In Israel, former ultra-Orthodox Jews demand basic education
22 December 2015, Nirapad News: When Avihay Marciano completed his schooling, he didn’t know how to use a computer or speak English and had only elementary math skills. Now, Marciano and 50 others who left the insular ultra-Orthodox community are suing the state, claiming they were denied a basic education and left lagging far behind secular Israelis.
The case has shined a light on Israel’s separate education system for the ultra-Orthodox, which experts say is keeping a sizeable chunk of Israelis from integrating into the workforce and is a ticking time bomb for the country’s long-term economic health.
“The state has abandoned us,” said Marciano, 26. “I sat for years in a yeshiva, I studied day and night, and at the end of the day I left empty-handed.”
Israel’s cloistered but politically powerful ultra-Orthodox community has for decades maintained a separate education system, where boys and girls study holy texts and secular studies take a distant back seat. Boys study secular subjects less than their non-Orthodox peers and only through seventh grade. Girls spend more time on secular studies, but aren’t taught skills needed for work.
The government, historically dependent on ultra-Orthodox kingmakers to form government coalitions, allowed the community to establish the separate, state-funded school system. It also gives generous welfare payments to thousands of ultra-Orthodox men who shun work, spending their days instead immersed in religious study.
Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty among the ultra-Orthodox as well as bitterness among the secular Jewish majority. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox.
They make up about 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens and are among the country’s fastest-growing populations. Their numbers are expected to swell to more than a quarter of the population by 2059, according to the Shoresh Institution, a think tank.
The lawsuit includes 53 plaintiffs, all educated under the ultra-Orthodox system but who have since become secular and don’t have the skills to earn a university degree or find a decent paying job. In the secular world, these young adults are often shunned by their parents and are forced to fend for themselves financially while studying.
They are demanding that the state compensate them for their struggle to catch up to other Israelis. They also want the state to create and fund a program for Israelis who leave the Orthodox world, estimated to number between hundreds and tens of thousands, allowing them to fill in their educational gap. Such a program currently exists for ultra-Orthodox men and women who have remained in the community but want to beef up their educational credentials.
Marciano said he spent more than two years trying to brush up on his studies, one working full-time so he could finance his education and the other studying physics and math. At 26, Marciano is finally pursuing a university degree in computer science and communications.