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Haredi High-School Yeshivas in Israel: Description and Analysis

Amiram Gonen, Bezalel Cohen, Eliezer Hayun

Full publication in Hebrew is expected to be realesed by the end of 2017. 

Executive Summary:

This research report follows the development of the Haredi high-school yeshivas that combine religious studies with general studies to provide an alternative to the dominant small yeshivas in Haredi society that receive support and protection from Haredi leadership. To a great extent, the absence of such an education track may explain the numerous difficulties that face many of those from the Haredi community who seek higher education and quality professional training. Expansion of the Haredi high-school yeshivas could significantly help those members of the community who wish to study at institutions of higher learning or to join the work force.

The research report focuses on the trend of the past two decades, in which new Haredi high-school yeshivas were established and joined the few that already existed, which served only a narrow, marginal target group of the upper-middle "modern" members of Haredi society. These yeshivas are divided into two categories, based on their target groups. One category of new high-school yeshivas is anchored among the families in the "mainstream" of Haredi society, which is going along with the new processes that are occurring and that are characterized by more people from the community joining the workforce while upgrading themselves via high-level technological training and academic studies. In these Haredi high-school yeshivas lies the potential to overcome the obstacles to knowledge and effective study habits, which in recent years have made it difficult for (male) Haredi students to contend with the challenges of studying in academic institutions. The second type of new institution addresses several target groups on the margins of Haredi society: Sons of the newly-observant or ba’alei teshuva; those male youths who have dropped out of the "mainstream;" and the sons of those families who are part of (kiruv)efforts to bring people closer to Haredi society and are exploring the option of a Haredi education for their children. Most of these institutions focus on professional training and not on preparing their students to pursue an academic education – neither in the larger Haredi yeshivas nor in academic institutions.

The study reveals the rabbinical opposition and the social obstacles within Haredi society to the choice of a Haredi high-school yeshiva as an alternative to studying at a small yeshiva. It is the Haredi high-school yeshivas that prepare their students for academic studies that draw the most fire from the Haredi public, whether from among the rabbinic leadership that fights them vigorously with the help of the political leadership, or from among the wider Haredi community, that is committed to the norm of a curriculum of purely religious studies, which is the foundation of the small yeshiva. However, opposition to the Haredi high-school yeshivas that are not directed toward academic studies but rather to professional training is not evident, since they are perceived as the "default option" for whoever is not considered an integral part of the Haredi core.

The main social barriers among the Haredi public to studying in a Haredi high-school yeshiva include: the normative commitment to studying religious studies in a small yeshiva; peer pressure from the immediate surroundings; anxiety about a social price that the family members of a student in a Haredi high-school yeshiva are likely to pay; a common widespread perception that in these institutions the teaching of both religious and general studies is of low quality, as is the level of commitment to the Haredi lifestyle and the ability of the students to study. Added to all of the preceding is the high tuition, which is customary at most of the Haredi high-school yeshivas that prepare their students for academic studies.

Based on reported enrolment data from the heads of Haredi high-school yeshivas combined with data about the previous increase in the number of students we can predict a significant future increase in the number of students attending these institutions in the coming years. The heads of the yeshivas reported that the vast majority of the fathers of the students have jobs, although there is a substantial number of fathers of students who study full-time at yeshiva. In other words, there is a substantial group of parents from the Haredi "mainstream" that sends its sons to study at Haredi high-school yeshivas which don't yet have full-fledged legitimate status among the core of Haredi society and are still being actively opposed by the rabbinical leadership.

From the comments and suggestions provided by participants in an Internet focus group, comprised of Haredi parents interested in their sons attending Haredi high-school yeshivas, it may be learned that for many of them it is clear that their sons will attend Haredi high-school yeshivas. There are those who see these yeshivas as a solution to the problem of some students who are not suited to studies in a small yeshiva, a perception currently shared by much of the Haredi public. But there are also parents who, from the start, viewed these yeshivas as the preferred model for Haredi education, providing an alternative to the small yeshiva as the supplier of complex, yet whole, Haredi education. There are also those who hope that "the more (Haredi high-school) yeshivas that are opened, the more people will get used to the idea and it will be transformed from 'mukzeh to mitzvah,' " from something forbidden to a positive deed. But in order for this to happen they believe there should be support from the most widely-respected quarters who will give these institutions a "kashrut certificate," i.e. rabbinical and public legitimacy. Many of them insist on ensuring Haredi spirituality and lifestyle in these educational institutions. And not only this, there are those who demand that there be a high level of studies and also of students at the Haredi high-school yeshivas.

The participants in the Internet focus group mainly stress that the old kind of the Haredi high-school yeshiva, in which tuition is high, cannot succeed if the desire is to broaden the possibilities for Haredi high-school yeshivas. It seems that the issue of tuition, which is mostly an issue of public funding, is at the heart of the challenge of developing a range of Haredi high-school yeshivas as an important springboard to upgrade the Haredi population in Israel. It would appear that the potential "customers" should be involved in any future activity in this sphere to build a future range of Haredi high-school yeshivas.

This research is supported by three philanthropic groups that are interested in the current trends in Haredi society in Israel: UJA-Federation of New York, the Maimonides Fund, and the Russell Berrie Foundation.
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