Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Iyar 5761 - May 9, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Huge Rise in Chareidi School Enrollment; Lev L'Achim: The Figures Are Even Higher
By Eliezer Schwartz

Recent figures released by the Israeli government's Central Bureau of Statistics which show that enrollment in Israel's chareidi elementary schools has tripled in the last 10 years have sent shockwaves through the country's secular community and has its leaders scrambling for answers.

According to the figures, as of last year some 20 percent of students in grades 1 through 6 were learning in chareidi elementary schools. The numbers indicated that for the first time enrollment in chareidi elementary schools surpassed enrollment in state-run religious schools.

Just how has this happened? According to leaders of Israel's chareidi community, the answer is simple: There is a growing thirst among secular Jews in Eretz Yisroel for a Torah way of life, and this is translating into increasing numbers of families enrolling their children into religious schools.

Where is this thirst coming from?

According to Rabbi Menachem Cohen, chairman of Lev L'Achim, the outreach organization whose annual school enrollment campaign has been responsible for enrolling thousands of secular children into religious schools, "There really is no natural explanation for what's going on.

"All I can say," says Rabbi Cohen, "is that we are living in the times of Moshiach, and this is part of the promise Hakodosh Boruch Hu made to us for these times."

Ha'aretz's "Unexplainable" Growth

Not everyone shares Rabbi Cohen's perspective, however. In an article published April 15 by Ha'aretz -- Israel's leading left-wing daily newspaper -- correspondent Ilan Shachar came to the same conclusion as Rabbi Cohen, albeit from an entirely different perspective.

"The incredible growth of the chareidi school system," he writes, "cannot be explained by natural growth."

He then cites statistics from a Boston University study that show the chareidi population in Israel is growing by 5 percent a year. At this rate, the study contends, the chareidi population should double once every 16 to 17 years. Thus, natural growth alone cannot possibly account for a threefold leap in chareidi-school enrollment in just 10 years.

Shachar then focuses on the "problems" this large increase in enrollment will likely cause. First, he writes that continued increases in chareidi school attendance will lead to a soaring rate of army deferments in the future. For example, last year, about 4,000 yeshiva boys -- who comprise about 10 percent of the total draft -- received such deferments. Since there are currently about 8,000 boys in first grade in chareidi schools, Shachar reasons that in another 12 years, the number of requests for draft deferments will double.

Second, writes Shachar, not only will Israel's military capabilities be diminished, but the economy will also begin to falter because, in his view, the chareidi school systems do not prepare their children to earn a living.

He brings in Knesset Member Yossi Paritzky of the anti- religious party Shinui to support his claim.

"The state is subsidizing forces that are opposed to it," Paritzky is quoted as saying. "It is self-destructive. This is insanity. It's a frightening statistic because the chareidi schools are raising ignoramuses."

Obviously, large segments of the Israeli population disagree with Paritzky. Ten years ago there were just 35,000 Israeli children learning in chareidi elementary schools in grades 1 through 6. That figure now stands at 113,000. In addition, another 98,000 students are enrolled in state-run religious schools, which means some 40 percent of Israeli children are now receiving some form of religious education.

In comparison, public school enrollment has increased by only 5 percent during the past 10 years. This lack of growth in the secular school system is even more startling considering that in the past 10 years, about one million Russian immigrants have made aliyah, and most are either non- religious or non-Jewish.

Only Part Of The Picture

So why, then, have chareidi schools become so popular?

The Ha'aretz article gives several explanations, the first of which is the El Hama'ayan Torah school network for Sephardi children. The network, run by Shas, provides a religious education to 17,500 elementary school students.

Lev L'Achim, the Ha'aretz article says, also plays a major role in the increase. According to Shachar, Lev L'Achim's annual enrollment drives have brought nearly 20,000 secular children into religious schools over the last three years.

And Lev L'Achim Director General Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin has the statistics to prove it.

"In the last several years," says Rabbi Sorotzkin, "many religious schools have seen enrollment increases of one hundred, two hundred, even three hundred percent -- and I am not talking about schools in places like Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim."

He cites as an example the Ohr Hachaim school in Eilat, which last year had 70 children and now has 156 -- a 223 percent increase.

"People think of Eilat as a beach town where the only thing people are interested in doing is having fun in the sun," says Rabbi Sorotzkin. "These figures show that it's just the opposite. People have realized that a life without Torah is a life without meaning -- and they want a life with meaning."

Then there is the Ohr Chadash school, which serves children in Rechasim and the surrounding areas. Its enrollment went from 0 in 1997 to 245 in 2000.

And Rabbi Sorotzkin explains that the number would be significantly higher, but 82 students left the school after spending just one year there -- to go to yeshiva.

Rabbi Sorotzkin lists off several more schools: In Beis Yaakov Orot in Afula, enrollment rose from 56 in 1999 to 102 in 2000, an increase of 182 percent. Similarly, in Beis Yaakov Beer Sheva, enrollment climbed from 77 in 1999 to 128 in 2000, an increase of 168 percent. And in Emes V'Shalom in Kiryat Gat, enrollment jumped from 183 in 1999 to over 515 in 2001, an increase of 282 percent.

According to Rabbi Sorotzkin, by the fall, Lev L'Achim expects to enroll 1,000 students into the Kiryat Gat school.

