Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Tishrei 5762 - September 25, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Israeli Education Ministry: `Torah School Enrollment Up 60%'
by Moshe Schapiro

It's a battle for the neshomos of Israel's children -- and the early results are in. Children from non-religious homes are flocking to religious schools thanks to Lev L'Achim's school enrollment program.

The Torah school system, according to Yediot Acharanot, Israel's largest daily, has expanded by a colossal 60 percent since 1998 and now represents 12.3 percent of the national total. "Deeply concerned" Education Ministry officials ascribe this unprecedented growth "to the intense efforts of certain chareidi individuals to register children who do not necessarily come from religious families into religious schools."

The statistics tell the story. In 1998, all Chinuch Atzmai and Shas schools in the country combined had only 75,000 students, representing 7.9 percent of all school-age children. This year, the number has jumped to 127,000. The secular school system, meanwhile, has shrunk by a staggering 4 percent and has closed hundreds of classrooms and even, in many instances, entire schools. For the first time its future looks precarious: the system is on the verge of an irreversible nosedive and even may lose any appearance of the "national consensus" it has maintained for the past 50 years.

Lev L'Achim director Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin said that Education Ministry officials have been aware of his activities and have been trying -- without success -- to stop him for years.

"No one can stop this," he said. "It's beyond anyone's control. They are fighting Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and He wants His children back.

"They are fighting something far more powerful than all the clout they can muster against us," he added. "They are fighting the gedolei Yisroel. They are fighting the power of limud haTorah, of the tefillos of thousands of Jews from recent generations -- the grandparents and great-grandparents of the children we're enrolling today -- who saw their children swept up by the secular movement that shaped the modern State of Israel over the last century."

Even with all that power behind them, Lev L'Achim enrollment workers aren't taking any chances. The ones contacted for this article were reluctant to take time out from waging their local wars against troublesome municipal officials just for the sake of speaking with a reporter. Every second counts. Every phone call has to be answered and dealt with on the spot because the future of a Jewish neshomoh could be at stake.

Bentzi Rotenberg in Chadera, for example, was too busy dealing with first- day-of-school crises such as delayed school buses and forgotten lunch boxes and calls from totally non-religious parents who didn't realize that the "high-level Tanach curriculum" he had described to them includes Mishna and tefilloh.

Between calls, Bentzi said that he is running a new school, funded by Keren Nesivos Moshe, comprised entirely of "non- religious kids from totally non- religious homes whose parents have no interest whatsoever in religion." Clearly, this required some explanation.

"They read an article in the local paper about our school-in- the-making," Bentzi explains. "We billed it as `a religious school for non-religious children' focusing on `traditional Jewish values.' It sounded good to a lot of parents."

One mother, Bentzi said, confided to him that she was scared that her son will become a chozer beteshuvah, "but she said that she's even more afraid of what will happen to him if he goes to the secular public school next to their house, where violence and crime are rampant."

On the first day of school, Bentzi says, "Eighty percent of the kids showed up without a yarmulke." I spotted one first-grader sporting an earring on his left ear. "It just goes to show you," he says, "what kind of a background these kids are coming from."

Moshe Zeivald, Lev L'Achim's northern region supervisor, says it was crucial to create the new school in Chadera. "We enrolled 270 children here last year in local schools," he says, "but there were about 70 kids who didn't fit in anywhere. They didn't come from mesorati homes where a semblance of Shabbos is kept, but from homes where religion was a non- issue. This year we decided to create a school just for them, and boruch Hashem, so far, so good."

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so.

For the mayor of Chadera, the new school has turned into a royal headache. Public school officials, outraged over the prospects of closing down classrooms as a result of losing so many children to Lev L'Achim, are putting pressure on the mayor and the city's municipality to condemn the school and close it down -- by force, if necessary.

The city is investigating how local Lev L'Achim enrollment workers allegedly obtained the names and addresses of virtually every parent in the city with children of eligible age for first and second grades, to whom they allegedly sent information packages about the new school along with a signed letter of recommendation allegedly printed on municipality stationery.

Bentzi also has plans for the students' parents in the way of spiritual growth.

"I'm hoping this school won't offer anything higher than fifth grade," he says with infectious enthusiasm. "By then, I hope all of the parents will have become completely frum, and will insist that we transfer their kids to regular yeshivas and Beis Yaakovs." One gets the feeling that Bentzi is idealizing slightly here, but considering his accomplishments, he has the right to. And then again, maybe he's not.

Local enrollment workers like Bentzi are the backbone of the Lev L'Achim enrollment apparatus. Kollel yungerleit for the most part, they are well connected with the local scene and know which words will convince parents to entrust their children to them, and which words will turn them away. Often personal initiative and sharp instincts will accomplish more than weeks of training. For this reason, Lev L'Achim gives local enrollment workers plenty of leeway and room to maneuver.

