Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two Views on Charedi Education

There are a couple of articles published in Ynet that are separated by a couple of days. But they are separated by light years in both philosophy and the perception of reality.

The primary issue in the first article is state funding of religious elementary and high schools in Israel. Should they make funding contingent on whether they teach mandated basic subjects like math, science, and English? My position on that is clear.

I have consistently said that they should. And according to the article that is in fact an existing pre-condition for funding. The level of funding is directly related to the percentage of those subjects being taught. An 80% curriculum should receive 80% of the total allocation.

But what seems to be happening is some sort of scam. According to a Ynet investigative report those standards are not being enforced:

It appears that many of the schools have continued to receive full funding while neglecting to teach the required hours of basic subjects, and according to the ministry's calculations at least $38 million have been distributed unlawfully to the religious education networks.

However Yedioth Ahronoth's report was dubious regarding this sum as well, saying that reporters investigating the various schools discovered that in many instances the inspectors changed the data they reported on to benefit the schools.

This, the report says, is unsurprising, considering the inspectors are themselves members or affiliates of the parties to which the schools belong.

If any of this is true – it once again shows that Charedim seem to believe that fraud may be employed when it comes to funding the religious institutions. That was need a constant refrain I heard from defenders of the Spinka Rebbe for his fraud: He did it for his schools - no excuse of course but understandable and forgivable.

The government is no less culpable here if they know this is going on and still fund their schools:

Altogether, the (education) ministry knows of 51 schools consistently violating the education law, yet they continue to receive full funding from the State.

But they do no one any favors by doing so. Keeping their students ignorant of basic skills is a major contributor to Charedi poverty in my view and the view of many. With a 65% Charedi unemployment rate - as the percentage of their population continues to increase the entire economy of the Jewish State will suffer.

While I am normally not inclined to agree with comments made by Reform rabbis - I have to agree with this one from Uri Regev:

"It's time we understood that after the security threat Israel faces, the refusal of the haredi population to implement basic subjects in schools and its absence from the job market is the greatest threat. It is a dooming process, or so say senior economists, including President of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer, who recognize the unemployment problem in the haredi sector as one of the market's major ailments"

This is not a religious issue. It is an existential one that Charedi leaders seem to completely discount. Their surrogates in government do everything they can to perpetuate it including scamming the government. It doesn’t matter that the government themselves know and fund them anyway. The whole thing is a scam with willing participants on both sides.

A rebuttal of sorts (not dealing with the fraud issue) was made in a separate op-ed by Menachem Gsheid in a later edition of Ynet. Here is what he claims:

Most students in the independent and religious education system – roughly 100,000 students – study the entire core curriculum. Tens of thousands of other students study 75% of the core curriculum.

I do not find that statement to be very credible considering that Rav Shach famously attempted to put one Charedi high school into Cherem precisely because it taught secular subjects. His view was very clear. Yeshiva learning may not be contaminated with any other form of learning other than Torah learning. If what Mr. Gsheid says is true then how does he square this with Rav Shach? He was the nearly universally acknowledged Charedi Gadol HaDor. Did these schools ignore him in such huge percentages and implement English, math, and science into the curriculum? I doubt that.

He then does an about face denying the need for any secular studies at all implying that Charedi schools don't teach any secular subjects: ‘none of these people needed seven years of schooling’. This contradicts what he just said about the high percentage of Charedim that study the core curriculum. Which is it, Mr. Gsheid?

This is followed by something quite disingenuous. He points to thousands of Charedim who earned advanced degrees and a Charedi conference he hosted that was comprised of executives, business people, and public opinion leaders. There were 2,000 people in attendance. He said the following:

All the dignified speakers who chose to tour the exhibit spread across several halls encountered a culture shock. For a moment they rubbed their eyes with astonishment. …At one stand after another they saw haredi businesspeople who employ many other haredim.

He cites the fact that all these successful people were trained in various programs outside of their Yeshivos (probably after they got up from learning full time). And then he asserts this as proof that one does not need to study the basics to do well in the workplace. Why? Because – he says - there is nothing like studying the Talmud, which is based on answers and questions, for sharpening one’s mind.

As I have said many times. Post Yeshiva specialized training programs may be a solution for the few. The very bright can even catch up to their secular counterparts and get advanced degrees. But it is not a solution for the many. Studying Gemarah does sharpen the mind – but it does not teach the skills necessary for the work place. If it did there wouldn’t be so many Charedim who are unemployed. 65% encompasses a large number of Charedi Jews. I think he probably knows that.

And yet he insists that all of this proves the viability of the current Charedi paradigm of rejecting all secular subjects from the curriculum. He concludes with a harangue about how ‘racist’ seculars are against Charedim. Maybe so. But before he rests on his laurels he should talk a bit more with some of the 65% of Charedim who are unemployed - and their wives. He might just get a different perspective.