Despite the pervasive political discord in Israel ahead of the country’s third election in the span of one year, there is one issue that most Israelis can and should get behind: That the ultra-Orthodox education system needs to incorporate math and science into its curriculum from an early age.
Historically reluctant to implement a core curriculum that includes secular subjects, haredi schools are now increasingly embracing a mindset shift. This week, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni revealed that leading haredi rabbis are now backing the study of some secular subjects in boys’ elementary schools.
If Gafni’s comments hold true, this development is a game-changer. Teaching these subjects from an early age would eventually empower many haredi students to enroll in higher education from a position of confidence, not fear. And investing in haredi education is beneficial not only for that demographic sector, but for all of Israel, given the strong connection between higher education and the workforce. More specifically, higher education plays a crucial role in the quest to solve Israel’s chronic socioeconomic issue of haredi underemployment.
In fact, the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) has been quietly advocating for a greater emphasis on secular subjects in haredi elementary and high schools since our institution’s inception 50 years ago. We have welcomed thousands of haredi students into our halls, where they are introduced to the wonders of science, math and technology – alongside their Torah studies. But there is no reason why the college campus setting should be their first immersion in these academic disciplines.
While many of our students have taken a leap of faith by enthusiastically embracing these new subjects, this lack of prior knowledge has also made some prospective students think twice about enrolling at JCT in the first place because they fear that the learning curve will be too steep.
At the same time, we saw from Israel’s last election that the issue of better integrating haredim into day-to-day life has become an obstacle to forming a government. Both Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Blue and White MK Yair Lapid have locked horns with the haredi parties over this very issue.
Yet Gafni’s indication that the haredi establishment is willing to embrace gradual change demonstrates that Israel may finally find one pathway toward compromise between these disparate political factions.
Politics aside, there are many socio-economic benefits to increasingly bringing the haredim into the fold of society. According to the Labor Ministry, only half of haredi men are employed – a reality that could cost the country $11 billion per year by 2030 if the trend persists, according to a Finance Ministry report presented at an Israel Democracy Institute conference last year.
But at the end of the day, young haredi men and women are not just a statistic. The haredi students I meet and work with on a daily basis devoutly study Torah while simultaneously demonstrating their ambition and ability to learn challenging concepts in the STEM subjects. They don’t wish to lag behind their peers who are skyrocketing to success in the start-up nation. They, too, want to contribute to Israel’s high-tech and entrepreneurial revolution.
Driven by these principles, JCT’s pedagogical model has yielded an 89-percent employment rate for haredi students, who comprise about 45 percent of the college’s total student body. Teaching ultra-Orthodox youth math and science from a younger age would only bolster their chances of realizing their dreams and Israel’s chances of meeting its urgent socio-economic needs.
And if finally securing a stable government is the byproduct of providing the haredim with the education they deserve, then that’s even more of a cause for celebration. If there could ever be a consensus issue leading up to yet another election, this should be it.