Creative religious education

Published in The Jerusalem Post on September 6, 1998

Concern about ‘creeping annexation’ by the Shas-sponsored network of schools has headlined the mostly negative news this past week about the opening (or non-opening) of the school year. “Shas is taking over!” screamed one leading daily.


Indeed, the Shas network has doubled in size (to somewhere between 30-50,000 students) over the past eight years — mainly in development towns at the expense of secular schools. This has been achieved by providing busing, hot meals and longer hours, mainly at the nursery and younger grade levels – features that most Israeli schools can only dream of offering.


The attractive day-care package overshadows the fact that the teachers in the Shas system are not well-trained; the curriculum is narrow in focus with Torah study dominating to the virtual exclusion of basic, ‘secular’ skills; and testing for learning disabilities and special needs is uncommon. Civics and democracy classes are unheard of. Students are taught to fear and disdain the ‘outside’ world, which is ‘bereft of values’ and ‘hedonistic’. In short, this hareidi system is backward-looking, retrogressive – and growing.


Look a little deeper and you’ll discover that down-the-line some parents are taking their kids *out* of the Shas schools (in grades three or four), when it becomes apparent that they can’t read or write properly or they come home mouthing antagonistic rhetoric. But the concern remains.


Now, you can’t blame parents for fleeing the mainstream, secular system. Its school year failed (again) to open on time; classes are over-crowded; the long-promised ‘long’ school day hasn’t materialized; violence is endemic, according to the recent, authoritative Ministry of Health report; traditional values are scoffed at; and school buildings are literally falling down on the heads of children.


Moreover, the 100,000 plus teachers in the state-sponsored school systems remain very poorly paid. A full-time, home-room teacher with 15 years experience will earn just over NIS 4,000 per month. As a result, experienced, better-educated teachers over 35 years of age are dropping out of the system with alarming frequency.


Is there an alternative? I’m encouraged by the horizon-broadening innovations introduced over the past few years in the 230,000-pupil state religious school network.


Long-suppressed creative talents in the modern Religious Zionist community are coming to the fore and finding expression in its school system. Over the past two years alone, religious high schools, yeshivot and ulpanot have been established with an emphasis on environmental studies (in the Golan, Mitzpe Ramon and Sussia); the plastic arts (two in Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Gush Etzion and Safed); music (four schools, all expanding); and programs in visual arts, filmmaking, drama and journalism in dozens of Torah-oriented schools all over the country.


This virtual explosion of aesthetic, artistic studies within Religious Zionism requires explanation, for none of these fields previously has been accorded priority status in *mamlachti-dati* schools, especially when weighed against the primacy appropriately placed on Torah study.


“The modern religious community has become aware that it has few artistic creations of its own that are religiously satisfying or halachically acceptable”, explains Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber, one of the fathers of the movement towards a new world of religious creativity. “And I believe there is great pedagogical value in utilizing these artistic disciplines in educating towards a whole religious personality”.


Some of the early results are astonishing. I recently saw several films produced by *yeshiva tichonit* boys in grades 10 and 11. Aside from the creative endeavor, there is an admirable degree of self-criticism, self-reflection and deep spirituality evident in these youthful productions.


Behind the flowering of the new agenda in religious creativity is a small group of bold educators who quietly have moved the religious educational establishment forward: Nira Kremer, Rivka Manowitz, Rabbis Yaacov Fogel and David Stav, Yitzhak Recanati, Revital Stern and Prof. Sperber.


Others, like Prof. Yaacov Iram, Dr. Avigail Yinon and Rabbis Asher Kursia and Yitzhak Kaufman have spearheaded a new, flourishing teaching focus on Judaism and democracy as complementary values. Some of the most ardently-secular high schools have joined forces with Mercaz Harav yeshiva high schools for joint study in this regard, which I think is fantastic. And heartening. (The Shas schools aren’t interested).


The trend tells me one very encouraging thing about the Religious Zionist community: it is not about to ghettoize itself – contrary to some recent isolationist currents. There is a liberal sociological movement here, by which Religious Zionists are asserting that they do not want to be cut off from the secular, majority public. On the contrary, Religious Zionists are affirming that they too seek to be artistically creative and will compete for the cultural attention of broader Israeli society – on the basis of their value system.


All of which, in the final analysis, is the best answer to the primitive lure and lore of the Shas system. Creativity, self-expression, and values education based on a modern approach to tradition will vanquish the obscurantism, isolationism and manifest bribery proffered by Shas.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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