Yeshivos ketanos on the Brink
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 1, 2005
It is hardly news that the economic situation of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael is bleak. But what is less commonly understood in America – and even in Israel itself – is how this situation threatens the continued viability of the most important institutions of chareidi life. Yeshivos ketanos for boys age fourteen through seventeen are perhaps the chief case in point.
Five years ago, circumstances could hardly have been more different. In Jerusalem alone, two or more new yeshivos ketanos opened every year in response to growing demand, and each was quickly filled. While no one ever became rich running a yeshiva ketana, the funding from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Religions, and the Ministry of Social Welfare (to cover the cost of the yeshiva dormitories) was sufficient to cover the salaries of rebbeim and the cost of feeding the bochurim . A few yeshivos ketanos even managed to acquire their own buildings, and the roshei yeshiva did not have to raise money.
When Rabbi Moshe Chodesh, Rosh Yeshivas Ohr Elchanan in Jerusalem, was approached by the deputy mayor of Tiberias and asked to open the first yeshiva ketana in the entire Galilee region, for instance, he did not hesitate because he knew that the costs of running a new yeshiva would be covered by the government.
But all that changed sharply with the formation of the current Sharon government. First the Supreme Court ruled that double-funding from more than one ministry for the same purpose was illegal. As a consequence, the funding coming from the Ministry of Religions (which was, in any event, soon dismantled entirely), was supposed to be switched to the Education Ministry. The yeshivos ketanos were initially told that they would receive everything they had previously gotten from the Ministry of Religions through the Ministry of Education. That, however, was far from the case. Today yeshivos ketanos receive only 90 shekels per student per month of the 340 shekels they once received from the Ministry of Religions.
Nor was that the end of the cuts. Under new Ministry of Education regulations funding of institutions which do not teach secular subjects has been dramatically cut, costing the yeshivos ketanos another 150 shekels per student per month. Further cuts are threatened. In addition, the Ministry of Welfare support for the dormitories was subjected to onerous new criteria that do not apply to dormitories serving other sectors of the population, and cut by almost 40%.
Finally, the government imposed new accounting procedures so cumbersome and requiring so much manpower that it is often not worth the remaining government funding to hire outside auditors.
In total, government funding of yeshiva ketanos has fallen over 70% over the past three years. The average yeshiva ketana serving 110-120 talmidim faces an annual budget deficit of over $250,000 if it also has to pay $10,000 in monthly rent for the building, and about half that if it has its own building.
The logical solution to this financial shortfall would be to raise tuitions. And indeed when the roshei yeshiva of yeshivos ketanos go abroad fundraising, they are frequently told that yeshivos ketanos are local institutions and that the parents of students should cover the deficits.
Such statements, however, betray a woeful failure to understand the economic situation in Eretz Yisrael today. Most of the yeshivos ketanos have not even bothered to ask for an increase in the standard tuition of $100/month because so few parents can pay even that much. It is not only the families of kolleleit who cannot pay either part or all of the tuition, but even families where both parents have what are considered good jobs, especially if they have married one or two children already. Due to cuts in government child supplements, families with eight or more children have lost several thousand shekels in income a month. And they are simply in no position to pay more.
One well-to-do American baalebos told a rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva ketana, "I only give money to poor families. Send the parents to me." The rosh yeshiva told him that in that case he should give to yeshivos ketanos because the cost of feeding each bochur is at least $150 per month, and a very large percentage of the parents could not afford to feed their sons if they were home.
Fundraising abroad has proven extremely difficult for the yeshivos ketanos. By their very nature, yeshivos ketanos are not internationally known institutions, and while the merit of benefactors is great, the crucial prestige factor is absent. Moreover, the yeshivos ketanos have no foreign students whose parents can make parlor meetings on their behalf in more prosperous communities abroad. And the roshei yeshiva of yeshivos ketanos are far more circumscribed than the roshei yeshiva of yeshivos gedolos because almost all of them give a daily shiur and are in the yeshiva most of the day. As one told me, "I have to rethink ten times, every time I travel."
The crisis of the yeshivos ketanos is not just economic but one of chinuch as well. Virtually no new yeshivos ketanos have opened up in recent years. Who would be so foolhardy as to undertake such a fundraising burden? The existing yeshivos ketanos have had to expand to meet the growing number of bochurim . In most cases, they cannot afford to take on new maggidei shiurim. Thus where, as yeshivos ketanos once kept each shiur to thirty boys or less, it is not uncommon today to hear of 46 or more.
The boys in yeshiva ketana are young teenagers going through what is in many cases the most turbulent years of their life. They need a great deal of individual attention both in learning and just dealing with general life issues, and the yeshivos ketanos traditionally maintained a high ratio of staff to student ratio in order to provide the necessary individualized attention.
But many can no longer afford to do so. Even as the maggidei shiur struggle with classes far above the optimal, their salaries have, in many cases, been cut. Many yeshivos ketanos no longer provide staff the benefits, such as insurance in the event of death or disability, that they once did, and staff has been cut. The combination of increased burdens and reduced compensation has had predictable consequences on the morale of rebbeim . Other expenses that were once considered an important part of the yeshiva ketana year, such as summer camps during the 3-week summer vacation and occasional special Shabbosos outside the yeshiva – have been dropped.
In order to fully appreciate the long-range threat to Torah learning from a decline in the yeshivos ketanos, it is crucial to understand their central role in the Israeli Torah educational system. Most Israeli bochurim only hear a daily blatt shiur for two years in yeshiva gedola, i.e., approximately until the age of 19. After that, they learn almost entirely with chavrusas, with an occasional shiur klali. Thus the three years of daily shiur in yeshiva ketana play a much more important role in shaping bochurim in Gemara learning than in America, for instance, where bochurim typically hear shiur for many years after high school.
The learning sedarim in yeshivos gedolos are almost the same as in yeshiva gedolah, and the personalized environment of the yeshivos ketanos means that the sedarim are closely followed. Students in shiur beis or gimmel typically sleep in the yeshiva and learn until late at night.
The only good news in this grim picture is that few yeshivos ketanos have yet closed their doors. The roshei yeshiva to whom I spoke all said that they see the hand of Hashgacha in this. They were encouraged to enter into the chinuch of young bochurim when their only concern was the bochurim themselves. And now that they find themselves with the responsibility for a hundred or more young talmidim on their shoulders, they do not feel free to quit.
Related Topics: World Jewry
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list