Exploring the dilemma of chinuch in the Chareidi world
Michael is the son of American baal teshuvas, or returnees to observant Judaism. He moved to Israel with his parents when he was four years old, and as his parents tried to navigate the new country they found themselves in, they decided to place their small son in a Yerushalmi cheder.
“My parents tried to put me in the right place, and to give me the best,” Michael states very clearly. “But it wasn’t easy, because I didn’t really fit in. I ended up going to 4 different schools, and two of them were very hard.”
In those schools, Michael was often bullied and shamed by the other students, who teased him over everything from his parents speaking English instead of Yiddish, to the fact that his payot didn’t curl.
“I can’t remember if I learnt much,” Michael recalls. “Today, it would be different because the Rebbes are better educated and the teachers have a much better idea what to do.” But Michael’s experience of cheder, and then yeshiva, 20 years ago, was pure torture.
Amazingly, despite his difficult school experiences, Michael maintained a religious, Chassidic life-style, and today he has a growing family of his own – but school is still a challenge. But now, it’s his kids’ schools that are causing Michael heartache, because he doesn’t feel the Talmud Torahs are teaching his children what they need to really succeed in life.
“The regular chinuch in the chareidi world in Israel is just limudei Torah,” he says. “But there’s a growing realization that if we would give our children better English and better maths in the schools, that would help them to make better parnassa when they grow up.”
The trouble is, Michael is finding it very hard to find schools that combine a high level of Torah learning in a chassidic environment, together with what he now believes are the basic skills he needs to give his children, to enable them to support their own families financially, when the time comes.
“I’m not the only one,” he says. “So many of my age group, people in their 30s, are also asking ‘what else do we need to teach our kids, besides limmudei kodesh, so they’ll be able to make enough parnassa?’”
Michael explains that under the current set-up, there are two main avenues open for graduates of chareidi yeshivas in Israel to make a decent parnassa. The first way involves learning in yeshiva until the age of 20, then going straight to get a degree in something that enables them to work in the hi-tec industry. “The gemara teaches them how to think and how to reason, and this is why they can go and get a good degree,” explains Michael. “The trouble is, only 5% are able to actually do this, so what about everyone else?”
The second way is often known as ‘the path of miracles’.
No-one really knows how so many large families can apparently support themselves when the father is learning Torah full time, but by some mix of business deals, investments, the right connections and well, open miracles, many chareidi families are somehow managing to live, and many of them are living well.
The problem is everyone else.
“We have so many talented people in our communities who are literally starving for bread,” explains Michael. “It bothers me that frum kids aren’t given any other options in school, apart from trying to be a talmid chacham. We need to start when the kid is still small, to see what his talents and aptitudes are, and to try to build on them, and develop them in a way that will help him to make parnassa.”
Of course, while there are endless government reports showing just how badly chareidi families appear to be faring economically, that’s not the reality you tend to see on the streets. “There’s a lot of chesed organisations, there’s a lot of gemachim, they don’t leave people to starve,” concurs Michael.
“But living costs aren’t cheap for anyone, and when families have lots of kids, that usually equates to lots of debt, and lots of stress. The next generation needs to be taught the skills they need to be able to support themselves. I’m the son of baal teshuvas, but I grew up in the chareidi scene and I’m still here,” continues Michael. “And I can tell you, we’re all struggling so hard.”
Isn’t everyone struggling today, though, chareidi or not?
“But there’s a huge difference between who’s struggling without any skills, and without any way to really get out of the financial pit they find themselves in,” counters Michael. “The chareidi community in Israel is not raising its children with the knowledge they need to really support themselves. All I’m saying is just give them at least one skill! Spend one hour a day teaching them something that will enable to support themselves financially!”
When he was the Education Minister, Yesh Atid MK Shai Piron pushed through the creation of a new publically-funded track for schools in Israel under the mamlachti / Chareidi banner. ‘Mamlachti’ means these schools are publically funded by the Israeli government and have to conform to certain minimum standards of secular education; ‘Chareidi’ means that there is still the same chareidi focus and emphasis on limmudei Torah.
Michael believes this could potentially be a useful avenue for other schools to explore.“Many of the Chabad schools in Israel are now mamlachti / Chareidi,” explains Michael.
And then, there’s the ground-breaking yeshiva in Beitar Illit that was set up by Rav Menachem Bombach, called the ‘Midrasha Chassidi’. Rav Bombach’s yeshiva teaches students Torah, but it also teaches them the skills they need to leave the school with a bagrut, (Israeli high school matriculation), and also offers students subjects including sport and music. And there are other ground-breaking schools popping up too, like the Nehora Yeshiva, and Chachmei Lev, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit VeGan, which are combining limmudei kodesh with secular skills.
The problem is, many of these schools are still suffering from an ‘image problem’, within the communities they are trying to serve.
“Good boys won’t go there, generally, so then it’s the less ‘good’ boys that end up attending, like those kids who can’t concentrate so well in class,” explains Michael. “But these schools are very special places! They’re teaching the students life-skills, and giving them the basic information they need to solve their problems. So many students leave yeshivas today without even knowing the first thing about how banks work, or what happens if you don’t pay your loans.”
But for all the confusion and issues surrounding the subject of how to properly educate boys in Israeli chareidi society, more and more light is starting to be shone on the subject – and another notable beam is coming from Bet Shemesh, and RBS, home to a serious, and sizeable number of American chareidim, who are also looking for a different way of doing things.
To paint the picture in its most basic terms, in Israel ‘the other’ tends to be secular Jews who work, play sport, and listen to music. Therefore, a lot of these things have become associated with a ‘secular’ lifestyle, and therefore shunned by Israeli chareidi society. But outside of Israel, ‘the other’ is the non-Jew, and there is much less fear that a child will grow up wanting to copy non-Jewish society at the expense of his connection to Torah and mitzvoth.
“A lot of chareidim in Israel are scared that if they start opening things up for their kids, their kids will end up going off,” explains Michael. “That’s part of why everything is viewed as being part of a wider battle here.” But the Anglos don’t have the same mindset, or the same reservations – which is why there are now a number of yeshiva high schools opening up in places like Bet Shemesh, which hope to offer students the best of both worlds.
For people like Michael, these schools are a beacon of hope.
“Right now, if you want your kid to get some life skills at school, then your main solution is just to send them to a dati leumi school,” he explains. “But that’s not our path! We want our kids to continue learning Torah in a chareidi environment, just to also get the skills they need.
“The chareidi mainstream wants our schools to have people who can help the kids if they are struggling, we want them to have professional help if they need it. If a kid is sitting in class unable to learn, getting frustrated, we want to know why, and how we can do things differently to help them.”
Thankfully, many of these developments are already occurring, quietly, without any big fanfare. “Many of the Chareidi schools are already improving, adding more professional help, and requiring their teachers to take courses in psychology and education, “ says Michael.
“The schools are generally becoming more aware of the greater needs of the students. But I believe that they would benefit from studying the mamlachti / Chareidi movement, and incorporating the elements that would really benefit our children. Our kids need to be able to support themselves,” he concludes. “And our schools should be teaching them the skills required to do that.”
- The opinions expressed here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of Sasson Magazine. We welcome other viewpoints and suggestions. Please contact us if you’d like to tell us of an outstanding educator or school, or if you’d like to submit a piece for consideration on the topic of how best to educate our Jewish children.
 Names have been changed to protect individuals’ anonymity