The High Court’s yeshiva funding ruling goes into effect today. What does it entail?

Starting this week, hundreds of yeshivas will see their budgets slashed, prompting leading rabbis to look abroad to raise the funds needed to continue operating

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Ultra-Orthodox students at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, February 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox students at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, February 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On Monday morning, an interim order by the High Court of Justice barring the government from providing funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students eligible for IDF enlistment went into effect, effectively ending the transfer of subsidies for nearly 50,000 full-time Talmud students.

What does the ruling mean in practical terms, and how will it affect the over 1,000 yeshivas that have, until now, received monthly payments from the Education Ministry?

The background

For decades, ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men of military age have been able to avoid the draft by enrolling for study in yeshivas and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the national age of military exemption, currently 26.

These repeated deferrals — de facto military service exemptions — and the government stipends many yeshiva students receive through age 26 have infuriated the wider general public, sparking numerous legal and legislative efforts to ensure what advocates of universal conscription call “equality of the burden.”

The court decision, issued on Thursday night, came after the government repeatedly delayed submitting a proposal to the court for plans to increase ultra-Orthodox military enlistment. It took effect following the expiration on Sunday night of a legally dubious temporary regulation that instructed the IDF conscription authorities not to draft Haredim — a regulation the government issued last summer just before the expiration of the law that enshrined the annual deferrals.

As of Monday morning, the ruling applies to funding given by the state to Haredi yeshivas for students who reached enlistment age after the expiration of the law last year — as the legal framework for deferring their military service no longer exists. Although they were unable to receive deferrals, these students were not called up for service because of the government’s order not to enforce enlistment, but they are now eligible for the draft.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a Jewish seminary student who failed to comply with an enlistment order, next to the army recruiting office in Jerusalem, January 4, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The cuts

According to the State Attorney’s Office, there are some 63,000 enrolled yeshiva students who are legally subject to the draft as of Monday. Some 1,500 Haredi yeshivas currently receive funding for approximately 56,500 of those students. The justices’ intervention, the State Attorney’s Office told the court, will lead to a ban on funding for 1,257 yeshivas with a total of 49,485 enrolled students who were receiving annual military service deferrals.

As the deferrals of other yeshiva students who have previously received exemptions expire, the government will have to cut more and more funding from these yeshivas.

While the reduction varies between institutions, the funding for 99 institutions, with 10,959 enrolled students, will be cut by 51% to 70%, while 31 institutions serving more than 10,000 students will face cuts of over 70%.

In addition, 241 institutions will suffer a drop in state funds of 31% to 50%, affecting 14,336 students; 358 more institutions will experience a cut of 16% to 30%, affecting 9,528 students; and 31 institutions will be forced to deal with a drop of over 70%, affecting 10,252 students.

Five hundred and twenty-eight additional institutions will see a cut in state funds of 0.5% to 15%, affecting 4,410 students.

How much money is at stake?

As of 2022, the overall annual budget for Haredi yeshivas and kollels (yeshivas for married men) came to NIS 5.3 billion ($1.4 billion), out of which NIS 1 billion ($273 million), or 19 percent, came from the government, according to a budget analysis by Aviad Houminer-Rosenblum, deputy director of the Berl Katznelson Center think tank.

Students at the Mir Yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim listen to a lesson by Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

On average, he indicated, Haredi yeshivas receive around 28% of their annual budget from government funds, although at around 20% of the yeshivas, in which around 40% of the nation’s full-time students are enrolled, the rate of state support is over 40%.

While hundreds of yeshivas will be hit hard, “the big picture is that the cuts are of the same order of magnitude as the amount that this government has added to yeshivas’ budgets,” Houminer-Rosenblum told The Times of Israel.

The Haredi response

The Haredi parties have accused the court of waging “an all-out struggle” against Torah study, even as they have also carefully refrained from taking any steps that could indicate a readiness to bolt the coalition.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Sunday, United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Roth said that the decision “won’t have an impact right away,” insisting that the allocations for the yeshivas’ March budgets will still go out this month and that it will not be until mid-May that the ruling will have a real impact.

During that period, he argued, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will still have some wiggle room to come up with new legislation that would satisfy the court. And in the meantime, the Haredi parties are unlikely to bring down the government over a purely fiscal matter.

Last month, Netanyahu reportedly informed the Haredi parties that he would “compensate them retroactively” if the court cut off their funding.

However, the Haredim appear to have much less room for maneuver than Roth thinks, with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara warning the government against any attempt to continue funding yeshivas that harbor students who dodge their army service, against court orders.

Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara arrives at a voting station in Tel Aviv on June 20, 2023, to cast her ballot for the head of the Israel Bar Association. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a statement, the Education Ministry said that it was working “to implement the interim order.”

“As a rule, payments to institutions are made on the fifth of the month. In accordance with the High Court decision, the payments will be stopped from the next payment,” the ministry said.

Raising funds abroad

The sudden cut-off of government money has forced Israeli yeshivas to begin intensive fundraising campaigns in order to make up the shortfall.

Rabbi Dov Landau, one of two deans of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, has directly appealed to Haredim in the United States to help overcome the efforts of the “wicked” opponents of the yeshivas, the Walla news site reported — an appeal reminiscent of efforts a decade ago during a previous budget crunch.

“Many are thinking about it but we still don’t know what will be,” said Yitzchok Kaufmann of the Vaad HaYeshivot (Yeshiva Committee), a body that coordinates between ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and the Defense Ministry in matters of service deferments.

Some yeshivas are “trying to raise money from rich Jews,” he said, while others are pinning their hopes on the coalition passing a law creating a new framework for funding the yeshivas, bypassing the restrictions laid out in the attorney general’s letter.

But even if there is less money to go around, yeshiva students will not stop studying, Kaufmann declared, asserting that “the community learns Torah as a principle and money won’t change that.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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