Haredi schools work
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 19, 2003
Shinui Knesset member Ilan Shalgi, who heads the Knesset Education Committee, called recently for the termination of all government funding to haredi elementary schools that cannot prove they are in compliance with the curricular requirements established by the Education Ministry. His goal is to close all haredi elementary schools.
It is no accident that this issue is heating up now. As Bar-Ilan University professor Noah Efron concludes in Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, hatred of haredim peaks precisely when secular Jewish identity is felt to be devoid of all content.
Similarly, the more the state school system is perceived as failing, the greater the resentment of the haredim for insisting on maintaining their own unique educational system.
Of the failure of the Israeli educational system, there is no longer room for argument. Comparative international studies place Israeli pupils at the bottom of the industrialized world in math and reading comprehension. Meanwhile our rates of school violence and pupil dissatisfaction are among the highest in the world. Drug use by pupils continues to climb.
After watching a series of TV interviews in which high-school students could not identify David Ben-Gurion, Tallie Lipkin-Shahak wrote in Ma'ariv that the only thing more depressing than the students' total ignorance was their "complete indifference to that ignorance."
"Why should I know who he is? What will it give me?" one student asked.
CRITICS OF haredi education blame the lack of sufficient secular studies for haredi poverty. Haredi pupils, however, actually did better than their secular counterparts in math, and only slightly lower in reading comprehension on the PISA-2002 comparative international tests.
The PISA-2002 study also found that haredi schools are superior in many ways. Thirty-one percent of haredi pupils describe their relationships with teachers as good, as opposed to 3% of secular pupils. In general, haredi pupils show a much more positive attitude to school, and higher self-esteem than their secular counterparts.
The PISA-2002 study also revealed a vast gap in favor of haredi schools in terms of the individual attention and support that pupils receive from teachers. Despite lower pay, haredi teachers express much higher morale. In addition, haredi children spend more time reading out of school.
Thousands of secular and traditional parents are transferring their children into Torah educational frameworks every year. Not because they want their children to become haredi, but so that their children can learn in a violence and drug-free environment and imbibe the values, such as respect for parents, that these schools emphasize.
Admittedly haredi education is unlikely to produce many university humanities professors. But girls reach a level in secular studies comparable to their secular counterparts, and even the intense Talmudic learning for males is no bar to subsequently earning a living. The diligence and analytical abilities developed in Talmud study are excellent preparation for many fields, including hi-tech. A 1994 study by a team of American and Israeli researchers, headed by Robert Sigler of Carnegie-Mellon University, one of the world's leading experts in cognitive development, found that yeshiva students actually surpassed secular students in their ability to solve geometry and mathematical problems.
The great Harvard medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson once described Talmud study as nothing less than "the application of the scientific method to the study of texts." And American software entrepreneur George Morganstern finds that the patience and attention to detail of yeshiva students makes it possible to turn them into proficient programmers in one-quarter to one-half the normal time.
Recently a Gerrer hassid, who has not even completed his degree from the Haredi Center for Vocational Training, revamped the basic operating system of leading defense contractor ELTA, with 400 separate databases, to meet ELTA's individual requirements - a task no one in the company thought possible.
Relative haredi poverty is only slightly a function of education. It owes much more to factors such as the high value placed on long-term Torah study for men, the reluctance to enter secular workplaces with far different standards of modesty, and the fear of some employers of hiring haredim.
The haredi world is increasingly open to the benefits of math and language skills, and will only become more so as men begin to enter the job market at younger ages. The Shuvu system for Russian-speaking children, arguably the finest school system in the country, was created under the direct supervision of the leading Torah authorities.
Education Ministry director-general Ronit Tirosh has commended the Shuvu math education as a model for all schools. And after a recent visit to a Shuvu high school, Hannah Neeman, the head of the Education Ministry high-school department, recommended that principals in the state system visit and study the high school.
Education Minister Limor Livnat is undoubtedly right that through dialogue it will be possible to ensure that haredi children receive the secular training they need to one day earn a living. But haredi parents, who already bear a far higher financial burden than other parents in order to preserve the independence of their educational system, will not turn over the transmission of Torah to the control of any outside authority. They are all too aware that a Shinui minister may one day sit in the Education Ministry.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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