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