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Israel's religious schools get a boost

Yeshivas, criticized by secular Jews for failing to include subjects seen as key to modern life, win state funding.

August 18, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Yossi Ravitz, 22, hasn't had a class in math, science, civics or English since he was a boy. But he believes the rigor of his religious studies equips him for any subject he might need to tackle later in life.

"I don't feel I'm missing anything here," he said during a midday break at the spacious campus of the Hebron Yeshiva, one of Israel's most prominent religious academies.

Ravitz is one of tens of thousands of Israeli boys and young men studying to master the Torah and the Talmud, cloistered at ultra-Orthodox schools that shield them from secular teachings that might shake their faith.

In a defining battle over the Jewish state's identity, the yeshivas are resisting pressure from secular politicians and educators to teach the basic subjects required at all Israeli secondary schools.

"They want to turn us into what they see as 'enlightened people of the world,' who will integrate into Israeli society," he said. "But we do not want to integrate into that society, because of its many temptations."

Haredi Jews, as the ultra-Orthodox are known here, won the latest skirmish. Parliament last month legalized state funding for high school-age boys' yeshivas while reclassifying them as "culturally unique" schools, exempt from the obligation to add on a basic secular curriculum.

The new law undermined a Supreme Court ruling that by Sept. 1 would have cut off the back-channel financing the yeshivas have received for decades.

The law preserves the autonomy and financial health of schools that, their socially conservative supporters say, safeguard Israel's spiritual survival. "Blessed is he who performed this miracle for us!" exclaimed Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox deputy prime minister, after helping engineer the bill's passage.

For its foes, the measure legalizes "publicly funded ignorance," as the newspaper Haaretz railed in an editorial. The Supreme Court, calling the law "inexplicable," predicted it would be struck down if challenged.

"What was fitting for the 18th century does not fit in the 21st," said Avshalom Vilan, a member of parliament from the leftist Meretz party. "It is unacceptable that a high school graduate will enter the work force with fourth-grade math."

The debate is part of a broader struggle often obscured by Israel's armed conflicts with Arab neighbors. Secular Israelis, who rule the nation, see in the ultra-Orthodox an assault on the rational, modern and democratic world they embrace. Haredi Jews believe secular Israelis have undergone a dangerous assimilation -- a separation of Jews from Judaism -- that threatens to contaminate religious children.

In the years after Israel's establishment in 1948, Europe's haredi community was so diminished by the Holocaust that no one objected to its protected status and state subsidies here.

As the community thrived, however, many secular Israelis came to resent it as a burden. Yeshiva students are exempt from the military draft, and tens of thousands of haredi men spend a lifetime of religious study on the public dole, even as they condemn the moral corruption of the society that pays the bill.

Religious and secular Jews have skirmished over gay pride rallies, gender-segregated buses, divorce law, standards of sartorial modesty, Sabbath street closings and the sale of non-kosher meat.

One thing is beyond dispute: The ultra-Orthodox, who make up 7% of Israel's population, wield disproportionate political clout.

By trading legislative favors, Yishai's Shas party secured fast-track approval for the yeshiva-funding bill a day before parliament began its summer recess.

The law guarantees yeshivas 60% of the funding secular schools get from the national treasury and allows municipal allocations to bridge the gap.

About 90,000 haredi Jews study in Israeli yeshivas. Girls, expected to work as adults and bear the children of perpetual religious scholars, take secular subjects along with religious ones until they graduate.

What little secular education haredi boys get ends in primary school. The Supreme Court calls this a violation of a universal education law that requires students 18 and younger to be taught "basic knowledge, proficiency and values" needed "to function in a pluralistic society."

Defenders of the yeshivas bristle at this argument. They note that yeshiva graduates aspiring to enter secular universities score higher than the national average on entrance exams after taking one-year catch-up courses. The Hebron Yeshiva's vast study hall, often crowded at 2 a.m., is a picture of academic discipline; men who have hit the books there include a former president, poets, judges and bank chairmen, as well as rabbis and religious scholars.

Talmud study involves rigorous debates over interpretation of Jewish law, meant to give students a highly developed ability to reason.

And yet the yeshivas also produce their share of dropouts who feel cheated.

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