Education is fundamental to the Jewish soul. As a people we have fought to be able to continue learning even in the most difficult circumstances. In Israel, we are fortunate to have top-quality Jewish and secular education. Learning into adulthood is not feasible for most Israelis, but tens of thousands of men in the ultra-Orthodox community receive state support to continue their studies for their entire lives. This privilege is not available to all Israelis.
When I was a member of the Jerusalem City Council back in the 90s, I met a young woman who changed the way Israelis think about education. Jenny Baruchi was a student at the Hebrew University and, as a result of her mother being employed there as a cleaner, she was able to attend without paying tuition. In spite of this advantage, she was unable to finish in the usual period of three years; as a single mother, Jenny had to work at the same time to support herself and her family. Jenny turned Jerusalem on its head when she decided to sue for the right to receive the same living stipend that haredi men receive for studying in kollel (a religious school for married men).
She brought to the attention of many Israelis for the first time that thousands of married haredi men were able to study for a lifetime with state support, while students in universities who come from economically challenged backgrounds had almost no options for support. Many yeshiva students receive stipends for on-going study, and these stipends are not based on merit.
These stipends are a major contributor to haredi men not joining the job market in Israel. Allowing tens of thousands of haredi men to continue religious studies for a lifetime without developing any “real world” skills keeps them from ever breaking the cycle of poverty, and it robs the Israeli society of their contribution. In fact, the national budget for yeshiva students is more than twice the amount available for university students in financial need.
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been at the forefront of trying to stop this preferential treatment, and our recent petition in Israel’s Supreme Court is beginning to crack this long-established system. IRAC’s legal team argued that special scholarships for yeshiva students need to stop. We feel they are harming both the state and the haredi men who take advantage of them.
We were very encouraged by the questions and the general mood of the seven-judge panel. It is actually very rare to have so many judges hearing one case, and it is an indication of how serious they find this issue. We are now waiting to hear their verdict and we hope it will come in the next few weeks, although the wait could drag on for months. If we succeed, it will not end all abuses of the state education budget, but it will close one huge loophole keeping haredi men out of the workforce and stopping poor secular Israelis from being able to study in university.
Jenny Baruchi is a success story. After seven years, taking on debt, and working long hours, she got her degree and is now a motivational speaker in Israel. She helps women from disadvantaged backgrounds understand that education is the key to breaking out of poverty. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the Supreme Court Judges will agree with us that equal access to education is a Jewish value that should be shared with all Israelis.
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