What’s happening right now around secular studies in Israeli yeshivas is remarkable

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In recent weeks it seems that something notable is happening in the Israeli haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community when it comes to teaching math, English and science in schools almost exclusively devoted to religious instruction.

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The irony of history is that we can understand and assess the full meaning of current events only in retrospect. Only looking back can we know for certain whether an incident that seems historic really is a turning point, or whether it was really the quiet and hard-to-detect processes bubbling under the surface that were shaping the future.

Either way, in recent weeks it seems that something notable is happening in the Israeli haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community when it comes to teaching math, English and science in schools almost exclusively devoted to religious instruction.

The realization is slowly sinking in that more and more ultra-Orthodox families want to send their sons to haredi Orthodox schools that teach core curriculum subjects and are under government supervision. In order to avoid losing control over these schools, the rabbis are considering offering them a “kosher” alternative — schools that teach core curriculum subjects but are under haredi supervision. 

A few days ago, Israeli media reported on a meeting of prominent leaders of the pious “Lithuanian” haredi sector, known as “Yeshivish” in the United States. According to one accountthe leaders, including two rabbis who are among the favorites in the race to be crowned the next “rabbinical giant of the generation,” met to discuss the “state ultra-Orthodox school system, with the objective of considering the challenges in education and the best way to proceed.” The teaching of secular subjects was clearly the context of their meeting. 

This comes on top of last month’s report that the Belzer Hasidic movement, one of Israel’s largest, wants to revert to a plan, devised in the previous Knesset by legislator Moshe TurPaz, whereby their schools would receive full state funding contingent on their incorporation of core curriculum subjects under government supervision. (The sect had dropped the plan under pressure from Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the last rabbinical giant, who died in May at 100.) Whether these reports are true or just a gun placed on the table by haredi members of the Knesset as part of budget negotiations, the mere threat would seem to indicate that the core curriculum is gaining increased legitimacy in ultra-Orthodox society.

The truly shocking news, however, came on a different front: higher education. David Leibel, a well known rabbi who is also a businessman and social entrepreneur with a long record of success, announced the opening of an advanced yeshiva (for students ages 16 through marriage) that would also teach academic subjects. 

The announcement was preceded by a heavily promoted speech that garnered major coverage inside and outside the haredi sector. Currently, most haredi men continue to study Torah full-time and do not work for a living. The rabbi proclaimed, in short, that there is more than one way to be an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Devoting one’s life to Torah study is a stellar virtue, Leibel said, but acquiring a vocation and going out to earn a livelihood is equally legitimate. 

The attacks were swift and brutal. The Orthodox weekly Yated Ne’eman declared it totally out of the question to discuss the idea and condemned Leibel as the spiritual murderer of the greatest rabbi of the next generation, who instead of devoting himself entirely to Torah will choose to focus on secular studies. 

Despite the fierce public opposition to Leibel’s move, leaders associated with several ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high schools and others have just announced their intention to open a post-secondary institution that would allow its students to combine Torah studies with vocational programs and academic courses. 

According to the manifesto they wrote, which has circulated within the community but not been formally published, the yeshiva will offer “studies in a range of disciplines and occupations offered both by universities and other quality institutions that pave the student’s way to professionalism and excellence toward a dignified life and honorable livelihood, while sharing and accepting responsibility both in the economy, society, and community, and in the State of Israel as a whole.”

Can the ultra-Orthodox in Israel really incorporate a secular education or is the haredi DNA dedicated solely to religious studies for boys?

In the American context, the opposition by Hasidic leaders to calls that they improve their secular studies would suggest the latter. An investigation by the New York City Department of Education recently found that 18 Hasidic schools do not uphold the requirements to teach secular subjects. (It also concluded that some yeshivas do meet the state’s standards.) Hasidic yeshivas in New York, and their political supporters, have so far resisted heavy pressure from activists and the media to teach secular subjects in a way that is “substantially equivalent” with non-Orthodox schools. 

But the situation among the “Yeshivish,” non-Hasidic yeshivas in the United States is quite different. Their yeshivas, in places like the burgeoning Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, New Jersey, are teaching secular studies even in high schools, and most of their graduates are earning high school and often post-high school diplomas. This stems from parents’ desire to provide their children with the life skills required in modern society. In research we conducted on Haredi boys’ education in the United States, a principal of a Lithuanian institution told us that removing secular studies would lead 90% of parents to remove their sons from the yeshiva.

No wonder that more than 25% percent of the Yeshivish stream hold academic degrees, and the annual average earning of a Yeshivish household is 60% more than a Hasidic one. 

The haredi experience in the United States shows that it is possible to combine religious and secular studies for high-school aged boys. Can this latter model be replicated in Israel?

Only time will tell whether the current changes in Israel are viable or whether they prove premature and wither away. 

But if there is a lesson to be learned from all that’s happening, it is that change takes place only when alternatives are made available. If these and similar yeshivas gain momentum, the decision-makers will have no choice. Just as they are now considering the establishment of ultra-Orthodox schools that teach core curriculum subjects under rabbinic supervision, in the future we may see Israeli yeshivas that include secular studies as an integral part of the haredi world.


This article was originally published by JTA