Last year, when his concern for the future of ultra-orthodoxy merged with educational angst over his second-born son, Rabbi Bezalel Cohen decided to found a new yeshiva high school for boys.
“When our son reached seventh grade, it became apparent that he wasn’t interested in school. They thought he lacked the skills; he certainly lacked motivation. His disinterest caused behavior problems. He was suffering, the school staff was suffering, his friends were suffering,” Cohen recalled in a conversation with The Times of Israel, seated in his small office at Chachmei Lev Yeshiva (Hebrew for “wise of heart”) in the Bayit Vagan ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.
“We tried psychologists, music, sports, horseback riding. We didn’t know what to do. We realized that if he continued in the regular [ultra-Orthodox] track, his chances of success were nil.”
A veteran social activist and graduate of the most prestigious ultra-Orthodox learning institutions in Jerusalem, Cohen was long aware of an educational crisis within his society. But he always preferred to dedicate his time to what he perceived to be more pressing issues: recruiting young men into the army, or getting Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) into the Israeli labor market and academia.
“I worked mostly on economic issues because I felt there were so many people dealing with education, they must be doing things right.”
But in 2010, when he joined the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem, Cohen realized that his son’s difficulties were common to “hundreds, thousands” of Haredi youngsters.
“I understood that instead of pushing for changes in education because of the employment issue, we should be pushing for them for the sake of our children.”
A Haredi primary school student studies approximately the same amount of secular studies as his secular counterpart, Cohen said. The dramatic change begins in seventh grade, where just a tiny fraction of the ten-hour school day is dedicated to math or history, part of what is known in Israeli educational parlance as “core curriculum.”
In the gender-segregated system, girls’ schools are generally more open to secular curriculum than boys’ schools — referred to as Kheiders or Talmudei Torah in the primary level, and as small yeshivot in high school — where English is seldom taught at all.
“The prevailing attitude is that all time must be dedicated to religious studies, especially Talmud,” he said. “The goal is to produce talmidei chachamim (Jewish scholars).”
‘I saw how teachers treat the students here, and I liked it.’
But that attitude can be destructive for some students, who either struggle with the rigorous Haredi routine or are naturally inclined towards the arts or sciences. Before the foundation of Chachmei Lev in September 2013, those students could only choose from one of five Yeshiva high schools in Israel, geared particularly for modern Haredim, not mainstream Haredi or Hassidic students.
Now in its second year, Chachmei Lev — housed in a cramped structure at the back of the Mae Boyar secular high school campus in Jerusalem, and supported by the Society for Advancement of Education — boasts 49 students, 18 in tenth grade and 31 in ninth grade. This high school, Cohen says, is the only educational institute for run-of-the-mill Haredi boys who “graduated from Haredi public schools and wish to remain Haredi, while integrating religious and secular studies.”
Binyamin Migdal, 14, from the ultra-Orthodox Moshav Matityahu near Modi’in, said he decided to enroll in Chachmei Lev even though most of his primary school friends continued to regular yeshivot. He wanted to study English and math, and also “likes puzzles and building stuff,” said Migdal, who spent the first ten years of his life in Queens, New York.
“I want to get somewhere in life,” he told The Times of Israel.
“I saw how teachers treat the students here, and I liked it,” Migdal added. “They listen to everything I have to say and explain my choices to me. I feel at home here.”
Catching up on years of not having secular studies is a formidable challenge for the students, Cohen acknowledged. But high motivation helps them succeed.
“Since they came here of their own free will, their determination helps them do it faster. But clearly it takes time and good teachers.”
Most parents of Chachmei Lev students are “on the same page” as their children, but tensions have known to emerge between conservative-minded parents and the relatively liberal school philosophy. One student, Cohen recalled, began to bloom in the school, but his new-found self-confidence startled his parents.
“He would come home saying things which they found sacrilegious, like that he dreams of serving in the army, or that his brother in yeshiva is no better than him. The parents also took issue with the modern cut of his pants, and with the fact that we don’t speak out against Zionism in the school.”
“I think they haven’t completely come to terms with us to this day , but they understand that we’re also serious, God-fearing people,” Cohen said.
The issue some parents have taken with Cohen’s school reflects a much broader, public tug of war with Haredi leadership. When Cohen tried to relocate the school to a more spacious location in the northern neighborhood of Ramot ahead of this school year, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the neighborhood did everything in their power to block the move in city hall.
“The rabbis recruited Haredi media and began distributing pamphlets in the neighborhood,” he said. They complained about the lack of structures for mainstream Haredi schools in Ramot, but also resorted to ad hominem attacks against Cohen.
“They said my opinions are illegitimate; that I speak out against Haredim and their distinguished rabbis,” he said, citing an article he had written critiquing a statement by Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who claimed that secular Israelis want to integrate the ultra-Orthodox in the labor market only to secularize them.
‘The main thing that must change in Haredi society is the right to express an opinion.’
“I wrote that there may be some people who want that, but that I’ve met many seculars who genuinely care about us and have no interest in secularizing us.”
This was viewed as terrible audacity on Cohen’s part, to dare argue with Rabbi Shteinman. The pressure even affected his own synagogue in Ramot, which placed him in social boycott.
Eventually, city hall succumbed to the Haredi demands and barred the move, after Cohen had already invested NIS 100,000 ($25,000) in renovating the new school building.
“Ten days before the start of the school year we received a letter from [Jerusalem mayor] Nir Barkat saying we won’t get the school, and we must return the keys.”
Funding remains a major challenge for Cohen. The school’s tuition stands at NIS 1,000 a month ($250), beyond the reach of most Haredi families. Even that sum is subsidized by American philanthropists, non of whom are ultra-Orthodox.
“I’ve tried to interest the Haredi community in the US, but so far unsuccessfully. Even though they welcome my initiative, they’re wary of jumping on board. They say ‘if your moves aren’t receiving the blessing of the great Haredi leaders in Israel, why should we get involved here?'”
Despite his disappointment, Cohen can understand the Haredi backlash against his project. Chachmei Lev is truly revolutionizing the ultra-Orthdox educational landscape.
“The main thing that must change in the Haredi community is the right to express an opinion. At the end of the day, the battle against me was waged because I dared to speak my mind,” Cohen said. “It’s much worse to say you want to introduce different education than to actually introduce it. There’s no legitimacy for two opinions.”