"You have to realize," he says, "that Kiryat Gat is not a large city. All together, there are only a few thousand children there, and more and more families are choosing religious schools for their children. As more and more children enroll in religious schools, the classes in the public schools are getting smaller and smaller. Several public school kindergartens have already been forced to close down because of lack of students."

Rabbi Sorotzkin's list goes on and on. In the Chofetz Chaim school in Rishon Letzion, enrollment rose 184 percent, from 51 students in 1999 to 94 in 2000. In the Rashbi school in Lod, enrollment rose 229 percent, from 116 students in 1999 to 266 in 2000. And in the Shaarei Tzion school in Ramle, enrollment rose a whopping 557 percent, from 37 students in 1999 to 206 in 2000.

Rabbi Sorotzkin is quick to point out that while the secular community is in an uproar over the figures, they aren't even getting the whole picture. The figures should be much higher, he says, because there are many children in other religious schools who haven't even been counted.

He explains that the initial shock over the figures was related to the fact that the Central Bureau of Statistics has, in previous years, only used the number of children in the Chinuch Atzmai network as its indicator of the number of children enrolled in chareidi schools. This year, however, it looked at all the other religious school networks and realized that there were a lot of additional children who weren't being accounted for.

"Usually Chinuch Atzmai has a natural growth of about 2,000 children a year," says Rabbi Sorotzkin. "That's why everyone in the secular community was so surprised when the numbers increased so much. It has to be clear that Chinuch Atzmai schools aren't the only places children go to receive a religious education."

In addition, Rabbi Sorotzkin says that there are many schools that, in order to receive funding from the Ministry of Education, must align themselves with certain networks, even though their curriculum is not necessarily the same as that network. He cites as an example the Beit Margalit school in Netanya. The school is under the aegis of Israel's Mamlachti-Dati network of state-run religious schools, but the school is chareidi.

"There are hundreds of other schools like Beit Margalit," says Rabbi Sorotzkin, "but the Census Bureau researchers haven't taken them into account."

There are also many religious schools that don't receive any funding from the Education Ministry and therefore weren't counted by the Census Bureau at all.

"In a city like Netanya," says Rabbi Sorotzkin, "twenty years ago there were 450 children learning in religious schools. Today there are about 3,000 -- but the study doesn't reflect the total increase."

He explains that in addition to the 200 students learning in Beit Margalit, there are 250 learning in the Chorev school, another 600 in the local Beis Yaakov, 200 in Olelim, 350 in Ohr Letzion, 170 in one Chabad school and 75 in another, and 120 in Charif. Plus there are 37 religious kindergartens, each with 25 students.

"Years ago," said Rabbi Sorotzkin, "no one would have believed that there would be hundreds of secular children learning in religious schools in communities like Eilat, Ramle and Netanya. Now they see the figures, so they are beginning to believe it. But had they seen the real figures, they would have really been shocked."

Other Sources

While the Ha'aretz staff may have been blissfully unaware that the troublesome numbers are, in actuality, even higher, they also pointed to several other factors, in addition to Lev L'Achim's enrollment campaign and the El Hama'ayan school network, that have led to the significant increase in students in chareidi schools.

According to the paper, the schools have gotten a major boost from the ranks of new olim; some 7,000 children from immigrant families have joined religious schools over the course of the last decade.

Ha'aretz, like Rabbi Sorotzkin, also pointed to new school openings as a reason for the increase. In the past decade, the Torah community has opened dozens of religious schools outside of its main population centers to serve immigrants and the increasing number of baalei teshuva.

In addition, the article quotes Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz of United Torah Judaism as saying that at least five to six percent of the new students in Ashkenazi chadorim over the last decade have come from the original corps of Shas members.

According to Ha'aretz, Lev L'Achim and other kiruv groups also indirectly contribute to higher enrollment figures every time they are mekarev a secular Jew. In the 1990s, approximately 43,000 baalei teshuva registered at various yeshivos, including 9,000 married men who, in most cases, are sending their children to chareidi schools.

A Surprise All Around

But not everyone believes the numbers. Shinui MK Paritzky contends that some of the schools are reporting fictitious numbers in an attempt to obtain additional government funding. He does admit, however, that any alleged falsifications would make only a fractional difference in the statistics.

Others were more guarded in their assessment of the overwhelming growth in chareidi schools. Shimshon Shoshani, who served as director general of the Ministry of Education in the Rabin government, says, "This seems to me a bit high. I don't think that the natural growth could be this large, yet I don't believe anyone is falsifying figures."

Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Ravitz says that he, too, was surprised by the figures, but he denies Paritzky's charges that the schools inflate their figures to gain additional funding. On the contrary, he says, when budget requests were prepared for the current school year, they were based on estimates that chareidim made up only 15 percent of the student population.

Now, says Rabbi Ravitz, they will have to sharpen their pencils and make requests for further funding, based on the newer, higher enrollment figures.

Shas has already begun to benefit from the new figures. Education Minister Limor Livnat has announced that additional funding will be allocated for the Shas school network, which almost went bankrupt during the Barak government's short tenure.

And kiruv organizations like Lev L'Achim say that the figures give them an even greater impetus to forge ahead with their efforts to help secular children and their families return to a Torah way of life.

"The fact that the figures are so high," says Lev L'Achim's Rabbi Cohen, "and that we know they are even higher, proves that Israelis, more than ever, want to send their children to Torah schools. And we'll continue to work around the clock to ensure that every Israeli family who wants to do so will have that opportunity."


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