Yitzchok Gottlieb in Ohr Yehuda is a good example.

Last year he was instrumental in setting the stage for the opening of a Keren Nesivos Moshe school in an uppity neighborhood called Ganei Savion. The school -- a prefab structure -- actually arrived two weeks after the opening day of school. Where did the children learn in the interval?

"In the park," he says. "I found a shady spot on the grass, and we set up blackboards and everything." Understandably, the uppity parents who enrolled their children in the new school were somewhat perturbed by the primitive learning environment. But Yitzchok pacified them somehow, and 26 of them didn't pull their kids out before the prefab structure arrived.

Contending with the irate neighbors was another matter entirely. There was also the police to deal with, and of course, the problem with the municipal authorities. But everything worked out in the end, Yitzchok says.

One problem he had difficulty with was what to do with the handful of teenagers whom he managed to enroll into Ohr Yehuda's virtual yeshiva high school, which existed only in Yitzchok's mind but, unfortunately, not on the ground.

"I couldn't just tell them there was no school for them," he says, using animated hand movements to amplify his emotions. "I enrolled their kid sisters and brothers. What was I supposed to do with them? Throw them in the garbage?"

So Yitzchok did the only logical thing: he opened a yeshiva high school all on his own.

It was no big deal, he says. Everything was Heaven-sent. He located an empty building. Lev L'Achim took out a huge loan and turned the vacant structure into a beautiful beis medrash, hired staff, and now Rabbi Yitzchok Gottlieb, rosh yeshivas Ohr Yehuda, has 19 dedicated talmidim. Their earrings and body-piercing utensils have given way to black yarmulkes and tzitzis.

"They're on their way," Rabbi Gottlieb says with immense satisfaction.

"When he first suggested that we open a yeshiva for the Ohr Yehuda kids," recalls Rabbi Ephraim Paktor, Lev L'Achim regional supervisor in the Tel Aviv area, "I told him he was dreaming. It's a good thing he was persistent. Eventually he convinced me and I convinced Lev L'Achim's planning board and here we are."

Yitzchok Gottlieb is one of five enrollment workers active in the city. They are helped by 20 volunteers, avreichim from nearby Kiryat Sefer who literally risk their lives by traveling to Ohr Yehuda via the Modi'in road, which has recently become an ambush venue for Palestinian gunmen.

"It was a private decision, no one asked me to do it," says Yerachmiel Geffner, one of the 190 Kiryat Sefer volunteers. "The section of the road we travel is not the dangerous part. But also, the Chazon Ish says that safeguarding a fellow Jew's spiritual well being is as much pikuach nefesh as saving him from drowning to death. So I figured, how can I stop going to Ohr Yehuda? Who is going to be mekarev those people?"

Evidently, Geffner and his fellow Kiryat Sefer volunteers are not the only ones willing to risk their necks for his fellow Jews. Every week, two busloads of avreichim from Beitar undertake the twenty-minute journey to Gilo, where they walk down the streets and visit families who called Lev L'Achim's information hotline and expressed an interest in learning more about religion.

"It's this level of dedication that is at the root of the Lev L'Achim revolution," says Rabbi Sorotzkin. "Only something of this nature could have brought about a 60 percent increase in the Torah school system."

It really is happening all over the country.

In Kfar Sava, there is no more room in any of the city's religious schools or kindergartens for a single additional child. This year alone, Lev L'Achim enrolled 100 children. Next year three new kindergartens and a new school will have to be opened, says Rabbi Paktor.

Also the schools in Petach Tikva are full to overflowing. No less than 200 children were enrolled this year. The local Keren Nesivos Moshe branch now serves over 110 children, and climbing.

The list goes on and on: Yehud, 96 children in kindergarten, 30 from last year moving up to first grade. There is no more room and a new school will be needed for next year. Lev L'Achim has only been active in the city since last year. Modi'in, 5 kindergartens opened; Rishon Letzion, all schools and kindergartens in the city are full, with some of the children studying in bomb shelters; 26 had to be turned away due to lack of space. Cholon and Bat Yam have reached saturation level, with a whopping 200 children registered this summer alone.

The situation in Ramle has spiraled totally out of control: 600 children registered in a single year, which necessitated opening six kindergartens. All schools are full to the maximum. More kindergartens and at least one new school will be needed for next year.

The school in Ramat Gan was evicted by order of the mayor, so the children spent a few days learning in a park until they were finally relocated to a vacant building in Bnei Brak that didn't have, among other things, running water or electricity. But this too was overcome.

The names of cities and their particular stories of miracles and wonders keep spooling out of the mouths of dozens of pumped up, excited, psyched-up Lev L'Achim enrollment workers. Tel Aviv, Hertzliya, Ramat Hasharon, Kiryat Gat. It's impossible to digest what they are saying. It's too big, too vast.

No, those worried secular school system officials don't know the half of it. If they would, they'd throw in the towel right now.


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