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JIIS Bulletin - March 2011
Better understanding ultra-orthodox education in Israel
The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) sector of Israeli society operates its own education system. Dr. Ehud Spiegel, who has long been following the ultra-orthodox community, became interested in their education system "because I think we can learn from them." His study was published by the JIIS in JanuaryThe Haredi (ultra-orthodox) sector of Israeli society operates its own education system, which has inculcated the Haredi worldview to hundreds of thousands of children and achieved meteoric growth over recent decades. Dr. Ehud Spiegel, who has long been following the ultra-orthodox community, became interested in their education system "because I think we can learn from them. I wanted to understand the successes and challenges posed by an educational approach that differs from those which we are familiar; to learn more about the way young Haredis are educated and shaped; and to understand how this system impacts on Haredi society in particular and on Israeli society in general." 

In "Talmud Torah Is Equivalent to All" – The Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Education System for Boys in Jerusalem, published by JIIS in January, he identifies and analyzes the variables that directly and indirectly shape this system: the "conceptual variable" (the importance of educating boys), the "social variable" (Haredi society and its character in contemporary Israel), and the "historical variable." He also looks at what can be learned from this system in terms of future policy and multicultural contexts. 

"The Haredi education system is one of the most significant educational enterprises operating in Israel, currently serving up to about 180,000 students around the country – a number (and relative proportion in Israel) – that is constantly growing," he states. "Keep in mind that this community seemed to be on the verge of extinction in the mid-20th century!" And yet this education system remains largely invisible to external eyes – it is highly autonomous and attracts little academic attention. "Sometimes it seems we know more about ultra-orthodox education in Eastern Europe a century ago than in Israel today, though in fact the system's impact extends far beyond the confines of the community it serves." This, notes Spiegel, has far-reaching implications in terms of policy.
The study does not evaluate the quality of the education offered within this system nor does it actually propose policy, but rather "presents an impressive education system that warrants attention."

He found that a strong organizational and pedagogical model has emerged that has proved itself in several variations – some intent on retaining tradition and keeping things "by the book" and others offering expanded views partly in an effort to open up the potential target audience. This could be said to reflect changes in Haredi society in general – though it should be noted that the "modern state" is also changing its character and border zones. "This system shapes the worldview and habits of the young Haredi, who grows into a man who is familiar with and observes the tenets of the Torah." 

Any attempt to intervene in their education systems meets with fierce opposition on the part of Haredi leaders, and it can have a political price as well. "The Haredis believe that any external intervention on the education of children with cause inherent damage to their 'pure' education, threatening their future and the future of the Haredi world as a whole. In reality, however, an absence of intervention in this system also threatens the future of these children and of Haredi society in Israel since it makes this society poor, dependent and backward." Moreover, numerous processes within Haredi society can be associated directly or indirectly with this system's activities including issues raised on the Israeli agenda, such as the low level of employment of Haredi men, the tendency to insularity and extremism, and the lack of democratic awareness. But these are not inevitable processes, Spiegel says with cautious optimism. "There are other alternatives, as can be seen even in the case of Haredi education for girls or that outside of Israel." 

Today's reality creates a burden for Israel and jeopardizes the future of the state."The good news is that this is a much more flexible and dynamic system than its leaders like to admit. It is appropriate and possible to introduce changes – encouraging initiatives such as reinforcing secular studies, empowering frameworks that train teachers, expanding the possibilities for students facing difficulties and thus drop out, and so on. Provided of course that the Haredi sector's leadership is willing to cooperate." 

For more, see the Executive Summary on the book's page
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