we don’t have to go crazy,” he said.

Margy accused media outlets of fueling the religious-secular dispute by covering in detail ultra-Orthodox protests.

“If we have a problem in Israeli society we should deal with it through dialogue,” he said. “I call on all people in the media and the extremists on both sides, crazy people: ‘climb down off the roof’.”

He said he feared that failure to do so “will tear Israeli society apart,” and pointed to banners at a recent secular demonstration where protesters voiced their fear that Israel could become like Islamist-ruled Iran.

“Every morning I go to look at the window and check whether I see some pro-Khomeini protest at my doorstep,” he said referring to the religious leader who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. “All I see are green fields, a good atmosphere and good neighbors.”

That view contrasts sharply with a cautionary note sounded last month by Israeli President Shimon Peres who said the country was in the grip of a battle for its soul.

BACK OF THE BUS

An emotional national debate has been raging over issues such attempts to segregate sidewalks in areas where devout Jews live and back-of-the-bus seating for women on public buses that ply religious neighborhoods and which are patronized by ultra-Orthodox passengers.

Turning to coalition politics in which his Shas party has traditionally been a king-maker, Margy said he was “very disappointed” in Netanyahu’s right-wing government, where a major partner has promoted contentious legislation governing marriage.

The bill introduced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party would give Israelis a freer hand at choosing rabbis to register them for marriage.

Jewish marriage in Israel is administered by Orthodox rabbis, whose refusal to register mixed couples poses difficulties for Yisrael Beitenu’s considerable Russian immigrant constituency, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

“Nobody expects the Jewish state to permit mixed marriages,” Margy said.

With 11 lawmakers in Netanyahu’s 66-member coalition, Shas has enough sway to stand up and be heard as it helps assure the government of majority support in Israel’s 120-seat legislature.

The next parliamentary election is not due until 2013, but Netanyahu has scheduled an early Likud leadership ballot for January 31, raising speculation the date of a national vote might be brought forward.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Jewish Agency wants changes in Israel conversion policy


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jewish Agency Assembly adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to “allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The twin resolutions were adopted by the world body Sunday after heated debate and a crossfire of amendments and counteramendments. The issue has long aroused the ire of Diaspora Jews, who have been upset at the refusal of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities to recognize conversions performed by rabbis in the Diaspora.

The assembly defeated a stronger resolution, submitted by delegates from Los Angeles, that would have called on the Israeli government to “recognize and accept as Jews” all those converted under the supervision of rabbis from the four major Jewish religious movements, as well as those from “other religious streams of Judaism.”

Yaakov Ne’eman, who has been appointed by successive Israeli governments to resolve the controversial issue, had threatened to quit if the stronger resolution was adopted.

One of the adopted resolutions cited “a deep crisis within the conversion process” brought on by the arrival in Israel of some 300,000 new immigrants not considered Jewish by the Orthodox religious establishment. It calls on the government to establish Jewish religious courts that “will base themselves on appropriate moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

Noting that Israel’s Supreme Court already has recognized “conversions by the different streams of Judaism for civil matters,” the other resolution calls on the government to “establish immediately an independent conversion authority to resolve and deal with the conversion issue.”

The Married Charedi and Me


I met Oren after watching “Kol Nidrei,” a new play by Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol. The play is about Charedi (ultra-Orthodox)

Jews who lead double lives — as Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. “Kol Nidrei” is inspired by real life, and the main characters are played by former Charedi Jews who had left their communities for the “free life” of Tel Aviv and who now study acting.

My friend Tovy and I got in the elevator with Oren, who was wearing a black kippah and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked him what he thought of “Kol Nidrei.”

“I’m shaking,” he said. “It really spoke to me.”

He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and child, who didn’t know where he was. By going to see the play, Oren, too, was leading a double life.

Tovy and I sat down with him, and he continued to tell us his story.

“I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I’ve always suffered,” he explained.

Now 27, he was set up with his wife when he was 18. He doesn’t love her, and they both know it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him.

“You have a choice,” he said to us. “I want that choice.”

Internally, Oren is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn’t pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy.

“I can’t just shave my beard and go to my family and say, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t have the courage.”

I felt sorry for him, but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn’t help but be tempted to encourage him.

“Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?” I asked.

“I’m intrigued,” he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt “out of place.”

Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married.

“He’s definitely into one of us,” said Tovy, as he left.

That was obvious enough.

A few days later he called me with an “idea.” “Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?”

He wasn’t really experienced in asking a woman out on a date.

I deferred the date for a week; I was still hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a probable adulterer?

But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul — with caution.

We sat for beer at a pub on Ben Yehuda Street on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv’s party night.

There was no small talk to bypass to get to the nitty gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense.

“Doesn’t your wife mind you’re out late?” I probed.

He looked at me with a concentrated glance I hardly receive from secular men I date.

“We both know that it’s going to end sooner or later,” he said. “We talk about it.”

His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married Charedi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn’t kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher.

And I wouldn’t want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippah and black slacks. He totally didn’t fit in, and I could tell people were looking at us. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential — if only one could see his face.

We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the Modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness.

“How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?” I asked.

“I’m on a high,” he said.

As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t like the feel of his beard.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said.

But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit.

Then I remembered that this was not a play. “Kol Nidrei” was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors.

For now I think it best I remain a minor, friendly character in Oren’s story. Once the major conflicts are resolved — and he goes through a wardrobe change — then we’ll see if I’ll take on a bigger role.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

 

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