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Ultra-Orthodox shifting stance on children learning math, English

Ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Moshe Gafni surprised everyone recently by announcing that ultra-Orthodox schools will be established where mathematics and English will be taught.

The fight over the inclusion of core curriculum subjects in the ultra-Orthodox educational system took a surprising turn on Feb. 13 when Knesset member Moshe Gafni (Yahadut HaTorah) announced that ultra-Orthodox schools that teach “secular subjects” will be established. By “secular subjects,” he meant primarily math and English, which are recognized universally as the basis for more advanced academic studies and professional training. Over the years, the ultra-Orthodox parties have blocked the introduction of core curriculum subjects to the independent, ultra-Orthodox network of schools. Efforts to deny state funding to those schools that refuse to teach these subjects have, so far, failed.

According to Gafni, “[The schools will be established], if there is a demand from parents. They will be opened wherever a group [of parents] organizes to found a school with more secular studies.” So far, it remains unclear whether Gafni’s revolutionary announcement is a mere campaign promise or whether it comes from a genuine recognition that such a compromise is preferable to the growing trend of establishing state-run ultra-Orthodox schools.

The background to Gafni’s announcement is the enormous change underway in the ultra-Orthodox sector that includes less self-imposed isolation and increased openness to non-ultra-Orthodox society, greater identification with the state and its values, and real growth in the number of people from the ultra-Orthodox sector, men and women alike, joining the workforce.

The phenomenon has bolstered and expanded the so-called new ultra-Orthodox, an emerging group that hold jobs and make a decent living, increasing their quality of life as a result, and who no longer isolate themselves in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, towns and villages. They attribute great importance to education and would like to see their children exposed to a broader curriculum than that offered by the independent ultra-Orthodox school system, which focuses almost entirely on religious studies. To meet this educational demand, in 2014 Education Minister Shai Piron created a state-run ultra-Orthodox school network that now includes several dozen elementary and high schools that teach math, English and sciences alongside religious studies.

According to figures provided by the Israel Institute for Democracy and the Ministry of Education for 2017, the number of ultra-Orthodox families that prefer sending their children to the state-run ultra-Orthodox network and to the state national-religious schools has grown considerably over the last few years. These families want their children to learn the core curriculum to prepare them to integrate into Israeli society and the workforce. The number of ultra-Orthodox students in higher education has grown steadily as well, from 4,000 at the start of the decade to more than 12,000 in 2017. It turns out, however, that compared to other student populations, a greater percentage of ultra-Orthodox university students drop out, largely because of their poor English. If core curriculum subjects are included in ultra-Orthodox education, it is reasonable to assume that the number of ultra-Orthodox students would rise, and the number of dropouts would decrease. Furthermore, those students would be more successful in their studies.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians have been known until now for their unswerving loyalty to the conservatism of their rabbis’ leadership. They have, therefore, come out against state-run schools that teach the core curriculum and have blocked the introduction of these subjects into the independent school system. Their stance, however, has pushed many of the new ultra-Orthodox to seek other political options. Indeed, the number of ultra-Orthodox voting for non-ultra-Orthodox parties has increased over the past few years. In light of this, Gafni’s announcement can be seen as a response to this trend.

According to Gafni, “secular studies” have received the approval of the “Lithuanian” rabbinic leadership, the ultimate arbiters in the ultra-Orthodox community. This is a real turnabout in the position of the rabbis, who had rejected the inclusion of the core curriculum into the independent ultra-Orthodox educational system and until now also opposed Piron’s state-run ultra-Orthodox system. One of the consequences of this opposition has been the shunning of ultra-Orthodox families whose children attend schools in the state-run system to the point that they will not let their own children marry them.

Gafni’s solution to the problem is to continue to maintain principled opposition to the expansion of the state-run ultra-Orthodox school network, and to even fight against it, while at the same time developing a parallel education system within the independent school network to ensure that the rabbinic leadership has the final say on everything that is taught, even if a core curriculum is introduced. Gafni seems to hope that meeting the educational demands of the new ultra-Orthodox will stop them from voting for non-ultra-Orthodox parties.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, sources in Yahadut HaTorah said that they have reached the conclusion that establishing new schools in the independent school network is preferable to expanding the state-run ultra-Orthodox school system. This way, at least, ultra-Orthodox families remain part of a framework that follows the dictates of the party and its religious leadership.

This turnabout in the position of the ultra-Orthodox leadership raises several questions: Will ultra-Orthodox parents who want more secular studies be satisfied with the new schools established by the independent school network or will they still insist on state-run education outside the control of the ultra-Orthodox establishment? If the religious leadership were to indeed grant approval to secular studies, why wouldn’t every ultra-Orthodox parent demand them for their children? Why the need for new schools? Why shouldn’t the traditional yeshiva school introduce more core studies?

A 2015 study by the ultra-Orthodox Institute for Policy Studies found the ultra-Orthodox community to be unhappy with their educational system and that parents were dissatisfied with the educational content and the curricula that the independent ultra-Orthodox education network provided.

Lotem Perry-Hazan, who oversaw a study on ultra-Orthodox education for the Israel Institute for Democracy, said that most ultra-Orthodox parents want their children to have more secular courses, with an emphasis on English and mathematics, and that some ultra-Orthodox leaders are interested in the possibility of their schools joining the state-run ultra-Orthodox educational system.

It would be a real revolution if Gafni does in fact stand by his statement and takes steps to introduce secular studies into the ultra-Orthodox educational system at the expense of religious studies. On the other hand, skeptics in the ultra-Orthodox community believe that it is little more than an election-season promise and that it will not meet the growing need for the core curriculum in ultra-Orthodox society.

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