Israeli ultra-Orthodox schools begin bringing old world into the new

Most Israeli Haredim, Hebrew for ultra-Orthodox, live a world apart by design. They do not watch TV, are largely cut off from the internet, and are separated by neighborhoods, dress, schooling, and conservative beliefs in ways that have long put them in conflict with mainstream Israel.

While most of the country roles in the modern world, resentment grows that many Haredi men use their lives studying with the help of government subsidies instead of holding jobs, and are largely exempted from military service that is compulsory for most. With 43% of the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population living in poverty, the position quo is seen as unsustainable.

Why We Wrote This

Adapt to thrive? For Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, there’s a glimmer of change in a community notably impervious to it. Some boys are going to schools that teach “secular” subjects like math, science, and English.

But a growing number of so-called yeshiva high schools is responding to an increased need for change. Over the past seven years, Rabbi Menachem Bombach has produced a network of religious schools that seek to bridge divides, offering lessons in English, artificial intelligence, coding, physics, and “life skills.”

All of his students, he says smiling in the main study hall of his flagship school, take Israel’s high school matriculation exams, a prerequisite for higher education.

“I want students to be God-fearing and Torah-loving, but also to be integrated into Israeli society,” he says.

Beitar Illit, West Bank

Although he grew up in modern Israel, Menachem Bombach says he hardly spoke a information of Hebrew, the national language, until the age of 20.

In his cloistered ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, the spoken language was Yiddish, the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews since the Middle Ages.

Hebrew was reserved for prayer and the morning-to-night study of Jewish religious texts in the halls of his yeshiva seminary where he, like other ultra-Orthodox boys, was taught only enough math to count change at the store, and learned no English, science, or any other so-called secular subjects.

Why We Wrote This

Adapt to thrive? For Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, there’s a glimmer of change in a community notably impervious to it. Some boys are going to schools that teach “secular” subjects like math, science, and English.

Twenty years later, Rabbi Bombach is leading a tour around a four-story limestone-clad building, home to what’s known as a “yeshiva high school.”

The simply named Hassidic Seminary is the flagship of the Netzach network of schools he has produced over the past seven years. Serving 1,400 students, the schools seek to bridge some of the divides between Israeli society at large and an impoverished in addition fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population.

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