It was radio that rescued Haim Rubinstein from the ultra-Orthodox world.
As a 13-year-old boy growing up in the religious Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, Rubinstein would surreptitiously listen to talk radio using earphones he hid under his pillow. “I would tune into a program for teenagers, where kids would talk about their fights with girlfriends or parents. Through the program I was exposed to the lives of secular children,” he recalled recently. “Radio saved my life.”
By the age of 16, Rubinstein had left his prestigious yeshiva in Jerusalem, and started managing the online chatroom of a Tel Aviv radio station. Fearful that he was on his way to abandoning his religious lifestyle entirely, his parents put him on a plane to England, where more-liberal yeshivas were available. “At the time, I couldn’t count to 10 in English,” he remembered. “I boarded a plane for the first time, but the stewardess couldn’t speak any Hebrew, and I was unable to ask for a cup of water. My frustration was immense. I remained thirsty for the entire five-hour flight.”
Today, Rubinstein is determined to be compensated for his lack of secular education. Math classes at his yeshiva terminated at long division, and he never studied English, geography, civics, or history. The long school days were typically filled with Talmud and bible classes. Now, at 28, Rubinstein is the spokesman of Out for Change, a nonprofit created in 2013 to lobby for ex-Haredi Israelis finding their way in the secular world.
In late 2015, Out for Change filed a landmark damages lawsuit for 4 million shekels ($1 million) against the state of Israel, on behalf of 52 young men and women who left the ultra-Orthodox world and struggle to find a decent job or make up their lost years of math and English. They argue that the state had neglected to enforce its core curriculum in ultra-Orthodox schools, depriving them of a basic right to useful education.
Surprisingly, the state responded with a third-party lawsuit against the plaintiffs’ parents and educational institutions, claiming they bear responsibility for any such harm, “if it indeed occurred.” After all, the state argued, the parents could have sent their children to non-Orthodox public institutions.
Ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel are budgeted proportionately based on the existence of a “core curriculum” in civics, English, history, mathematics, literature, Hebrew and Bible. Schools that teach the full core curriculum receive 100 percent budgeting. The majority of ultra-Orthodox schools—known as “recognized but unofficial”—receive 75 percent budgeting based on the assumption of 75 percent compliance. Private schools, where no education-ministry oversight exists and no core curriculum is taught, nevertheless received 55 percent government funding. According to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, some 40,000 students study in such institutions.
For nearly two decades, Israel’s secular parties have attempted to introduce the core curriculum in Haredi schools, with limited success. In 1999, MK Yosef Paritzky of the Shinui party filed a claim to the supreme court against the ministry of education, demanding it set a minimum number of class hours for secular studies. The court ruled that government budgets can only be allocated to schools that teach a core curriculum, but the status quo remained. The 2003 Dovrat Committee and the 2011 Trachtenberg Committee of 2011 also stressed the importance of a broad education, but to little avail. The final attempt came in 2013, when Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, passed the “core-curriculum law,” reducing the funding of recalcitrant primary schools from 55 percent to 35 percent (starting in 2018). Lapid’s law was annulled by his successor Naftali Bennett, who reclaimed full discretion in allocating budgets to schools.
“So what about the 40,000 [students] who don’t study the core curriculum?” asked Bennett in a Facebook post last year. “That’s a tough question and there are no magic solutions. … I believe that with no noise and no legislation we’ll see progress. When over 90 percent of ultra-Orthodox (who do study some core subjects) will receive high-quality education and jobs, more and more Haredim will join.”
But what of the thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women who wish to join Israel’s high-tech job market now but have no qualifications? According to Out for Change, the government has allocated some 200 million shekels ($52.5 million) to programs geared at bridging the educational gap for Haredim interested in academic studies. But Israelis who left the ultra-Orthodox world fall between the cracks, ineligible for most of the make-up programs. After three years of military service, Rubinstein applied for a grant to the preparatory school of Ono College outside Tel Aviv. To his surprise, his interviewer asked him whether he observed the Sabbath and prayed every day. His ultra-Orthodox counterparts enter such programs en masse, no questions asked, and are normally younger, having not served in the army. “I want to be a productive citizen. How does the state expect me to become one?” he wondered.
Disheartened by the exorbitant price of private tutoring, Rubinstein never went back to school. He taught himself how to read English by listening to the loudspeaker on the London Underground, comparing the station names to the ones written on the map he held.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, some 17,000 Israelis between the ages of 20 and 40 report having left the ultra-Orthodox world, and now share Rubinstein’s plight. Moshe Shenfeld, who abandoned his religious lifestyle and established Out for Change, claims that trend is only increasing; the average dropout rate is 10 percent, or at least 1,300 annually.
While insisting that the purpose of the lawsuit is not to force ultra-Orthodox schools to introduce secular studies, Shenfeld nevertheless believes that if accepted, it will obligate the state to reexamine the far-reaching autonomy it grants the schools. “The idea is not that generation after generation of children don’t study and then are compensated. Everyone loses that way,” he insisted. “We want there to be an easy and organized way to make up the gap.”
What gives this claim special force is that Israel is obligated to institute secular studies not only by its own education laws but as a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlines the minimum requirements of school education. Institutions that received threatening lawsuit warnings from the state last fall have already begun hinting to plaintiffs that their siblings, still registered in the schools, may be harmed by their decision to confront the state. But Shenfeld said that only eight of the 52 original plaintiffs have withdrawn their names as a result.
Shenfeld, 32, began his own voyage toward secularism 12 years ago at the National Library in Jerusalem, where he took interest in old books on biblical criticism. “I was educated to be religious not by default but because it’s the proper way of life,” he recalled. “If other people only listened to us, I was told, they would be convinced that we’re right.”
It was a verse in the Book of Judges, a book he scarcely read in yeshiva, that shattered his religious worldview. Following the death of Joshua, chapter two recounts, a new generation emerged in the Land of Israel, which was unaware of exodus from Egypt. That text seemed to contradict the Jewish belief in a contiguous tradition of revelation from Mount Sinai to the present day. “I caught them telling a serious lie,” he said. “This meant I couldn’t believe a whole bunch of things I’d never closely examined.”
Shenfeld completed his matriculation exams on his own, served in the army, and completed a triple-major degree at Hebrew University in physics, mathematics and computer sciences, fully funded by a grant for academic excellence. Today, he works as a programmer with Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based high-tech company specializing in driver-assistance systems, while mastering the details of his legal battle against the state with Talmudic precision.
While Shenfeld’s stellar career track may be exceptional for ex-Haredis, but his motivation to succeed at all costs isn’t, claims Rubinstein, the organization’s spokesman. “The media loves stories about poor, pitiful ex-Haredis, but that is simply not true,” he said. “People who left that world are strong people who break boundaries. Otherwise, they would have remained in that cozy world. We got out, transformed our lives, and the country should invest in us.”
For Shenfeld, a Talmudic parable best exemplifies his mission. It is the story of Honi ha-Me’agel, who met an elderly man planting a carob tree that would take 70 years to bear fruit. “Why are you bothering with a tree whose fruit you’ll never enjoy?” Honi asked. “I’m doing it for my grandson,” the elderly man answered.
“I have a delusion of grandeur and want to change the world, starting with those closest to me,” Shenfeld added, jokingly. “I’m 100 percent sure that the ex-Haredi phenomenon is too significant to be ignored.”
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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.