Education has always been a paramount Jewish value – it is not for naught that the Jews are called “the People of the Book” – and it is thus not surprising that well before the birth of Israel, the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael had already established a fully operational education system with Hebrew as the language of instruction. (The first school with its curriculum taught entirely in Hebrew was established in Rishon L’Tzion in 1889.)
Since its founding, Israel has faced the monumental task of transforming a heterogeneous mass of immigrants – Jews from Eastern and Western Europe, Jews from Arab countries, Ethiopian Jews, and more – into one modern nation. In 1949, legislation was enacted making public education free for children ages 3 to 15 and compulsory for children ages 6 to 15.
Israel’s schools are essentially divided into five principal groups:
(1) state schools (mamlachti), which are attended by most students;
(2) state religious schools (mamlachti dati), which serve the Orthodox sector (mainly Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox);
(3) private schools, which reflect the philosophies of narrow groups of parents (“Democratic Schools”) or are based on the curriculum of a foreign country (e.g., The American School);
(4) independent religious schools (Chinuch Atzmai), which focus almost entirely on religious and Talmudic learning; and
(5) Arab schools.
Israeli education produces a disconnect – even estrangement – between groups. It manifests the same social and cultural divisions that separate Jews from Arabs, Orthodox Jews from secular Jews, and, many argue, Ashkenazic Jews from Sephardic Jews. In fact, many authorities view Israel’s educational system as the “great stratifier,” most responsible for facilitating separation amongst Israeli Jews and for making Jewish unity so much more difficult to achieve.
(These analysts usually view the army as “the great equalizer,” where many Israeli youth are exposed to “the other” for the first time and where, notwithstanding their manifest differences, they learn to interact for the greater good of the state and its people.)
The controversial and often bitter battle between broad parental rights on one hand – many Orthodox parents argue that the state has no right to interfere with their fundamental right to educate their children as they see fit – and the important state interest in establishing a core curriculum and fundamental and universal national values on the other hand is perhaps best exemplified by the dispute over Chinuch Atzmai.
As part of the pre-state “status quo agreement” between Eretz Yisrael’s rabbinic leadership and Ben-Gurion – who approved these agreements only because he believed that Orthodox Judaism in Israel would die out in only a few generations – the educational segregation of the Orthodox population is both protected and financed by the state. Thus, Chinuch Atzmai developed as an alternative school system run by, and serving the needs of, the charedi community in Israel.
Established in 1953 through a decision of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael in Israel and implemented through Israel’s State Education Law, it was initially led by Rav Zalman Sorotzkin. Today, Chinuch Atzmai, which focuses almost entirely on Torah studies and offers very little in terms of secular subjects, is run by an umbrella center that operates numerous schools throughout the country, including Bais Yaakov schools for girls and Talmud Torah, Cheder, and Yeshiva Ketana for boys.
Israel’s Education Ministry has commenced a controversial effort to enforce mandatory education laws and deny funding to non-compliant school systems, arguing that it is responsible to ensure that all Israeli schools, including Chinuch Atzmai schools, include core subjects in their curricula, such as math, science, and English.
Chinuch Atzmai leaders maintain that this effort constitutes blatant interference with the charedi education system nationwide, and that even the slightest reduction in government funding will devastate their schools. They maintain they are bound by Jewish law and the religious rulings of the sages to remain independent of the state curriculum and that they are prohibited to make even the slightest compromise when it comes to the education of their children.
Yet, many believe the refusal to teach secular subjects is a time bomb that will eventually destroy Israeli society, its economy, and ultimately the nation itself. As commentator Dan Ben David argued in a September 2, 2018 article:
When half of Israel’s children receive a Third World education, they will only be able to maintain a Third World economy as adults. But a Third World economy won’t be able to sustain a First World army – a necessary condition for the country’s continued existence in the most violent region on the planet.
Secular educational experts argue that the state has the right – indeed, the duty – to prepare children to become responsible members of a democratic society, based upon Jewish values, including dignity, tolerance and love for the land of Israel. They note that in many other countries, including the United States, schools that refuse to teach the state-mandated curriculum are not only denied funding but, indeed, are forced to close. Some disgruntled recipients of a charedi yeshiva education in Israel have established a group called Leaving for Change, which has gone so far as to sue the government for failing to enforce Israel’s compulsory education law.
Under the British Mandate, most government funds allocated to education went to support Arab schools; Jewish schools relied almost entirely upon philanthropic donors and the Zionist movement. Financing yeshivot and charedi educational institutions, which was an issue in Eretz Yisrael from time immemorial, continues to date, as Chinuch Atzmai often finds itself in financial crisis.
There are approximately 80,000 students currently enrolled in Chinuch Atzmai schools and, although the schools are partially supported by the State, their funding has traditionally been supplemented by donations from outside Israel, particularly the United States, and the movement has had to intensify its efforts to keep schools from closing due to sharp cuts in government funding in recent years.
In this undated handwritten correspondence, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik writes of the paramount importance of providing financial support to Chinuch Atzmai:
I heartily endorse this sacred cause and appeal to all my friends in the rabbinate to do their utmost to cause the undertaking a financial success. A traditional school system of the type of Chinuch Atzmai is of the greatest importance for the survival of Torah Judaism in the Holy Land. K’sivah V’chatimah Tovah!
Rav Soloveitchik (1903-93), a descendant of the Lithuanian Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty who inherited and further developed the “Brisker method” of Talmudic analysis, was the seminal figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism in 20th century America. As rosh yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, he ordained some 2,000 rabbis in almost half a century and served as mentor and role model for tens of thousands of Jews, both as a Talmudic scholar and as a religious leader.
Widely viewed as having advocated a synthesis between Torah scholarship and Western, secular scholarship, “the Rav,” as he was known, chaired the halacha commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and served as honorary president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi). His important works include Halachic Man (1944) and Lonely Man of Faith (1965).
Here is another example of the vital concern many leading rabbanim expressed for the support of Chinuch Atzmai. In this January 4, 1959 correspondence on his personal letterhead, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, one of the heads of Chinuch Atzmai, writes in English (this very rare) to a Mrs. Roth about the financial crisis facing Chinuch Atzmai:
Maybe you have heard of me, but even if you have not, you will certainly be able to obtain information about me. I am sure that you are aware of the Independent Religious Education Movement in Israel bearing the name “Chinuch Atzmai.” This independent movement is subsidized by the government and the balance of funds required is provided by “Friends of Chinuch Atzmai.” The movement includes also the Beth Jacob Schools for Girls, throughout Israel. I sincerely hope you will see your way to joining the ranks of the Friends and coming to the assistance of one of the greatest and noblest educational movements, which at present is suffering a serious financial crisis. The bearer of this letter, Rabbi Porush, is a member of the Board of Governors of Chinuch Atzmai.
R. Abramsky (1886-1976) studied at the yeshivahs of Novhardik, Telz, Mir, Slabodka, and Brisk under Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, receiving semicha at age 17. He served as rav of Smolyan, Smolevich, and Slutsk, where he succeeded Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer; as rav of the Machzike Hadath community in London’s East End; as the senior dayan of the London Beth Din; and as a rosh yeshiva of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, where he took an active role in addressing Israel’s halachic issues.
Appointed head of Vaad HaYeshivos and one of the heads of Chinuch Atzmai, he was broadly regarded as one of the most important Torah leaders in Israel. He is the author of the acclaimed Chazon Yechezkel, a 24-volume commentary on the Tosefta, and was awarded the Israel Prize in 1956, the first one given for Rabbinical Literature.